BOOKS: Pet Food Politics
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2008:
Pet Food Politics by Marion Nestle
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley,
CA 94704), 2008. 219 pages, hardcover. $18.95.
The China Health Ministry at this writing has just announced
that the number of infants and young children known to have been
poisoned by melamine mixed into powdered milk or baby formula has
increased tenfold in 48 hours, to more than 54,000.
Four children have died, 13,000 are hospitalized, and
40,000 children plus two orangutans and a lion cub at the Hangzhou
Safari Park near Shanghai have required outpatient medical treatment
for kidney stones caused by ingesting melamine, a coal derivative of
no nutritional value.
Most observers expect the toll to rise far higher. Eighteen
alleged perpetrators face the death penalty.
Most of this was foreseen by Marion Nestle in Pet Food
Politics, detailing the melamine pet food contamination crisis of
early 2007. Nestle subtitled Pet Food Politics “The Chihuahua in
the coal mine” to emphasize that what happened to dogs and cats can
happen to humans, too.
Chiefly used to make plastics, melamine can also be added to
foods to make them appear to have higher protein content than they
really do, when tested using conventional methods. Accordingly,
stirring melamine into “milk” powder that has already been diluted
with cheaper substances such as chalk dust turns out to have been a
cover tactic for unscrupulous distributors of Chinese dairy products,
just as it was for unscrupulous Chinese sellers of pet food
As well as injuring many thousands of children in a nation of
mandatory one-child families, the milk adulterators sold their
tainted products to Bangladesh, Burundi, Gabon, Myanmar, Taiwan,
and Yemen, where they almost certainly harmed many more children,
mostly in nations of limited capacity to detect and respond
effectively to the damage.
Those nations’ lack of ability to intercept poisoned milk
powder parallels the lack of effective inspection and oversight of
pet food production.
The Swiss-based Nestle food manufacturing empire is resisting
a request from the Hong Kong Center for Food Safety that Nestle Dairy
Farm Pure Milk in one-litre packs sold to caterers be recalled,
after melamine was reportedly found in one of 65 samples.
Pet Food Politics author Marion Nestle has spent much of her
career explaining that she has nothing to do with the Nestle food
conglomerate. Her previous books include Food Politics: How the
Food Industry influences Nutrition and Health, and Safe Food:
Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.
Pet Food Politics would appear to be a departure from
Nestle’s usual range, except that she also happens to be nutrition
co-editor of The Bark magazine. Nestle knows dogs, as well as
nutritional issues and the food industry.
In particular, Nestle understands the most basic issue in
manufacturing pet food.
“As one dog food maker explained to me,” Nestle writes,
“the products have to be nasty enough so a dog will eat them but look
and smell good enough for pet owners to want to buy them.”
A similar consideration applies to making cat food, with the
difference that cats are top predators who want their food to smell
and taste like a fresh kill. Dogs prefer theirs to have been dead
for three days.
“The manufacture of wet pet foods presents additional
challenges,” continues Nestle. “For most pet food companies, it is
easier and less expensive to give up control of production and
contract out the making of wet pet foods to ‘co-packers’ such as Menu
Foods,” which used 1,300 recipes, and for several months in
2006-2007 unknowingly included in many of them wheat, rice, and soy
glutens which were imported from China and spiked with melamine.
“Such recipes may differ in proportions of ingredients,”
Nestle explains, “but the basic ingredients are much the same. So
the recall produced this revelation: the contents of pet foods are
much alike, and the most important difference between one brand and
another is not nutrition; it is price.”
Melamine in pet foods killed from 1,950 to 2,334 cats and
4,150 to 4,583 dogs, causing illness in 14,228 to 17,000,
according to data collected by the Pet Connection web site and the
U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
“The Chinese government,” already embarrassed by several
previous food and drug adulteration episodes since 2004, “promptly
announced that it intended to strengthen safety standards, increase
inspections, require safety certifications, and tackle corruption
in the food system and its oversight. And they would be testing for
toxins in cooking oil, flour, beverages, and baby food,” reports
“In short order, China sent more than 33,000 inspectors into
the field, conducted 10 million inspections, and shut down nearly
200 food manufacturers. Over the next few months,” Nestle recounts,
“officials uncovered hundreds of thousands of food safety violations
and closed down more than 150,000 unlicensed food businesses. The
government said it would establish systems for food recalls, export
inspections, and food safety standards, and would create a
cabinet-level panel to oversee food safety and quality.”
Former Chinese food and drug safety administration chief
Zheng Xiaoyu, convicted of taking bribes to approve drugs, was
executed on July 10, 2007.
Concludes Nestle, “If we want our global food system to
provide safe food for everyone, ensuring the safety of pets is as
good a place as any to start.”
Yet ensuring the safey of pets, to whatever extent it was
achieved, proved insufficient to prevent a similar scandal from
afflicting children in China and other nations, barely more than a
Responding to the pet food crisis was delayed, as Nestle
details, because U.S. and Canadian laboratories initially had no
idea what kind of contamination to look for. By now the effects of
melamine ingestion are relatively easily recognized. Yet the
agencies that could have moved promptly to reduce the risk to
children were as sluggish in response to melamine in milk as they
were when the problem was an unknown pollutant in pet food.
The New Zealand dairy firm Fonterra purchased 43% of Sanlu,
the largest Chinese dairy company, in late 2005. Sanlu milk
suppliers were apparently already spiking their products with
melamine. Sanlu received complaints about babies falling ill after
consuming the contaminated products in December 2007, according to
China Central Television, but did not discover that melamine was the
cause of the illnesses until June 2008.
Fonterra learned about the mela-mine contamination on August
2. Pressured by Fonterra to recall any products containing melamine,
Sanlu the same day alerted the city government of Shijiazhuang, in
Hebei province, where the company is based. But Shijiazhuang
officials did not take the matter to their Hebei counterparts until
September 9. By then Fonterra had already notified New Zealand prime
minister Helen Clark about the melamine problem–but Clark did not
move to warn China for three more days.
Once China was officially notified, the response gathered
speed. Chinese media disclosed the investigation on September 10. A
day later, Hebei province deputy governor Yang Chongyong reported
that as many as 373 milk suppliers to Sanlu had been found to have
been adding melamine to powdered milk since as far back as April 2005.
Thus children may have been made ill by melamine for nearly
three years before the pet food contamination furor erupted– and the
adulteration continued even after the perpetrators should have known
that they might be killing babies.
Lest anyone believe this depravity is uniquely Chinese, let
it be remembered that U.S. milk sellers in the early 20th century
often spiked milk with formaldehyde to delay spoilage. Overdoses
occasionally killed small children. Congress passed the Pure Food
and Drug Act of 1906 to address the problem, but “blue milk”
scandals, so-called because the chemical methylene blue is used to
detect formaldehyde in milk, remained frequent for another decade,
until the advent of refrigeration ended the incentive for the
People who gave their cats milk were mostly safe all along.
Though humans cannot smell formaldehyde in small doses, cats can,
and if milk was tainted, cats wouldn’t touch it.