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May 15, 2013

Menu Foods' Tainted Pet Food Spurs Congressional and FDA Reforms

Better oversight follows the poisoning of thousands of pets

  • Thousands of cats and dogs died from eating Menu Food's tainted pet food in 2007. iStockphoto

In mid-March 2007, a nationwide recall of pet food manufactured by Menu Foods sparked panic among many pet owners. The recall affected more than 150 brands of dog and cat food.

Menu Foods' products, sold under dozens of labels including the biggest names in pet food, was linked to a number of pet deaths from kidney failure.

The suspected culprit was melamine-tainted wheat gluten, an ingredient in the pet food obtained from a supplier in China. Testing by the Food and Drug Administration and Cornell University confirmed the melamine contamination.

Pet deaths and illnesses

The deadly contamination came to light after consumers flooded the FDA with thousands of reports of cats and dogs becoming ill or dying after eating certain pet food brands. The U.S. Attorney's office reported that, within one month, the FDA received more than 14,000 consumer complaints—more than twice the number it typically receives for all products it regulates over the span of a year.

Based on the consumer reports to the FDA, The U.S Attorney's office estimated that the tainted food was responsible for the deaths of about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs.

The HSUS was swift to urge Congress to take action in response to the crisis. Ultimately, Congress enacted legislation (incorporating parts of The HSUS's recommendations) requiring the FDA to implement stricter safeguards for pet food.

Reform timeline

March 23, 2007
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, sent a letter [PDF] to the president and CEO of Menu Foods Income Fund asking for details about the source of the toxin found, the scope of the problem, and the chain of events that led up to the recall.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sent a letter [PDF] to the FDA requesting answers to questions regarding the investigation and the agency's oversight.  

April 3, 2007
HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle sent a letter [PDF] to the CEO of Menu Foods Income Fund, expressing concern over the delay in information for pet owners and asking that immediate updates on the status of the investigation be provided to consumers.

April 12, 2007
The U.S. Senate held an oversight hearing on the investigation into the pet food industry and the regulatory mechanisms that govern it.

April 20, 2007
Sen. Durbin and Rep. DeLauro sent a letter [PDF] to the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. urging the Chinese government to issue visas to U.S. food inspectors as quickly as possible. They asked that the Chinese government allow inspectors in and that the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. meet with DeLauro and Durbin to discuss the larger issue of contaminated food being sent to the U.S.

April 23, 2007
Sen. Durbin and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., sent a letter asking FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach to identify the companies that received contaminated rice protein shipments from China and to request that the FDA identify and inspect all suspect pet food ingredients imported by the U.S.

May 2, 2007
Sen. Durbin and Rep. DeLauro introduced the Human and Pet Food Safety Act, intended to enhance the nation's ability to protect the human and animal food supply. The Senate unanimously approved the legislation one day later as an amendment to a broad bill (P.L. 110-85) regarding the FDA.

Sept. 27, 2007
Key elements of the Human and Pet Food Safety Act were enacted as part of P.L. 110-85, requiring the FDA to

  • Set standards for pet food
  • Strengthen labeling rules
  • Establish an early warning system and post searchable online recall lists

The law also required companies to report contaminated food and make key records available during investigations so contaminants can be traced quickly.

Aftermath

February 2008
The FDA announced that a federal grand jury had indicted two Chinese nationals and the businesses they operate, along with a U.S. company (ChemNutra) and its president and CEO, for their roles in importing melamine-contaminated products into the U.S.

February 2010
The owners of ChemNutra, Inc., pleaded guilty to distributing adulterated food and selling misbranded food, both misdemeanors. 

October 2011
A class-action lawsuit awarded more than $12.4 million in compensation to pet owners affected by the tainted pet food.

August 2011
To more closely monitor pet-food safety, the FDA established PETNet, a secure, web-based system by which federal, state, and territorial agencies can share information about incidents involving pet food, such as illnesses associated with consumption.

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