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Pet food

Protecting 4-legged friends

Is it time to lay down the law on pet food production?

Last Updated March 26, 2007

It was enough to strike fear into every animal owner: The discovery that the deaths of 16 animals in the U.S. may have been attributed to pet food containing a chemical in rat poison.

The chemical, aminopterin, was found in 91 popular brands of Menu Foods, a company based in Streetsville, Ont., that were sold across North America. The products were produced at factories in New Jersey and Kansas, with the "cuts and gravy" style cat and dog foods also found on store shelves across Canada.

What's also disturbing to many animal lovers and experts is that Canada has no laws specifically governing pet food production � a fact now under scrutiny, especially since people will continue to question how the rat poison chemical got into the food they trusted to give to their beloved animals.

It's not the first time pet owners have had to worry about the safety of the nourishment they give their dogs and cats.

In 2006, pet food tainted with aflatoxins, a poison produced from mould, was responsible for the deaths of at least 100 dogs in the United States, resulting in the recall of 19 brands of dog food.

These incidents over the past couple of years have highlighted the fact that while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates pet food safety scares, there is no similar regulatory body doing such work in Canada.

In fact, several veterinary and animal science professors interviewed by CBC News Online said they weren't even aware that there is no Canadian legislation specifically governing pet food manufacturing, until the recall was reported in the media.

Despite calls for mandatory requirements governing pet food plants, including from the Toronto lawyer behind a $60-million class-action lawsuit, Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl says they don�t fall under the domain of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and that there are no plans to change that.

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's job is to look after human food safety and production, and that's what we focus on," he has said, referring to the recalls.

However, several laws do exist overseeing some aspects of pet food in Canada:

  • The CFIA is responsible for ensuring any banned products don't get into pet food sold into Canada. Their latest feed ban, taking effect July 12, will ensure that any tissues that are at risk of harbouring bovine spongiform encephalopathy will not be included in any pet foods, fertilizers or animal feeds.
  • Health Canada ensures that no pet foods are sold using marketing or labels with unsubstantiated health claims.
  • The Competition Bureau administers legislation surrounding proper labelling for packaged pet food.
  • The Animal Feeds Act in Canada governs standards for livestock feed, but it does not cover companion animals (pets).

But these laws do not govern the production of pet food at the manufacturing level, that is, what is contained in them and in what amounts. While some argue that regulatory standards should be put in place for pet foods, others say that the major pet food companies have high testing standards and generally do a good job of ensuring their products are of high quality. Still others argue that having laws in place governing the food will not make any difference, saying that these problems are isolated incidents that won't likely recur in the same way twice.

Mandatory requirements a good start, some say

Dr. Jim Atkinson, an animal and poultry science professor at the University of Guelph, has been vocal in his assertion that this change needs to be made. "It's the fact that it's an unregulated system that bothers me," Atkinson says. However, he's not hopeful it will happen unless there is a tragedy, that is, a human dying after eating contaminated cat food. "[What it will take] is one old lady dying from cat food." He says part of the problem is that in many of these contamination cases, dozens of different types of food — both high-end veterinary products and supermarket brands — are all made at the same factories and sold across the continent, so when there is a problem, it can affect millions of consumers. Consistent regulation would help, he says.

Pet food companies self-regulated

But Suzanne Lavictoire, director of member service and communications for the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, says pet food companies have good regulations and most pet food manufacturers have a keen self-interest in producing safe, healthy food. After all, they face constant competition from other companies, and foods viewed as unsafe aren't going to sell.

"Many of the pet food companies have their own testing, their own quality control," which is of a very high standard, Lavictoire says. She says it's best not to "create a panic" about this incident because generally speaking, standards are already extremely high. That said, the CVMA does run a voluntary pet food certification program in Canada. Companies can submit their pet foods to their laboratories and if they pass stringent tests, they will be able to bear a special certification seal from the CVMA.

However, "it's not a food safety program; it's a nutrition quality assurance program, based on nutritional standards," she says.

And currently only about 10 per cent of pet foods in the Canadian marketplace are certified, she says. But she notes that the likely reason is that the larger companies have similar nutritional guidelines and quality standards, and don't feel the need to provide CVMA certification.

However, Atkinson argues that it's the smaller companies that may not want to spend money on testing, or the mom-and-pop groups that make doggie treats to sell at farmers' markets that could easily become contaminated and be sold to unsuspecting customers, with no regulation whatsoever. This case is particularly frightening, Atkinson says, because Menu Foods manufactures some of the special diet foods sold by veterinarians, so consumers can't simply be advised to stay away from cheaper brands.

As an instructor in animal science, he says contrary to popular belief, most veterinarians don't get much information on animal nutrition from veterinary school, so they may not be the best ones to rely on for information.

Ingredients wide ranging

Some say establishing legislation surrounding pet foods simply won't work, because the ingredients contained in them are so wide ranging.

Murray Drew, a professor in the animal and poultry science department at the University of Saskatchewan, notes that many of the ingredients in cat and dog food are also used for human foods.

Those ingredients include wheat gluten, which may be the suspect in the Menu Foods case. Officials are looking into whether wheat imported from China that was made into the wheat gluten contained the aminopterin. Wheat gluten is used in both pet and human foods as a thickening agent. That pet and human food ingredients cross over into each other would make regulation incredibly difficult, Drew says.

"Every so often, you are going to get a bad ingredient," he says, similar to the many food scares in human products, such as the recent outbreak of E. coli contained in some U.S.-grown spinach. What's really going to change things for the better, he says, is "more research on food safety."

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