Safety steps for pet foods

Manufacturers plan to hire private labs to check ingredients

May 16, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Stung by one of the largest recalls in pet food history, makers of dog and cat foods are developing a plan to prevent future contamination by hiring private laboratories to verify that foreign suppliers are shipping the right products and meeting quality standards.

Companies will soon begin working out the technical details of hiring government-approved testers to certify the identity and safety of pet food ingredients shipped from overseas, said Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute, which represents manufacturers.

"Our government cannot test every shipment into the United States, but what we can rely on is a system of certification," he said.

Companies hope the move will reassure concerned consumers and stave off tough congressional action.

Experts praised the idea, which they said borrowed from existing practices that have proved successful in guarding the safety of human food and food considered risky enough to warrant government detention at American ports.

Yet experts cautioned that the success of a full-scale system would depend on pet food companies hiring qualified and independent inspectors, and on being backed up by more and better government enforcement.

"The food industry should be doing these things, but it's up to government to verify," said Michael P. Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.

Contamination of the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate used to thicken pet food killed at least 16 cats and dogs, led to the recall of more than 60 million products and tainted some animal feed.

Investigators found that the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate were mislabeled wheat flour, and they suspect that Chinese producers spiked shipments with the chemical melamine and related compounds to boost the value.

During an update yesterday, government officials announced the release of 56,000 pigs that had been quarantined after eating adulterated feed because tests indicated their meat was safe for human consumption.

About 80,000 chickens remain under quarantine until a similar test for poultry is developed, and fish at one fishery in Hawaii and another in Washington state are being tested after they might have eaten tainted feed.

Pet food makers realize that they need to take action to restore consumer confidence damaged by the recent scare, Ekedahl said. They also hope the measure would head off more extreme actions by Congress.

Pet food sales dropped by up to 4 percent from normal levels after recalls started and haven't fully recovered despite industry efforts to convince pet owners that the episode is over, Ekedahl said.

"We recognize there is a definite need for improved surveillance," he said. "This can be done in a way so that there is not a heavy burden of regulation." The industry sells $15 billion of pet food a year.

The idea that pet food companies are considering -- hiring independent laboratories to test the identity and quality of imported ingredients -- has been implemented on a smaller scale during the pet food scare.

Since the FDA began stopping all shipments of wheat gluten and other vegetable protein products from China, importers have employed private labs to certify their shipments are safe to enter, according to agency officials.

Major producers of food for humans, such as McDonald's, General Mills and Kraft, go so far as to hire inspectors to visit their suppliers and make sure they're following good practices, Doyle said.

The major companies carefully screen the private inspectors before hiring them, tell the contractors what they're looking for and periodically send their own staff to check up on the work, Doyle said.

Pet food makers would have to conduct similar oversight to ensure the quality of any labs they hire to test imports, said Edward A. Steele, a former FDA food official who now runs a consulting business in Alexandria, Va.

"If used properly, it would be a tremendous asset to assuring the quality of food entering the country," Steele said. Still, he said, it is crucial that the FDA receive more funding to conduct more of its own inspections.

Congress has begun looking for more funding and started debating proposals to give the FDA additional powers or consolidate all food safety activities in a single agency.

One liberal advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, said it would encourage Congress to move ahead even if the pet food industry adopted its own monitoring program.

"The question is whether that is all we will get as consumers," said Patty Lovera, the group's assistant director.

"Are we going to rely on a voluntary system or will there be a safety net provided by the government?"

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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