Do consumers really know what’s in the can when they buy food for their cats and dogs?
Some pet owners and animal advocate groups say no. Obscure labeling requirements keep shoppers in the dark, and glossy packaging or advertising, showing meals styled to look like human cuisine, lead people to believe they are treating their beloved animals to quality food.
Federal legislators, concerned about the recent recalls involving contaminated pet food and treats, are calling for more guidelines for labeling. A food and drug safety bill passed late last month includes requirements that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration draft pet food labeling standards within the next two years, implement more controls on manufacturing plants and devise early warning systems when problems are discovered. Current standards are administered by each state and may vary slightly.
Some veterinary nutritionists are pushing for the new labels to look more like those on human-grade foods and to include calorie counts, as the number of overweight companion animals grows. Dr. Kathryn Michel, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, said it can be difficult for consumers to tell exactly what is in the food and treats they give to their pets, how long it can safely stay on the shelf, and the quality of the ingredients.
The pet food industry contends its products are safe and that labels currently used are as clear as those for human products. Manufacturers following the industry’s model regulations, developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), must list all ingredients, a percentage-by-weight guaranteed analysis of main components including protein and fiber, and feeding instructions tailored to size.
Nancy Cook, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the Pet Food Institute, anticipates the new FDA labeling guidelines will look a lot like what’s in place now. “It works. Whatever the guaranteed analysis says is exactly what has to be in the food.”
Yet many pet owners felt duped in the wake of continuing recalls.
Pat Davis is one of 24 pet owners, including two from South Florida, who are part of a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami. Davis, a former teacher who lives near Ocala and has numerous pets, said she threw out all the recalled dog food in her cupboard as soon as the Menu Foods problem was made public.
“You try to read the labels, to buy the best thing you can, because you want your animals to be healthy and happy,” she said. “I was feeling pretty smug that I was on top of it.”
But Davis continued to give her 3-year-old Siamese cat Pounce treats — until her pet suddenly stopped eating and could hardly get up off the chair where she slept. The cat died a few days later of kidney failure, cited in most of the cases involving animals that ate the food tainted with melamine, a chemical found in plastics. Del Monte Pet Products voluntarily recalled some Pounce cat treats after the company learned wheat gluten it purchased from a Chinese supplier tested positive for melamine.
The lawsuit, which names the nation’s largest pet food manufacturers as well as retailers, charges that claims on packaging and in advertising misrepresented their diets as healthy and nutritional, and did not warn consumers about the risks. The action, still waiting on class certification, asks for unspecified damages for false advertising. Several other suits are pending against pet food manufacturers.
Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Photo: Jeffrey O. Gustafson