So what the heck are we gonna DO?????
Fri Mar 14, 8:20 PM
By David Friend, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - A year after the tainted pet food scandal at Menu Foods (TSX:MEW.UN) rattled animal lovers and sent the company's stock into a freefall, the pet food industry has slipped off the radar of Canadian regulators and other agencies.
Saturday marks a full-year since dog and cat owners were sent into a panic over the possibility that food they were giving their pets could be tainted by wheat gluten laced with poisonous melamine.
The chemical used for making plastics was added by a China-based supplier as a cheap way to make the food look like it had higher protein levels, but it was also killing some pets that consumed it.
Since then, little has been done in Canada to ensure that pet food is any safer, aside from continuing to rely on companies to self-regulate and monitor their international suppliers.
After the recalls started last year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency began a review of its responsibilities to pet food and, according to their website, "determine if room for improvement exists within the Canadian system."
On Friday, it appeared as though nothing had changed.
"We don't have a regulatory role - that's the bottom line," said Marc Richard at the CFIA's headquarters in an interview.
"We're the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. We deal with food - and food is for humans."
Richard added that the agency has a "very minor role" related to pet food through its handling of traditional disease control, which means ensuring that livestock doesn't transfer avian influenza or mad cow disease.
Pet food regulations fall under three federal levels - the CFIA for disease control, Industry Canada for packaging and Health Canada's Veterinary Drugs Directorate for therapeutic food claims.
None of the departments seem to handle poisons or other contaminants that could get into food, which has made it especially difficult for pet advocates to lobby for changes.
Cathy Sterling euthanized her eight-year-old Australian Sheppard last March when the dog became ill, only a week before Menu Foods issued the recall and warning.
Since then, she has collected between 2,500 and 3,000 signatures from pet owners in an effort to convince the government to pay more attention to pet food.
"Pets today have taken on new levels of care in people's hearts and I think the legislation hasn't kept up with that aspect," said Sterling.
"We've recognized there's a problem... and we need a change."
Last fall, Health Minister Tony Clement outlined an action plan for the food and product regulatory system that encouraged greater prevention rather than responding to cases once they are detected.
The plan covers recalled products like children's toys, cosmetics, pesticides and sports equipment, but doesn't mention pet food.
Sterling said it's her goal to get pet food on that list, though she's facing an uphill battle.
"I did feel that it slowly faded from the public's consciousness," she said. "I think Menu Foods is getting exactly their wish, that it's all just going away."
The company beared the brunt of consumer backlash last year partly because it was North America's biggest supplier of pet food, selling one-billion containers in 2006 through store-brand labels and under contract for international names such as Iams.
Menu Foods has said it faces more than 100 class-action lawsuits.
Last month, many of the lawsuits filed in the U.S. were consolidated into one class-action suit because a judicial panel determined that they involved the same questions of fact.
Both sides of the case have said they are near a settlement, and a district judge has asked for a report this Wednesday.
Menu Foods declined repeated interview requests for this story. A company official said executives would not be available to speak because the "focus right now is on the legal settlement."
In the United States, the FDA has indicted both American and Chinese business owners over a scheme to import the melamine-contaminated wheat gluten into the country.
But while congressional hearings and proposed food safety legislation have come to fruition, the FDA still doesn't have any mandatory authority over recalling pet food.
Some suggest that the industry is already doing enough to regulate itself.
"Regulation would not have changed the recall situation that Menu Foods recently experienced in any way shape or form," said Martha Wilder, executive director of the Pet Food Association of Canada in an interview last year.
"Case in point (are) that the two plants in the U.S. that were found to be involved in the recall are regulated and it didn't do anything to stop this from happening."
Wilder was unavailable to provide further comment on Friday.
In Canada, industry organizations have also been backing off of pet food manufacturers.
Last year, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association wound up a longtime committee that monitored pet food nutrition standards around the same time the tainted food investigation was underway.
"After the recall happened people with our association met with government and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was taking lead on the follow-up of the recall," said Kristin Wood, a spokeswoman for the veterinary association.
"The regulation of pet food is not really in our mandate anymore."