Sextiped Valley: The evil empire of pet food
May 19, 2017
On this New Year's Day, the owners of a respected, family-owned pet food company awakened to the news that a can of their most popular product had killed one dog and sickened four others in a single family. They soon learned that the food had been tested by a university lab and found to contain "large" amounts of the drug sodium pentobarbital. This is the expensive, tightly regulated euthanasia drug veterinarians use to end the suffering of pets, also used by some states in executions.
This company had assured its retail partners and consumers that all its whole meat ingredients were "human grade."
This term can only be used to describe carcasses inspected and approved by the USDA in USDA-certified facilities, legally assuring against contamination by toxic substances, disease and decomposition in the outputs of the slaughter and butchering process.
A lot can (and does) happen to meat once a manufacturer purchases it from a broker or wholesaler, which accounts for the fact that few pet food products are labeled "human grade." But this product was. And, since it consisted of a slab of whole meat, cooked in its own juices and canned without any other additives, if the meat was truly human grade, it could not have contained tissue from any euthanized animal carcass. But it did.
A consumer advocacy organization that watchdogs the pet food industry erupted in outrage when this came to light. But also in bafflement. Cattle arrive alive to the holding pens adjacent to slaughterhouses, and they walk into the line and emerge as beef. The rules governing slaughter include humane handling requirements that are implemented to the extent compatible with efficiency, but the animals are not given IV injections of sodium pentobarbital. Not only would this be grossly inefficient, but it would render the meat unsalable, by law, as food.
So, how could a euthanized cow end up in a can of dog food — or beef stew? Well, it didn't. In the ensuing exchange of accusations and defenses, the pet food company announced it had "discovered" its beef supplier had misrepresented the meat as human grade, when it was not. The company filed a lawsuit, displaying a copy of an invoice for beef it had purchased, plainly marked "inedible — not for human consumption," with the supplier's name redacted, implying something like, "Oops! Sorry — we were careless, but we've learned our lesson! We will never purchase from XXX again! Trust us!"
I don't know about you, but this would only give me pause if displayed alongside the purchase order for "USDA inspected and approved beef" and if the specified price were consistent with that quality and was, in fact, paid for the substituted (and illegal) product. It wasn't.
Next, further testing revealed that the most likely source of the drug was a euthanized horse. And, in its haste to portray itself as an innocent customer betrayed by a greedy supplier, the pet food company released for publication on an advocacy website documents from its lawsuit that identified the mendacious supplier.
The advocates, of course, looked them up. They learned that, in addition to non-USDA slaughter and meat processing, the company also operated, on the same premises but under a different business name, a carcass recovery service and disposal facility. Bingo.
"Transparency" and "accountability" are buzzwords right now. But can I, a pet food retailer doing due diligence on behalf of my customers, find out who supplies the ingredients to the companies whose foods I sell? Sadly, only two companies have been willing to reveal their entire supply chain, from farm to package.
Others stonewall and delay, claiming "proprietary information" (ridiculous, in my opinion, to shield the middle layer when the actual farmers raising the livestock and produce are proudly identified.)
Saddest of all is the abdication of its mandate by the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency tasked with ensuring food and drug safety. Openly acknowledging that the law requires otherwise, the FDA has proclaimed its intention to allow pet food companies to incorporate illegal ingredients ("adulterated" is the legal term requiring their rejection) until and unless compelled by claims of illness or death to investigate violations.
This government entity, mandated to protect the public's interest, blatantly puts cynical pet food companies' profit margins first.
It's been known to echo those companies' feeble "green washing" defense, offered for their use of unwholesome ingredients: " … otherwise, this toxic waste would overwhelm landfills and present public health hazards."
Could our all-time low levels of trust in institutions, from government to business to media really be a problem of simple trustworthiness? To expect integrity, we need to embody it in whatever roles we play in the world, even as lowly consumers. Evil empires are sustained by legions of ordinary people willing to be lied to.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.