Manufacturer Recalls Pet Food That Killed Thousands of American Pets Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In response to reports of the deaths of thousands of pets in the United States who consumed tainted pet food, the Chinese government and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration identified two Chinese companies that manufactured adulterated food additives with harmful chemicals to maximize their profits.

Summary of Event

On March 16, 2007, Menu Foods, a producer of private-label pet foods based in Ontario, Canada, announced that it was recalling sixty million cans and packets of nearly one hundred brands of its products because of the deaths of a reported seventeen animals who were fed the products. Initially, the contaminant was unknown, and the actual number of affected pets remains unknown as well. [kw]Pet Food That Killed Thousands of American Pets, Manufacturer Recalls (Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007) Menu Foods scandal Pet food;Chinese Zheng Xiaoyu DeLauro, Rosa L. Durbin, Richard J. Henderson, Paul China;pet food scandal Menu Foods scandal []Pet food;China Zheng Xiaoyu DeLauro, Rosa L. Durbin, Richard J. Henderson, Paul [g]Asia;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [g]China;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [g]United States;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [g]Canada;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]Trade and commerce;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]Business;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]Law and the courts;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]Government;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]Medicine and health care;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] [c]International relations;Summer, 2006-Mar. 16, 2007: China Recalls Pet Food That Has Killed Thousands of American Pets[03610] Von Eschenbach, Andrew C.

Menu Foods president and chief executive officer Paul Henderson, right, and executive vice president Richard Shields listen as a woman questions them at a news conference in March, 2007, about the death of her dog from eating Menu Foods dog food.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

For weeks, as the recall continued to grow, both Menu Foods and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could not identify the problem and insisted that there had been no more than a handful of deaths. Veterinarians, however, reported thousands of pet deaths—cats and dogs—from causes such as kidney failure, while bloggers steadily tracked death tolls and developments. Later, two manufacturing plants in China were found to have added the nitrogen-rich chemical melamine, which is used in the production of fertilizer, plastics, and other inedible products, to wheat gluten and rice-protein concentrate to inflate their protein content. Wheat gluten and rice-protein concentrate are used as thickeners for wet pet food. Menu Foods was the leading manufacturer of wet pet-food products in North America at the time the scandal broke.

Lawsuits and mainstream media coverage of the scandal were followed—too late, many thought—by an FDA prohibition against the importation of Chinese wheat gluten and by congressional hearings into the FDA’s response to the crisis and its oversight of the food supply. For a time U.S.-Chinese relations seemed threatened, but after the Chinese government identified at least one of the individuals responsible for the melamine contamination, the largest pet food recall in American history subsided.

The scandal began in the summer of 2006, when tainted wheat gluten first reached the United States, according to the FDA. Menu Foods began incorporating some of this contaminated food additive into its products on November 8. Reportedly, within six weeks, the company began receiving reports of pets being sickened by pet food produced at its plants in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada, and Emporia, Kansas, although Menu Foods said it had not received such reports until February 20, 2007. Seven days later, the company began routine feeding trials with forty to fifty cats and dogs; the same day, Menu Foods’ chief executive officer, Paul Henderson, sold 12,700 of his shares in the company.

On March 7, the first of nine animals in the feeding trial died from acute renal failure. Further deaths prompted the company to switch wheat gluten suppliers four days later. However, roughly two weeks passed before Menu Foods sent samples of its products to Cornell University for testing. Unable to locate the source of the animal poisoning, Cornell in turn forwarded samples to the New York State Food Laboratory, which soon identified the chemotherapy agent aminopterin as a contaminant.

After sending food samples to Cornell, Menu Foods, on March 16, announced its first giant recall but failed to report the deaths of its test subjects. As Wall Street reacted and pet owners panicked, Menu Foods’ stock declined 45 percent and its Web site was shut down. Consumers, unable to reach the company via the Web or by telephone, also were stonewalled by the FDA, which would only officially recognize the deaths of the nine animals in Menu Foods’ feeding trials. The official death toll was revised to include a few pets, but it remained at fourteen even as blogs were posting reports of hundreds of deaths and veterinarians were estimating that deaths actually numbered in the thousands. By the end of March, retailers were pulling all Menu Foods products off their shelves, the company’s New Jersey plant was under suspicion, and the FDA had announced that melamine was the major contaminant of the pet food.

Within hours of the FDA’s announcement, other pet-food makers began announcing recalls. Still, the death toll mounted, and the announcements continued. On March 30, the FDA imposed an import restriction on wheat gluten produced by the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company in Jiangsu province, China. However, the public was not notified of this development until it was discovered days later by bloggers. U.S. senator Richard Durbin and U.S. representative Rosa DeLauro issued a press release on April 1 that criticized the FDA’s laxity, but the release stated the obvious. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, followed the next day with a public demand for the resignation of FDA commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach.

On April 3, tensions increased when the mainstream press speculated that tainted wheat gluten had been sold to suppliers of human food. Two days later, Durbin announced congressional hearings into the scandal. China followed with its own investigation into melamine-contaminated wheat gluten. Around April 10, investigators found that rice protein concentrate, another thickener used in food production, had been contaminated with melamine, prompting a new round of pet-food recalls and the identification of a second suspected Chinese manufacturer, in Shandong province. By the end of the month, it was feared that contamination had reached the human food supply through surplus-tainted pet food given to chickens, hogs, and farmed fish.

On April 20, the FDA announced that it had opened a criminal investigation into the crisis. Chinese officials gave FDA inspectors permission to enter China, but they were not allowed to interview anyone involved with exporting the contaminated food products. Also, the suspect production facilities had been shut down before U.S. inspectors arrived. Around the same time, recalls of pet foods were announced in South Africa, after the deaths of animals who had consumed food laced with melamine-contaminated corn gluten. Within two months, melamine contamination was found in European products containing Chinese-produced corn gluten and rice-protein concentrate. On May 29, facing a worldwide problem, the Chinese government announced that the former head of China’s food and drug administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, had been sentenced to death for accepting bribes in connection with the approval of faulty products. On June 27, Chinese officials announced a shutdown of 180 food factories accused of having improperly used industrial chemicals and expired food products. Zheng was executed on July 10.

Impact

Menu Foods estimated that the 2007 pet-food recall cost the company between forty-five and fifty-five million dollars. The costs to affected pet owners—in the thousands—are far higher, in both financial and emotional terms, leading to changes in U.S. law. Pet owners, both individually and collectively through class-action lawsuits, have filed countless suits against pet-food makers. Traditionally, pets have been accorded little monetary value by the courts, and as a consequence few suits concerning pets have been filed. The courts’ valuation of pets—and the courts’ realization of the emotional and financial ties of owners—has increased, however, and there appears to be a shift in perspective.

Pet-food manufacturers, too, suffered a major setback: eroded customer confidence. Companies have been building their own manufacturing plants and engaging in greater oversight of imported ingredients. The FDA, which was slow to react to the crisis, now takes seriously the issue of tainted animal food because of possible contamination of the human food supply.

Subsequent revelations of contaminated Chinese-produced medicines and health and beauty aids not only sparked a minor trade war between China and the United States over American products but also led to the realization that inadequate U.S. oversight of imports such as pet-food ingredients signals a possible threat to homeland security. Menu Foods scandal []Pet food;China Zheng Xiaoyu DeLauro, Rosa L. Durbin, Richard J. Henderson, Paul

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Fallout from Recent Pet Food Recall.” Neutraceuticals World 10 (June, 2007). This overview of the pet-food recall discusses how the crisis affected the human food supply and increased the demand for organic food—for people and their pets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kearns, Nancy. “Moving on, Moving Up: Pet Food Executives Tell Us How the Industry Has Changed, Post-Recall.” Whole Dog Journal 10 (September, 2007). Although none of the executives interviewed for this piece were affiliated with companies implicated in the 2007 recall, the article describes how the scandal affected pet-food manufacturers, who beefed up not only production facilities but also customer relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Jonathan. “When a Pet Dies of Suspected Food Poisoning—What Is Its Value?” Seattle Times, March 22, 2006. The first class-action lawsuit filed against Menu Foods was filed in Seattle. This feature explains how the case affects pet-related laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nestle, Marion. Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. A noted expert on the politics of food and food consumption investigates the pet-food scandal of 2006-2007.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swaminathan, Nikhil. “The Poisoning of Our Pets: Scientists and Government Agencies Home in on the Cause of More than One Hundred Pet Deaths from Tainted Food.” Scientific American, March 28, 2007. A good article outlining the course of the tainted-food case and how the scientific community and the federal government have handled the issue.

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