Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Marion Nestle's "Pet Food Politics"

Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is author of the award-winning Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, and What to Eat, among other books. She serves as nutrition coeditor of The Bark magazine.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008), and reported the following:
A visit to the website of Shandong Flourishing in late April 2007 was a disconcerting experience. Here, for example, in direct quotation, is how Shandong Flourishing explained its management philosophy:

"Our company’s management idea is: The good faith for this, by guaranteed the product quality strives for the survival, by creates the enterprise core competition to make every effort to develop, Persisted the user supreme principle, “thought the user thought, the anxious user is anxious”. Our company seriously pledged to you that, Most superior quality! Most inexpensive price! Most arrives service! ... Shandong luck Switzerland auspicious biotechnology limited company zealous welcome general new and old customers presence instruction, discussion service!

A description like this one readily explains why American companies would be grateful to be able to buy Chinese ingredients through experienced intermediaries such as ChemNutra and Wilbur-Ellis

Pet Food Politics tells the story of the massive recalls of pet foods that occurred between March and May 2007. The story begins with a few cats getting sick with kidney disease soon after eating foods produced by a Canadian manufacturer, Menu Foods. It continues to this very day with reports of infant formulas making thousands of infants in China sick with kidney disease.

The common ingredient in these incidents is an industrial chemical called melamine, usually used to make plastic dinnerware. Chinese manufacturers fraudulently added melamine to wheat or rice protein ingredients in pet foods or to milk in infant formula to make these foods look higher in protein. Melamine is high in nitrogen. Tests for protein look only at nitrogen and don’t care where it comes from. When asked, Chinese manufacturers said they did this because melamine was cheaper and didn’t matter for pets.

The book investigates the pet food scandal. It asks the usual questions: who knew what and when did they know it? In this case, because this was “just pet food,” nobody took the problem seriously at first. But as the recalls grew to encompass not only pet foods but also pigs, chickens, and fish intended for human food, the scandal became major.

They also produced many striking revelations. Who knew that 100 brands of pet foods were made by one manufacturer? Who knew that surplus pet foods were fed to farm animals—pigs and chickens? Who knew that many of the ingredients in pet and human food were imported from China? Who knew that the FDA only inspected 1% or less of imported foods and ingredients? Who knew that China hardly had any control over the safety of its food supply? Hence: Pet Food Politics.

By page 99, I am tracing the chain of production and distribution of melamine-laced rice protein concentrate through an intermediary, Shandong Flourishing Biotechnology Company. This company then shipped it to another company which, in turn, shipped it to the American distributor, Wilbur-Ellis. No wonder pet food companies had no idea where their ingredients came from! The manufacturer of “wheat gluten” did something even more creative: to avoid inspection it shipped the ingredient via a textile company that exported it under the guise of silk scarves.

The moral: until China gets its food safety act under control, buy local. Hence: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.
Learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website, Marion Nestle's website, and the What to Eat blog.

--Marshal Zeringue