In November 2006, America’s dogs and cats started dying painful, mysterious and sometimes gruesome deaths–canaries in the coal mine of a food safety system on the verge of collapse. Previously healthy pets would suddenly vomit blood and bile, produce bloody diarrhea and lose control of bladder and bowel. Some animals displayed unquenchable thirst, while others refused to eat or drink at all. Victims became lethargic and withdrawn, their limbs wobbly, eyes cloudy and stomachs painfully distended. Then the seizures set in.
The nationwide veterinary chain Banfield estimates that as many as 39,000 dogs and cats were sickened or killed in this manner between December 2006 and February 2007 alone. Yet nobody seemed to notice–not the Food and Drug Administration, not the Department of Agriculture, not the Centers for Disease Control, not even Menu Foods, the little-known pet food manufacturing giant that had been fielding calls from concerned customers for months. It was not until late February, when its own animals started dropping dead just days into its quarterly taste test, that Menu Foods realized our beloved family pets were being poisoned by their own food.
Cut-rate imported Chinese wheat gluten, used to make the meatlike chunks in “cuts and gravy” pet food varieties, had been adulterated with a deadly cocktail of melamine and cyanuric acid, but what the media largely covered as just a “pet food recall” proved to be only one in a series of regulatory failures that have put our two-legged family members at equal or greater risk. In the months that followed, “voluntary recalls” were belatedly issued because of antifreeze in toothpaste, banned antibiotics in farmed seafood and lead paint on Thomas the Tank Engine toys–all imported from China and all unwittingly consumed or otherwise used by Americans for months, if not years.
And had this “food grade” wheat gluten made its way to the US bakery and breakfast cereal manufacturers who use 530 million pounds annually, it could have created the largest and deadliest mass food poisoning in American history. Indeed, given the often silent, progressive nature of renal failure, and our regulatory and public health agencies’ woeful inability to prevent, uncover, track or remedy such incidents, we cannot be certain that it already hasn’t.
Hyperbole? Just days after pronouncing that there is “no acceptable level” of melamine and cyanuric acid in human food, the USDA and FDA suddenly recanted after learning that these industrial chemicals had also contaminated more than 23 million chickens and 56,000 hogs. Even as our pets were dying, the USDA/FDA issued a comically Orwellian joint press release proclaiming “no evidence of harm to humans” from eating melamine-tainted meat: “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention systems would have limited ability to detect subtle problems…no problems have been detected to date.”