During the past several months, print and TV headlines have boldly
spread fear and confusion about the safety of our food supply [even
toothpaste]. In short, some foods may be -- and indeed some foods were
found to be contaminated. At first, the scares targeted foods eaten by
our companion animals, but reports soon spread to include foods for
The first reports surfaced in March 2007 with warnings that hundreds of
brands of tainted pet foods were sickening and/or killing domestic dogs
and cats. By April, Banfield, the nation’s largest chain of veterinary
hospitals (www.banfield.net) had reviewed the records of over 615
veterinary hospitals and estimated that as many as 39,000 pets to date
had become sick from contaminated pet foods.
Worse yet, 3 out of every 10,000 cats and dogs who ate the tainted foods
developed kidney failure. Investigations by the Food & Drug
Administration soon implicated the chemical melamine, which was found in
both wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate ingredients in the
recalled pet foods as well as in the urine, blood, kidneys and tissues
of the infected animals. Although melamine’s use is banned in the U.S.,
it is used as a fertilizer in Asia. By the end of March, officials had
added another chemical commonly used in pool chlorination to the list of
contaminants: cyanuric acid. The final blame for most of the pet food
contamination rested on either of two ingredients imported from China
contained in a long list of pet foods marketed in the U.S. --
melamine-contaminated wheat gluten and rice concentrate from China.
The FDA is still on the case and has not said whether the melamine
contamination was accidental or if it was added intentionally to boost
the products' protein content. Although the major culprits in the recent
pet food debacle were Chinese imports, it appears now that we have had
continuous problems with imports of fish, pet food and other products
from other countries, including Mexico, India, the Dominican Republic
We are also learning that the FDA only inspects about 1 percent of all
food shipments. In addition, some imported toothpaste and drugs also may
be tainted. Chinese officials have been on alert. The safety issue is
larger than we can ever know -- in fact so large that in July the
Chinese government charged and executed the former head of China's Food
and Drug Administration for approving fake medicine in exchange for
Locally Grown Contamination The focus on imported foods has temporarily
taken our attention away from national food safety issues. During the
past several months, we have had at least eight large-scale outbreaks of
food contamination -- largely from bacteria or other bugs affecting the
human foods supply.
An outbreak last December 2006 attributed to norovirus-tainted food
eaten at an Olive Garden restaurant sickened 373 people. The previous
month, E. coli contamination sickened 71 people who ate at Taco Bell
restaurants in several states, resulting in 53 hospitalizations and 8
cases of kidney failure. Taco John restaurants in other states caused 54
people to fall ill from a virulent strain of E. coli. In August and
September of 2006, several people became paralyzed after consuming
carrot juice containing botulism toxin.
In September, E. coli contamination of bagged spinach also sickened many
people. The spinach contamination is blamed on a grower in the Salinas
region of California where E. coli in cattle feces from an adjacent
livestock grazing area entered the water running into the fields of
spinach. Most recently, botulism contamination was blamed for the recall
of 90 canned and bottled meat products and chili sauces made by the
Georgiabased, Castleberry Food Company. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], since September 2006 major
outbreaks of food poisoning have sickened more than 1,100 people,
sending hundreds to hospitals and causing at least three deaths.
They estimate that more than 76 million Americans get sick each year
from eating tainted food, amounting to about 1 in 4 people.
About 1,500 deaths are caused by Salmonella or Campylobacter poisoning.
Other bacterial infections, such as Listeria and a toxic strain E. coli
are less common. Caliciviruses, and, less commonly, parasites such
Giardia or Cryptosporidium, also cause food-borne illnesses. About 30%
of all infections are due to meat contamination, but don't feel safe
because you are vegan.
As occurred in the September E-coli spinach poisoning, cattle grazing in
fields too close to produce can contaminate otherwise good plant food.
What can we do? Food safety has become a major national priority that
lawmakers are beginning to address. As it now stands, neither the FDA
nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the authority to order
mandatory recalls of tainted food but can ask companies to voluntarily
recall tainted foods. Food safety is now under the jurisdiction of 12
separate federal agencies and subagencies.
The USDA is supposed to oversee meat, poultry and eggs and the FDA is
responsible for most other food items. The Environmental Protection
Agency, Department of Homeland Security, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and
Trade Bureau, and a variety of other agencies are also individually
charged with some aspects of food safety. Should we establish a new
federal agency for food safety alone, some ask? According to the USDA,
the poultry industry in particular is notoriously unsanitary with
processing plants generally exceeding federal limits for Salmonella, yet
oversight is far from adequate in spite of daily inspections. While the
USDA does not have the authority to close these plants, they can order
them to suspend production.
The Senate is currently questioning the FDA about their response to food
safety; and bills on food safety and FDA funding are clearing the House.
Food-labeling laws are also up for review.
As the daily parade of tainted foods grows, so too does anger and fear,
which has been most intense for people like my neighbor whose beloved
cat succumbed to kidney failure and died from tainted food. Short of
getting out the pots and cooking up Dog or Cat Chows, millions of pet
owners are still bewildered about what to feed their charges. What can
we do to personally protect ourselves and our companion animals from
food-borne illnesses? Here are a few tips:
sources carefully, buying locally whenever possible.
up-to-date on food recalls, regularly checking the FDA website.
organic foods whenever possible.
labels carefully [for now at least I’m avoiding wheat gluten or rice
concentrate unless I am certain they don't originate from China].
buy foods in bulging or dented cans or cracked jars or those with loose
or bulging lids.
out for cross-contamination (Be particularly careful if someone in your
household, or your pet, is not vegetarian. For example, be sure that
cooked shrimp are not lying on the same bed of ice as raw fish).
preparing foods, wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards.
Cooking kills most bugs.
more information, see
Go on to President's Message
Return to Summer 2007 Issue