More oversight of pet food urged

Scare spurs advocates to seek safeguards as concerns over safety of food supply deepen

April 07, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff and Laura Barnhardt | Jonathan D. Rockoff and Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- Galvanized by an unprecedented pet food scare that has killed at least 16 dogs and cats, pet owners and their advocates have begun campaigns nationwide urging members to demand that government and industry take steps to prevent such dangerous episodes.

"I feel betrayed," said Bill Thompson, a Hunt Valley banker whose 3-year-old Leonberger dog, Darwin, fell ill after eating a now-recalled Nutro product four weeks ago. Thompson, who since then has spent Sundays cooking for his three dogs, said authorities should do more testing to detect contamination, not rely on complaints from pet owners.

The scare - linked to tainted wheat gluten found in wet food for dogs and cats - comes after bacterial outbreaks in spinach, tacos and peanut butter, and deepens discontent with the government's ability to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply for pets as well as for humans.

Even food industry representatives and federal health officials acknowledge that limited resources have eroded government safeguards. The government is supposed to ensure that ingredients used in pet food are safe, but it does not need to approve pet food before sale. It also sets standards for labels.

The pet advocates say the government needs to do more. They are formulating demands for improved labeling on products and a national, centralized database for reporting problems.

"What this [scare] has exposed is there is a weak link in the food-safety chain," said Gina Spadafori, executive editor of the Pet Connection, which runs an online community for pet owners.

On its Web site, the Pet Connection has posted an advocacy guide under the heading, "Turn emotion into action." The first order of business, it says, should be a congressional investigation that produces a full report. It also demands labels providing phone numbers for consumers to call and the country of origin for ingredients.

Among the most pressing issues to emerge from the crisis, pet owners say, is the need to better equip veterinarians to report problems and learn of the latest developments.

"One of the biggest surprises that came out of all of this was that veterinarians had no idea about any of this. We need to get veterinarians in the process earlier," said John Packowski, a spokesman for Dogster, a Web site for dog lovers based in San Francisco that is developing a platform of changes.

Packowski said Dogster was calling for improvements to ensure a swifter, clearer response in the future. "We want a better course of action rather than everyone running to blogs and being confused," he said.

While acknowledging room for improvement, Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, emphasized the limits of more regulation. He cautioned against overreacting to a recall affecting what he said was less than 1 1/2 percent of the pet food supply.

"There isn't a set of regulations imaginable that would have prevented this, whether in the pet food chain or the human food chain," Vetere said. Proposed labeling changes, he said, would regulate pet food more than human food.

The Senate majority whip, Richard J. Durbin, has called for a hearing on the Food and Drug Administration's handling of the scare. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said the agency needs to take steps to ensure that makers promptly report problems, inspectors visit manufacturing plants, and veterinarians and owners share information.

"I want to hear how the FDA is going to work to resolve the current crisis and ensure this doesn't happen again," Durbin said in a statement. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who is head of a House committee overseeing the FDA, has also expressed concern about the agency's monitoring of pet food.

The scare began last month, when Menu Foods of Ontario recalled more than 60 million cans of dog and cat food linked to the deaths of several pets. Menu Foods makes pet food for several companies.

The FDA found melamine, a chemical used to make plastic, in the products. Recalls spread to more than 140 brands of pet food, biscuits, treats and jerky. States are investigating dozens of deaths of pets. Whether melamine sickened the animals is unclear.

The situation has confounded pet owners, angry that a specific cause hasn't been identified and confused by unorganized recall information, rather than a unified list.

Yesterday, Dr. John Fioramonti reviewed the lists of recalled products at his Towson veterinary office to see whether a patient's vomiting may have been caused by tainted food. "If it's confusing and difficult for me, just think what it's like for the owners," Fioramonti said. The dog hadn't eaten one of the recalled foods.

Maureen Hauch, showing a dog at the Greater Fredericksburg Kennel Club show yesterday in Virginia, said the scare was "all you hear" about in the tents where dog owners wait with their pets to compete.

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