A recent news item that has been receiving muted attention is the widespread contamination of dog and cat food that is currently unfolding in North America. The first identified source of the contaminated food was Menu Foods, which has initiated a massive product recall of dog and cat food under nearly 100 brand names, including house brands such as Food Lion, Winn Dixie, Publix, and Meijers, and prominent brands such as Iams, Eukanuba, Mighty Dog, and Nutro.

Menu Foods is not the only company to issue a food recall. Nestle Purina Pet Care Co. has just announced a recall of all sizes and varieties of Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy in a certain date code range. Hill’s Pet Nutrition has also announced a recall on some of its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry cat food after finding it is contaminated.

The pets that have become ill or died from eating this food have shown signs of renal failure, so whatever it is, it’s affecting the kidneys. Cats in particular are vulnerable to this.

Now I am thinking: Is this a dry run for a terrorist attack on our food supply? And if not, should we view this event as a cautionary?

There are two things about this event that have attracted my attention:

1) The contaminant has not been identified. The common element in all of these foods appears to be wheat gluten supplied by a particular company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., in China. However, the only unusual ingredient detected in the wheat gluten is melamine, which is used in plastics manufacture and found in some pesticides. Contrary to earlier reports, the presence of aminopterin (rat poison) in the pet food has not been verified.

Problem is, melamine is only toxic in animals in stupidly high doses. It isn’t considered toxic to humans at all. USAToday reports that the discovered levels of melamine in the pet food do not appear to be significant:

Levels for the melamine were as high as 6.6% of the wheat gluten, FDA’s Sundlof says.

That would mean if a wet pet food contained even 5% wheat gluten, it would have 3,300 parts per million melamine, Hansen says.

But a study on dogs in 1953 fed them 30,000 parts per million of melamine for one year and “nothing happened,” says James Popp, president of the Society of Toxicology.

2) The scope of affected animals is being underreported. According to USAToday, the FDA has officially registered 14 animal deaths so far from this contamination (13 cats and 1 dog). More than 8,800 calls from pet owners have been received, but have not yet been fully investigated.

However, Pet Connection reports that so far, more than 2,900 pet deaths have been reported to them. They are self-reported cases, as Pet Connection points out, but I agree with them that it suggests that the real numbers are much, much higher than the official confirmed deaths. There is a Yahoo! Group, MenuFoodsClassAction, calling on people whose pets have been affected to organize into a class action lawsuit against the pet food manufacturers.

If we accept that melamine is not, in itself, toxic enough to cats and dogs to cause these deaths, then another scenario is suggested (Kyle posited this one):

Toxicologic Synergy: two or more chemicals that are not normally toxic by themselves combine to form a toxic effect on an organism.

The hypothetical scenario goes like this:

1) Chemical substance A1 is not toxic to cats and dogs by itself. But it does linger in the body for several months before being fully metabolized and flushed out. A1 is introduced into the pet food supply chain for a period of time, and then withdrawn, such that later testing will not reveal its presence.

2) Chemical substance B1 is not toxic to cats and dogs by itself. But when combined with A1 and metabolized in a cat or a dog, it becomes lethal for about 25% of the animals that ingest it, 70% become ill but do not die, and 5% show no ill effects.

So what if we are seeing the results of B1 being introduced into the pet food supply? A1 has already been introduced but is no longer detectable in the food because it has since been removed, but it lingers in the animals, waiting for a synergist to combine with it?

The above scenario is entirely hypothetical, and the numbers are merely examples, but this sort of strategy could be used to contaminate a food supply in a way that was not noticeable until many people (or cats and dogs) had died or become ill. Such an attack on the human food supply would not kill a lot of people, in terms of raw numbers, but as a terror weapon, it would be very effective and cause widespread panic.

Personally I think that the pet food contamination was probably accidental, although I will be interested to see if the actual contaminant responsible is identified. Melamine is known to form crystals in certain circumstances, and perhaps crystal formation in the kidney filtration system is responsible for the pet deaths. But this event should be scrutinized closely for what it may teach us about protecting our human food supply from similar contamination, whether accidental or deliberate.

One Response to “Pet Food Deaths: Accident or Test Run?”
  1. James says:

    I posted yesterday to a thread “Is there anybody left alive?” Regarding the pet food deaths:
    There are people left alive, but if you live in China,
    get bitten by a rabid dog, you become one of the 200
    people that die every month from rabies.
    Seems the chinese have been breeding dogs for a long
    time for their skins – I guess they make hats or gloves
    or something – anyway, they sell them there – and the dog
    population is out of control like a 150 million dogs.
    And so rabies has proliferated to the point where 80%
    of all world human rabies cases occurs in China.
    The authorities have begun a campaign since last summer
    to kill all dogs, usually by clubbing them to death even
    in front of their owners.
    Now just maybe they got a little tired of swinging clubs
    and opted for a more efficient approach to the culling
    of the dogs.
    The pet food poison:
    I hear a lot about melamine, but after reading the MSDS
    sheet on melamine it looks like it is not anything more
    than an irritant and carcinogen. It certainly don`t
    block no enzyme necessary for protein synthesis for
    which kidney function depends but Aminopterin –
    rat poison sure does.(It used to be used as a chemo
    drug but was discontinued because it was too toxic.)
    The 2008 Summer Olympics will be held in Bejing China.
    If everyone finds out about the rabies epidemic they
    might think twice about going, investors might think
    twice about investing money in a would-be profittable
    I`m not aware of how Menu Foods got the poison wheat
    gluten – maybe it was thought to be a very economic
    purchase or it was a going-out-of-business sale or
    you got our gluten we got yours by mistake.

    So I put this question to anybody left alive:
    Why has the North American media not said anything
    about all this?
    My heart goes out to the owners of the pets that
    are sick and dying. The only thing sicker is that
    when the slime and destruction is finally scraped away,
    there`s the dollar.

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