Cat Food Recalls and Pet Safety
Appliance recalls are common (and irritating). However, when contaminants enter our pets’ food supply, the potential consequences go far beyond irritation. This article explores the impact of a particularly serious contamination found in cat food in 2007, which led to a broad recall and the reported sickening or death of more than 8,000 cats and dogs.
In addition, this article covers what to do if you think your cat may have been exposed to contaminated food, and resources to learn more about current cat food recalls.
Under What Circumstances are Cat Foods Recalled?
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over the safety of both human animal foods. The FDA issues recalls in three broad classes of situations:
- When harmful bacteria, such as e. Coli, salmonella or listeria monocytogenes are found in cat foods
- When vitamins and minerals (such as Vitamin D) are found in either too high or too low a concentration
- When foods are contaminated with harmful substances (such as melamine)
The 2007 Menu Foods Recall
On Feb 20, 2007, Toronto-based Menu Foods Incorporated received a complaint about a problem with its cat food. On Feb 27th, the company began “tasting trials” on 40 – 50 animals to see if it could reproduce the problem.
It could: 9 cats died during those trials (source).
On March 15th, the company notified the FDA that it knew of 14 animal deaths from its foods (13 cats and 1 dog). On the 16th the company issued a voluntary recall of cat (and dog) food products. The recall spiralled, eventually including more than 60 million products across 150 brands of pet food.
Why Were so Many Brands Affected?
To understand why the scale of the problem was so large, you need a bit of background about how pet food is produced.
The uninitiated might assume that every brand of pet food has their own manufacturing plant. While it’s true that many brands have their own company-owned manufacturing facilities, many other brands use so-called “co-packers”.
A co-packing facility may produce cat food for several – or even dozens – of different pet food brands.
To make matters more complicated, a single brand may produce some of their pet food lines in their own manufacturing facility, and other product lines in a co-packing facility.
For example, in response to the 2007 Menu Foods recall, Proctor & Gamble noted that “Iams and Eukanuba dry products are not manufactured at Menu Foods and are not affected by this recall. Only a small portion of our wet canned and foil-pouch products for dogs and cats are affected by this recall.”
So these brands produced some of their wet cat foods in a Menu Foods co-packing facility, while their dry foods were produced in their own manufacturing plants.
Learn More: Find our list of the best cat foods here.
What Caused the Pet Deaths in the Menu Foods Recall?
The pets died from kidney failure — but, it wasn’t immediately obvious what caused the kidney failure.
Initially, tests and reports from pet owners pointed to pet foods containing imported wheat gluten. (Wheat gluten is used as a thickener in pet foods).
In the following weeks, a second imported ingredient, rice protein concentrate, was identified as a possible contaminant.
The FDA discovered that two Chinese manufacturers added a chemical known as melamine to the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate in an attempt to increase the crude protein levels in the ingredients.
Melamine is used as an industrial binding agent and as a flame retardant. While melamine has no valid (or FDA-approved) use in either human or animal foods, it is by itself a relatively non-toxic substance. However, when melamine mixes with another chemical found in pet food, cyanuric acid, the FDA reports that the combination “appears to be more toxic than either compound alone”.
In short, when the melamine-laced wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate was mixed into cat foods, it mixed with cyanuric acid. The combination formed crystals which blocked small animals’ renal tubules and caused renal failure (source).
The Humane Society reported that nearly 2,000 cats died in the US alone. Reuters eventually reported that more than 8,000 pet owners notified the FDA that their pets either got sick or died from eating Menu Foods-manufactured pet foods.
As the number of recalled pet food cans and pouches increased, Menu Foods recorded steep losses. By June 11, the company had lost a major partner whose business contributed eleven percent of total sales the previous year. The first quarter alone saw the company lose $17.5 million dollars and internal projections put expected losses at a total of as much as $45 million dollars. In addition, more than 90 class actions lawsuits had been filed.
The Reaction in China
Chinese authorities were concerned about a number of tainted food scandals that occurred in 2006 and 2007, and they moved swiftly to track down the Chinese contractors responsible for the contamination: Binzou Futian Biology and Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology development.
On May 10, the Chinese authorities declared that it had found both companies guilty of willfully trading contaminated ingredients for pet food.
Although it was only tangentially related, on May 29th, Chinese courts convicted Zheng Xiaoyu, the recently sacked head of the state-run Food and Drug Administration, of accepting bribes. He was given the death penalty and executed on July 10, 2007 (source).
The FDA provides an up-to-date list of food recalls. You can enter a search term, like “pet” on this page and see recalls that are related just to pet. As of January 2019, the FDA lists 42 pet food and medicine recalls.
What Should You Do if your think your Cat Has Eaten Contaminated Cat Food?
While the Menu Foods recall is long over, new pet food recalls occur on a monthly basis.
If you think your cat might have eaten contaminated food, take your cat to your veterinarian, and get them treated. If the vet thinks that the problem may be related to their cat food, you’ll want to take the following steps:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a hotline to speak with Consumer Complaint Coordinators. You can find the phone numbers here.
Pull together the following information before you call:
- The cat food container itself. (The Consumer Complaint Coordinator will want to know the brand name, UPC code, and lot number for the food. They will be able to walk you through how to find the lot number).
- Contact information for the veterinarian that you saw.
- Dates from when you first noticed your pet’s reaction.
- Symptoms displayed by your cat.
- Any reports that your vet provided.
If the FDA believes that there is a credible risk of contamination they can collect and analyze samples of cat food. If they find evidence of a problem, they can initiate a recall.
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