Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pet Foods: notes from the experts

Towards a greater understanding (part 3)

The idea of government oversight has always been a bit of a touchy subject in the United States; a country known for an independent citizenry strong on "freedom of choice". This admirable quality though can sometimes create a lot of tension. The struggle to balance between allowing an indiscriminate free flow of goods and the need to protect the public has been the source of many regulatory headaches. Depending on the subject in question, there are varying degrees of expected government intervention the public expects.

For example, entertainment is one thing and medical care another. The intensity of control between the two is very different. Since the early nineteenth century society decided to filter a haphazard and dangerous quackery filled world of medicine through the tried and proven framework of science. Those practices that couldn’t pass muster (i.e.; homeopathy and bloodletting) fell out of favor or were disregarded. Though, unfortunately today there is a resurgence of non-science in medicine, this framework has worked extremely well in disseminating effective medicine to many more people than would otherwise have been possible.

This basic concept (though not nearly as tight as in medicine) is also utilized in the oversight of food safety for animals in the United States, but the current regulatory system is probably not what most people imagine.

Last years pet food recall illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the US regulatory and inspection system for pet food ingredients. Laflamme notes that “There are issues at all levels: USDA issues in terms of guidelines and inspections, import issues, domestic issues, and, of course, pet food companies have their own standards for determining the nutritional value of the ingredients and tests for known contaminants...What happened in the 2007 recall was deliberate contamination of an ingredient from something that we wouldn’t even think to look for. There’s little that can be done if somebody wants to deliberately put toxins into a food, whether it’s for humans or pets.”

In other words, the current regulatory model was not looking for what McChensey described as a “strictly economic adulteration of a product.” He adds “The other thing is that pet food and animal feed are regulated under the adulteration provision of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. So, the presumption is that a company will make a product that is not adulterated or unsafe.” Though most companies will operate under these constraints there are no set regulations that require them to follow quality practices for “non-medicated feeds” which comprises almost all of the pet foods. So if there is a problem its “difficult to take action against someone because of a problem.”

On the other hand, regulatory agencies and regulations have a two pronged strategy. They are there not only to protect the consumer but as Roudebush notes “are there to protect the companies too.” He states that industry plays a critical role in helping to set up standards that protect them as well as the public. He uses the aircraft industry as an example; “every 5 years, a group that represents industry- airplane manufacturers, the government, academics- comes up with standards for lubricants that are used on commercial and private aircraft. Industry is important. Companies have the technological know-how and share that information, allowing industry as a whole to come up with the regulations that protect the users and also the companies.”

On a related note it is important to realize that neither the AAFCO nor the Pet Food Institute are regulatory bodies nor have they been created by the pet food industry. The AAFCO for example, is composed of regulatory people from all 50 states that among other things facilitate interstate commerce. Though they may contribute opinions about regulations they don’t have the ability to establish regulations.

The USDA is charged with regulating many food related products. For example, they have a person assigned to all slaughter plants that are making a USDA-regulated product. On the other hand, it’s the FDA- under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act- that is ultimately charged with the oversight of the safety of imported ingredients into the US. McChensey notes that “The FDA does look at about 1% of the products crossing the borders...ultimately it falls to the company to make a safe product.”

Daritotle adds that “Most of the major pet food companies have been fairly vocal about the quality control in place and have quality-assurance programs accordingly.” And as Roudebush states “the reality is that most of us think if the company is reputable, then it is assumed that quality-control procedures are in place.” For the most part, this is true and a part of the combined effort it takes to produce a generally safe product.

But there are still plenty of holes and inefficiencies, especially in this era of increasing globalization, and it behooves the veterinarian and pet owners to be vigilant. Having a better idea of how things are set up helps us to perhaps find other more constructive solutions.

As we struggle to balance a full plate of sometimes contradicting issues (i.e.; the need to protect ourselves vs cost of that protection, freedom of choice vs limiting that freedom to choosing among safe products, cheaper vs expensive food ingredients) it all comes down to being well informed and finding ways to cooperate together.

Taken as a whole, cats and dogs in this country have the opportunity to be healthier and live longer than ever before. By working as a team, pet owners, veterinarians and others can successfully navigate these challenges and come up with excellent nutritional solutions for our beloved pets.

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