10 Years Later: Examining the Pet Food Industry a Decade after the Widespread Melamine Contamination

October 24, 2017

Ten years ago, the pet industry was shaken to its core.

On March 15, 2007, “a pet food manufacturer alerted the FDA to the deaths of 14 cats and dogs—four cats and one dog reported by consumers, and nine cats that died during routine taste trials conducted by the company,” according to the FDA’s site. “The animals were reported to have developed kidney failure after eating pet food that had been manufactured with the purported wheat gluten,” melamine.

Melamine, “which can be used to create products such as plastics, cleaning products, glues, inks and fertilizers, has no approved use as an ingredient in human or animal food in the United States,” according to the FDA. Nonetheless, melamine made its way into pet food, and it was done so intentionally by some working in the Chinese pet food manufacturing industry in order to make a greater profit.

According to Cathleen Enright, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute (PFI), melamine was the chemical of choice because of its high nitrogen content. Because protein has a lot of nitrogen in it, protein content of food is calculated based on nitrogen content. To dupe consumers into thinking the food had more protein in it than it really did, the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate ingredients were adulterated with the nitrogen-rich melamine, she explained, exporting them to the U.S. under false labels.

According to a February 2008 post on the FDA’s website, the indictments of those charged in the scheme alleged “that more than 800 tons of purported wheat gluten, valued at nearly $850,000, were imported into the United States between November 6, 2006, and February 21, 2007.”

In all, more than 150 brands of pet food were voluntarily recalled, the FDA reported.

In the months following the initial March 2007 notification to the FDA of the possible contamination, “consumers and veterinarians reported many more illnesses and deaths potentially associated with a wide variety of pet foods,” according to the administration. While some groups say the number of affected pets is in the thousands, the exact number is unknown. What is known is just how big an impact these widespread recalls had on the trust people had in their pets’ food and treats and what manufacturers did to restore that trust.

The Immediate Aftermath

“What our members did was act,” Enright said. “Within weeks of the recalls, they set up a Pet Food Safety Commission of experts in nutrition and veterinary medicine, chemistry, etc., to study the finding related to the recall and to make recommendations across the board: What should the government do, what should the veterinary community do and—perhaps most germane to them to our industry—what should the pet food industry be doing?”

The committee emerged with three recommendations:

1. Update quality assurance programs to incorporate best practices for product safety throughout the manufacturing process, including ingredient sourcing and receiving.

2. Reevaluate sampling and testing protocol to ensure that companies could detect a contaminant or an adulterant that had been put in purposefully.

3. Strengthen the traceability of products to include lot and date codes on the finished product.

According to Enright, all of PFI’s members started acting on those recommendations, and the guidelines became part of the gr
oup’s culture of safety—from identifying reliable and trusted sources of suppliers of ingredients all the way through the quality and traceability of the finished product.

“I want to make clear that it wasn’t that we learned a new [term], ‘pet food safety,’ coincidentally with the 2007 recalls,” she said. “We had good manufacturing practices in place, but the focus, the intensity on them, changed after melamine… It’s not like [the industry] didn’t have practices in place, but they took on a whole new fervor after the recalls.”

The way recalls are announced is something else the industry has reconsidered since then.

Enright described the recalls as “frenetic.” Companies, in an abundance of caution, began “recalling product that seemed to be implicated in this harm,” even though no one was quite yet sure of what caused the pets to get ill or die.

“There was a series of rolling recalls, which didn’t help anyone,” Enright continued. “It just added more confusion, I think. Pet owners were seeing recall after recall. Pet companies, it certainly wasn’t helping their reputation, to have to be recalling, recalling, and it certainly didn’t help FDA’s reputation.”

She notes it is critical the industry detects which product is implicated before starting rolling recalls, as Dr. Daniel McChesney, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, suggested at this year’s Purina Behind the Bowl symposium in St. Louis, Missouri.

Lasting Effects

Some feel that not enough has been done by the FDA in response to these recalls to regulate the pet food and treat industry. However, there is no denying the 2007 recalls forever changed the pet food and treat industry itself—the way many companies run their businesses today is a directGrandma Lucy's
result of the intentional contamination.

In response to the 2007 recalls, Grandma Lucy’s expanded on its treat business and started making pet food. The company, which was not impacted by the contamination, already knew it had high standards for its treats and so wanted to enter the pet food market to make food pet owners could also trust, providing transparency with the sourcing and manufacturing.

The “Sourcing” tab on the Grandma Lucy’s website provides a map of the world that shows what ingredients are sourced from which country and what percentage of the ingredients each country supplies. For instance, the map shows that 89 percent of Grandma Lucy’s ingredients are sourced in the U.S., listing the 29 ingredients sourced here.

Nestlé Purina was one of the many companies directly impacted by the adulteration and that recalled select product. According to Chris Archer, vice president of Quality Assurance at Nestlé Purina PetCare, because safety and quality are core to the company’s promise to consumers and their pets, Purina has continued to take several steps to ensure the safety and quality of its ingredients.

For example, on average, Purina runs more than 30,000 quality checks in a 24- hour period across its factories to ensure quality and safety throughout the pet food making process—including minimizing the risk of another adulteration, specifically that of melamine.

“We have always prohibited melamine in our products. We regularly test wheat gluten shipments and other protein-based ingredients for the presence of melamine,” Archer said. “As part of our comprehensive food safety and ingredient surveillance programs, we test for well over 150 substances—including melamine—to ensure the quality and safety of our pet foods.

“We use advanced molecular-level techniques including near-infrared reflectance to better identify select ingredients, facilitating confirmation of purity and nutritional composition when they arrive at our factories,” he said. “We have further developed this technology after the 2007 recall to increase our capabilities to evaluate incoming ingredients.”

Purina also invests resources to understand the complete supply chain of its ingredients; uses ingredients recognized as safe by regulatory agencies such as the FDA, USDA and AAFCO; regularly audits its suppliers; and rigorously tests any new suppliers and/or ingredients.

“All of our ingredient suppliers must meet our stringent standards for ingredient specifications, product safety, sanitation and Good Manufacturing Practices,” Archer said. “We have a strict code of standards for buying, storing and processing ingredients used in our pet foods. We are proud that these standards are among the strictest in the pet food industry as safety and quality come first for Purina.”

What owners are looking for has also changed. And according to Ann Hudson, VP of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands, while “manufacturers responded in lots of different ways, the largest single impact to the industry was how pet owners engaged in the purchase process after that.”

“Pet owners are much more cautious about brands, and while specialty shoppers have always educated themselves on good nutrition, many now carefully review the brand owners,” Hudson said. “They want to be confident that they are feeding quality, safe foods that will help their pets live longer and healthier lives.

“They began to turn to natural ingredients and those that were recognizable, not only in the ingredient panel but in the food itself. That’s why Tiki has been so successful—the food looks like food,” said Hudson, whose company makes Tiki Pets, which was not impacted by the recalls. “Chicken is clearly chicken, the sardines are real sardines and a quail egg looks just like it’s supposed to look.”

Taz Latifi, who stocks Tiki Pets’ Tiki Cat line, opened her New York City pet shop, Petropolis, in 2005. An advocate of raw food, Latifi has tried to teach customers of the benefits of feeding a raw diet to pets since she first opened her store (for instance, Latifi says she feels safer feeding and selling raw partly because it is more regulated by the FDA than other types of food). However, it wasn’t until 2007 that people started really heeding her advice and changing their pet feeding habits over to raw, for the recalls “caused consumers to question what was going on and what was going into their foods.”

“Clients wound up coming to us because now they wanted advice, they needed help,” Latifi said. “They felt confused and cheated, and they were unnerved and scared. So we were able to supply them with some information about what to look for in pet food.”

USA vs. Outsourcing

More consumers began demanding and searching for USA-made food, as well. For many, a “Made in the USA” seal translates to “Not made in China.” Though not immune to recalls for any inherent reason, people began having more confidence in USA-made pet food, and so companies started using the fact that they do not source from China as a selling point.

“I think you can’t—as a shopper, as a citizen—you can’t unlearn [the recalls]. That thing happened, and I think [it] certainly helped drive the desire, demand, by American shoppers for made in the USA products,” Enright said. “This hurt [China’s manufacturing] reputation. They won’t argue with that… the problem is you can’t unring the bell. People heard that as an alarm and then wanted a different choice in the marketplace—that is for sure.”

However, while Latifi has made the choice to not stock food from China, she points out that not everyone in the pet food industry should completely dismiss Chinese manufacturing. “I think we’re diminishing the value that the Chinese market brings to consumers in the pet industry,” she said.

“I think China has a lot to offer; they do make good things—if you have good people and companies that have quality control in place.”

Of course, there are more countries that manufacture or provide ingredients for pet food than the U.S. and China. And just because something is made or outsourced from outside the U.S. does not automatically make that product less safe. In fact, Tiki Pet says that outsourcing makes its products even better.

All of the Tiki Dog Aloha Petites and TikiTiki Cat Cat wet diets in cans or pouches are made in Thailand, with most of the ingredients for Tiki wet diets being farmed or wild-caught in that region. An
d according to Hudson, Tiki Pet sources from and makes its wet diets in Thailand because the company can achieve a higher quality product using those Thai resources.

“Cats are carnivores and need high-protein, whole food diets to thrive. The best diet is one that is closest to the kind of nutrition a cat might have naturally gotten in the wild,” Hudson explained. “Wet food manufacturing plants in the U.S. focus on products with gravies, pates and preformed meats. Tiki is made with flaked fish, shredded chicken and chunks of organ meat. Because of their human food capabilities, Thai manufacturers were the best choice for the food we wanted to make.”

And any pet owner or retailer who is hesitant to buy a Tiki Pet product because they see it is sourced from Thailand, shouldn’t be, Hudson says.

“The fishing industry is one of the most visible and highly regulated, and Thailand is at its center,” she said. “Tiki is made by manufacturers who also make products for human consumption. Each plant has all and sometimes even more of the same certifications that you would find in the U.S., and each plant is fully compliant with FDA and USDA regulations.”

Moving Forward

Regardless of where pet food is made or sourced, it is imperative that steps to reduce risk are taken throughout the entire process, and Enright says the members of PFI have promised to do so.

The first step is working with only reliable and trusted suppliers.

“Well what makes them trusted? You go in and inspect their records and you go talk with them,” Enright said. “It’s not just looking at what arrives at your shop, you start way upstream.”

Other actions Enright says those in the industry can do to ensure food and treat safety is inspect and test ingredients during arrival and unloading, making sure the necessary tracking information is on the packaging and checking that the wrapping is secure upon delivery to a warehouse or retail establishment.

“The thing that is key for folks is safety is not static. Our members continue to invest very heavily in safety innovation,” Enright said.

In fact, PFI brings its members together at least once a year for a Pet Food Safety Sharing Session where they talk about the latest research, technologies and practices they’re using to help reduce risk from a hazard—physical, chemical or biological.

“Everyone brings their story because safety is not a competitive issue for our members,” Enright said.

However, as she points out, “there is always work to do. Continual improvements. Continual investment in safety, continual investigations and research into nutrition and continual assessment of ingredients for that safety and nutrition. That’s an evergreen goal.”

There is also the educational factor for consumers. According to Latifi, owners whose pets were affected will never forget what happened, and thus, what could potentially happen again. However, owners who were not directly affected might have forgotten about the recalls over the last decade and so might not be as cautious when selecting pet food. She and her staff at Petropolis are there to be the educators.

“We remind people of what happened. We put the reminders out there because we think it’s important for the consumers to know what happened with the [brands’] parent company,” she explained. “Think before you buy, and don’t let the big marketing campaigns that these companies do sway you from knowing what’s actually in that can or in that bag. I want an educated customer because their animals are going to be healthier for it. And I’ll have them longer for that reason… Food is a necessity for us to live and if we don’t choose the right foods, we won’t survive, and that goes for our animals as well.”

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