The March 16 recall of 91 pet food products manufactured by Menu Foods wasn't big news at first. Early coverage reported only 10-15 cats and dogs dying after eating canned and pouched foods manufactured by Menu. The foods were recalled -- among them some of the country's best-known and biggest-selling brands -- and while it was certainly a sad story, and maybe even a bit of a wake-up call about some aspects of pet food manufacturing, that was about it.
At first, that was it for me, too. But I'm a contributing editor for a nationally syndicated pet feature, Universal Press Syndicate's Pet Connection, and all of us there have close ties to the veterinary profession. Two of our contributors are vets themselves, including Dr. Marty Becker, the vet on "Good Morning America." And what we were hearing from veterinarians wasn't matching what we were hearing on the news.
When we started digging into the story, it quickly became clear that the implications of the recall were much larger than they first appeared. Most critically, it turned out that the initially reported tally of dead animals only included the cats and dogs who died in Menu's test lab and not the much larger number of affected pets.
Second, the timeline of the recall raised a number of concerns. Although there have been some media reports that Menu Foods started getting complaints as early as December 2006, FDA records state the company received their first report of a food-related pet death on February 20.
One week later, on February 27, Menu started testing the suspect foods. Three days later, on March 3, the first cat in the trial died of acute kidney failure. Three days after that, Menu switched wheat gluten suppliers, and 10 days later, on March 16, recalled the 91 products that contained gluten from their previous source.
Nearly one month passed from the date Menu got its first report of a death to the date it issued the recall. During that time, no veterinarians were warned to be on the lookout for unusual numbers of kidney failure in their patients. No pet owners were warned to watch their pets for its symptoms. And thousands and thousands of pet owners kept buying those foods and giving them to their dogs and cats.
At that point, Menu had seen a 35 percent death rate in their test-lab cats, with another 45 percent suffering kidney damage. The overall death rate for animals in Menu's tests was around 20 percent. How many pets, eating those recalled foods, had died, become ill or suffered kidney damage in the time leading up to the recall and in the days since? The answer to that hasn't changed since the day the recall was issued: We don't know.
We at Pet Connection knew the 10-15 deaths being reported by the media did not reflect an accurate count. We wanted to get an idea of the real scope of the problem, so we started a database for people to report their dead or sick pets. On March 21, two days after opening the database, we had over 600 reported cases and more than 200 reported deaths. As of March 31, the number of deaths alone was at 2,797.
There are all kinds of problems with self-reported cases, and while we did correct for a couple of them, our numbers are not considered "confirmed." But USA Today reported on March 25 that data from Banfield, a nationwide chain of over 600 veterinary hospitals, "suggests [the number of cases of kidney failure] is as high as hundreds a week during the three months the food was on the market."
On March 28, "NBC News" featured California veterinarian Paul Pion, who surveyed the 30,000 members of his national Veterinary Information Network and told anchor Tom Costello, "If what veterinarians are suspecting are cases, then it's much larger than anything we've seen before." Costello commented that it amounted to "potentially thousands of sick or dead pets."
The FDA was asked about the numbers at a press conference it held on Friday morning to announce that melamine had been found in the urine and tissues of some affected animals as well as in the foods they tested. Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine, told reporters that the FDA couldn't confirm any cases beyond the first few, even though they had received over 8,800 additional reports, because "we have not had the luxury of confirming these reports." They would work on that, he said, after they "make sure all the product is off the shelves." He pointed out that in human medicine, the job of defining what constitutes a confirmed case would fall to the Centers for Disease Control, but there is no CDC for animals.
Instead, pet owners were encouraged to report deaths and illness to the FDA. But when they tried to file reports, there was no place on the agency's Web site to do so and nothing but endless busy signals when people tried to call.
Veterinarians didn't fare much better. They were asked to report cases to their state veterinarian's office, but one feline veterinary blog, vetcetera, which surveyed all official state veterinarian Web sites, found that only eight had any independent information about the recall, and only 24 even mentioned it at all. Only one state, Vermont, had a request on their site for veterinarians to report pets whose illnesses or deaths they suspect are related to the recall. And as of today, there is no longer a notice that veterinarians should report suspected cases to their state veterinarians on the Web site of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The lack of any notification system was extremely hard on veterinarians, many of whom first heard about the problem on the news or from their clients. Professional groups such as the Veterinary Information Network were crucial in disseminating information about the recall to their members, but not all vets belong to VIN, and not all vets log on to VIN on the weekend (the Menu press release, like most corporate or government bad news, was issued on a Friday).
But however difficult this recall has been for veterinarians, no one has felt its impact more than the owners of affected dogs and cats. While the pet media and bloggers continued to push the story, the most powerful force driving it was the grief of pet owners, many of them fueled by anger because they felt that their pet's death or illness wasn't being counted.
Many of them were also being driven by a feeling of guilt. At Pet Connection, we received a flood of stories from owners whose pets became ill with kidney failure, and who took them to the vet. The dogs or cats were hospitalized and treated, often at great expense -- sometimes into the thousands of dollars -- and then, when they were finally well enough, sent home.
For some, the story ended there. But for others, there was one more horrifying chapter. Because kidney failure causes nausea, it's often hard to get recovering pets to eat. So a lot of these owners got down on their hands and knees and coaxed and begged and eventually hand-fed their pets the very same food that had made them sick. Those animals ended up right back in the hospital and died, because their loving owners didn't know that the food was tainted.
To many pet owners, the pet food recall story is a personal tragedy about the potentially avoidable loss of a beloved dog or cat. Others have a hard time seeing the story as anything more than that -- with implications beyond the feelings of those grieving pet owners. Which brings us to the bigger picture, and questions -- not about what happened but about the system.
How did this problem, now involving almost every large pet food company in the United States, including some of the most trusted -- and expensive -- brands, get so out of hand? How come pet owners weren't informed more rapidly about the contaminated pet food? Why is it so hard to get accurate numbers of affected animals? Why didn't veterinarians get any notification? Where did the system break down?
The issue may not be that the system broke down, but that there isn't really a system.
There is, as the FDA pointed out, no veterinary version of the CDC. This meant the FDA kept confirming a number it had to have known was only the tip of the iceberg. It prevented veterinarians from having the information they needed to treat their patients and advise pet owners. It allowed the media to repeat a misleadingly low number, creating a false sense of security in pet owners -- and preventing a lot of people from really grasping the scope and implication of the problem.
And it was why Rosie O'Donnell felt free to comment last week on "The View": "Fifteen cats and one dog have died, and it's been all over the news. And you know, since that date, 29 soldiers have died, and we haven't heard much about them. No. I think that we have the wrong focus in the country. That when pets are killed in America from some horrific poisoning accident, 16 of them, it's all over the news and people are like, 'The kitty! It's so sad.' Twenty-nine sons and daughters killed since that day, it's not newsworthy. I don't understand."
In fact, Rosie didn't understand. She didn't understand that the same government she blames for sending America's sons and daughters to die in Iraq is the government that told her only 15 animals had died, and that the story was about a pet "poisoning accident" and not a systemic failure of FEMA-esque proportions.
Think that's going too far? Maybe not. On Sunday night, April 1, Pet Connection got a report from one of its blog readers, Joy Drawdy, who said that she had found an import alert buried on the FDA Web site. That alert, issued on Friday, the same day that the FDA held its last press conference about the recall, identified the Chinese company that is the source of the contaminated gluten -- gluten that is now known to be sold not only for use in animal feed, but in human food products, too. (The Chinese company is now denying that they are responsible, although they are investigating it.)
Although the FDA said on Friday it has no reason to think the contaminated gluten found its way into the human food supply, Sundlof told reporters that it couldn't be ruled out. He also assured us that they would notify the public as soon as they had any more information -- except, of course, that they did have more information and didn't give it to us, publishing it instead as an obscure import alert, found by chance by a concerned pet owner, which was then spread to the larger media.
All of which begs the question: If a system to report and track had been in place for animal illness, would this issue have emerged sooner? Even lacking a reporting and tracking system, if the initial news reports had included, as so many human stories do, suspected or estimated cases from credible sources, it's likely this story would have been taken more seriously and not just by Rosie O'Donnell. It may turn out that our dogs and cats were the canaries in the coal mine of an enormous system failure -- one that could have profound impacts on American food manufacturing and safety in the years to come.
Christie Keith is a contributing editor for Universal Press Syndicate's Pet Connection and past director of the Pet Care Forum on America Online. She lives in San Francisco.
YOUR WHOLE PET / Bigger than you think: The story behind the pet food recall