By Helen Scharber, CPE Staff Economist
Last month, the recall of 60 million cans and pouches of pet food by Menu Foods left Americans concerned and confused. The pet deaths and illnesses that spurred the recall have since been linked to melamine, a chemical added to animal feed in China to boost its reported protein content. Melamine is not digested in the same way as vegetable protein, however, and therefore lacks nutritional value. Why, then, are Fluffy and Fido eating it? In short, because companies value profits over pets. Using melamine increases profits by lowering costs, and without effective regulation, the drive for profits tends to trump other concerns, including human and animal health.
Melamine is a hard, white, coal-derived substance used primarily to make fertilizer and plastics. You may have melamine bowls or plates in your house; a warning on the bottom declares them unfit for use in microwaves or dishwashers, since high temperatures can cause the plastic to break down and contaminate your food. Animal feed manufacturers in China buy scrap melamine cheaply and add it to feed in order to boost its nitrogen content, which inflates protein levels in tests. According to a Chinese animal feed factory manager interviewed in the New York Times, “If you add it in small quantities, it won’t hurt the animals.” He goes on to justify the substitution of vegetable protein with melamine’s indigestible protein. “Pets are not like pigs or chickens”¦ they don’t need to grow fast.” Profits, he might have added, do need to grow fast, and substituting melamine, at one-fourth the cost of vegetable protein, helps profits grow.
The pet food recall case illustrates the problems that can spring from increasing globalization paired with poor regulation. While the use of melamine in food is prohibited in the United States, it isn’t in China. Because it reduces costs and has the added benefit of beefing up advertised protein levels, Chinese manufacturers use it as a filler, despite its total lack of nutritional content and poorly understood health effects.
The contaminated feed makes its way into the U.S. via companies like ChemNutra, the American importer that supplied the contaminated wheat gluten to Menu Foods. Steve Miller, the chairman of ChemNutra, claims that his company is actually the victim, not the offender. “We are concerned that we may have been the victim of deliberate and mercenary contamination for the purpose of making the wheat gluten we purchased appear to have a higher protein content than it did,” he writes in a public letter. Moreover, according to Miller, “[ChemNutra] had no idea that melamine was an issue until being notified by the FDA on March 29. In fact, we had never heard of melamine before.”
If ChemNutra did not know about the melamine, Menu Foods, the Ontario-based pet food manufacturer that bought wheat gluten from ChemNutra, could not have known either. But if Menu Foods is not to blame for the contamination, they are responsible for the extent of the problem. Menu Foods, a company most Americans hadn’t heard of before March, manufactures wet cat and dog food under nearly 100 familiar brand names. These brands are sold in most major grocery and pet food stores around the country.
Incidents like the pet food recall and last year’s spinach contamination reveal just how concentrated — and, therefore, vulnerable — our food supply is. Such incidents also underline the importance of market regulation. It was the operation of the free market — specifically, Chinese animal feed processors seeking higher profits — that resulted in melamine-enhanced wheat gluten. Legally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting our food supply from harmful and illegal substances such as melamine. But faced with increasing numbers of food imports and inadequate staff, the FDA is unable to filter out every last potential culprit. Because the short-staffed FDA is unable to conduct necessary inspections, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in a press release from April 24, advocates a temporary ban of grain products from China. “If U.S. pets must serve as the: puppies in the coal mine,” writes CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, “we urge FDA to heed the warning and take action now to ban grains and other grain products until the Chinese government and producers can guarantee that these imports are free of illegal and dangerous substances.”
Even if Chinese grains were banned for a while, food production in the U.S. would continue to be complexly intertwined with the global food supply. Thus, federal regulatory agencies must step up their efforts to protect consumers from unsafe food, often a direct result of cost cutting by companies eager to increase profits. Current food safety laws are over 100 years old, and according to the CSPI, the FDA inspection staff has shrunk by 15 percent since 2003. To better protect the public from food-borne illnesses, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Rosa DeLaura have introduced the Safe Food Act that would create a unified food agency with more modern rules. In tandem with better regulations, we should also make it harder for companies like Menu Foods to sell contaminated food to such large swathes of the country, by encouraging a less concentrated food processing and distribution system. After all, what’s the point of healthy profits if we don’t have healthy pets and healthy people?
New York Times web page with links to articles about the pet food recall
Center for Science in the Public Interest press release, urging FDA to ban grain imports from China — April 24, 2007
Letter from the chairman of ChemNutra about the pet food recall
Senator Dick Durban’s bill to establish a Food Safety Administration, introduced February 15, 2007 [pdf]
© 2007 Center for Popular Economics
Econ-Atrocities and Econ-Utopias are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.