Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pet Food Recalls: Does the pet food industry require federal watch dogs?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier today was conducting a discussion titled Pet food industry in trouble involving a number of pet owners directly impacted by the problems, their vets and pet store owners, all one way or the other related to the current events on the Australian pet food market. The discussion was introduced as follows: “Recent claims by pet owners and vets that dogs and cats have been poisoned by contaminated, imported pet food has thrown the spotlight on the largely unregulated pet food industry. Vets and pet owners are calling for a government watchdog to oversee the pet food industry, claiming that at the moment the industry relies too much on self regulation.” As you may or may not recall, I wrote comments on a related event (FDA cautioning against chicken jerky treats mainly based on events occurring in Australia “FDA Continues To Receive Complaints about Chicken Jerky Products for Dogs and Cautions Consumers” and about the Orijen involvement on 11/27/08 “Recall Update” and also addressed this case in our “Recall Alert” (for informational purposes only since the recall was not issued in the US). While I haven’t done any further investigation on the Australian company since we here in the States are in no shape or form to be concerned about their problem, I keep an open ear and eye on Orijen and how things develop. Orijen to this day insists that the issue was completely related to pet food sold in Australia only and does not affect any of their food sold in the United States. Therefore I kindly ask readers of our alert and this comment to keep that particularly important statement in mind when making pro or contra Orijen purchasing decisions.
Coming back to the broadcast, it was mentioned that “while the company (Orijen) exports its popular cat food to more than a dozen countries it says only Australia has experienced the disease outbreak and blames Australia's irradiation for the problem. Under Australian quarantine laws all imported pet food has to be irradiated or heat treated, to kill off potential diseases. Pet food is required to be irradiated at a rate of 50 times that required on some imported fruits. Unlike food for human consumption there are no laws that require pet food to be labeled as irradiated. Australian quarantine declined to speak to the 7.30 Report but in a statement says Australia's irradiation standards are based on international guidelines and on advice from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.”
It appears at this point that Orijen is not really directly to blame for the incident since federal import regulations require irradiation for pet food, even though this irradiation is to be done at levels way higher than required for human food imports.
However, while everybody involved seems to understand the “catch 22” situation, they do have a problem with how the company made pet owners aware of the problem, in particular, how long it took for a recall to be issued. Everybody seems to feel that many cats’ lives may have been saved if the issue would have been brought up in a speedier manner. As one pet food store owner put it: “For Champion Pet Foods to be aware that there is a potential problem and say nothing, I think is totally irresponsible.” The reporter running the show adds: “Champion says its products were safe when they left the factory and it took time to understand the effects of irradiation.” In addition, there is another issue being brought up, which is whether or not Orijen threatened anybody directly involved in the incident “with legal action if …(they) spoke out against the Orijen product.” This goes even so far that a pet owner raises the suspicion “Champion had threatened her with legal action if she said anything publicly. So two weeks had gone by where cats are continuing to consume the cat food, no one had any indication that there was a problem, Champion had made quite the opposite of making people aware there's a problem - they blocked the people who knew there was a problem from telling everyone”.
Orijen in a company statements responded: "We have not threatened anyone with legal action. However we have hired legal representation in Australia and we will be active in defending ourselves from slanderous comments."
I would say good points are being made on both sides. There is in my opinion definitely the issue of definitely improvable communication. I have yet to experience an industry where communication is slower or more absent than in the pet food one. I am criticizing this problem since we started our pet food business. It is common on the manufacturer’s side as well as within the distribution and it concerns every aspect of the business, whether it is products with problems, discontinued or new products or any other changes, regardless whether they are good or bad. We typically learn about facts when it is too late. The only things being well communicated are price increases and any incentives to buy more product. Many times in the past I had questions about health issues either factual or only possibly related to products and it is always like pulling teeth, very hard to get response in timely fashion. In the meantime I have concerned pet owners on the other end of the phone who rightfully are entitled to immediate answers and they want them now. Yes, pet owners do understand, they are not the most important item on your agenda and you manufacturers certainly are not sitting on your computer waiting for an e-mail inquiry from a concerned pet owner to come in, but, please keep in mind, pet owners do contribute to your survival by feeding your product to their (how many million?) pets. I always say, if you have a clean conscience then there is absolutely no reason for any delays. Especially after the 2007 recall every manufacturer regardless whether they are high caliper/volume mass producers or small to medium sized and health conscious, should understand how important the pet owners’ confidence in their products is. I am sorry to come across this harsh. I love this business and our dream of a world of healthy and happy pets too much that I would want to upset my business partners. But I will continue my fight to achieve improvements in this matter.
One of my favorite experts in this business, Susan Thixton addressed this topic in her newsletter as well. Follow up Report from Australian News on Orijen Cat Food, Chicken Dog Treats. Susan’s take on this is “While unsubstantiated stories of a bad pet food can spread like wild fire on the Internet, causing pet owners to panic, and more than likely company profits to fall, is it fair for a pet food company or pet product supplier to keep veterinarians or other concerned parties quiet? … Personally I agree with the pet owners in the Australian story; there is NO excuse for a pet food or pet supply company to prevent veterinarians or concerned parties to inform the public of a potential problem. Should the pet food company or pet supply company be found later not to be the cause, they should count their blessings and feel good they did the right thing. The right thing is to inform anyone and everyone the instant there is even the slightest possibility of a problem; the goal would be to prevent more pet illnesses and deaths. Companies that care more about profits than pets, well, be assured – pet owners will NOT forget who you are. Companies that care more about pets – we’ll remember you too.”
My opinion is, being idealistic to the point of “Should the pet food company or pet supply company be found later not to be the cause, they should count their blessings and feel good…” is stretching it pretty far. There has to be fair consideration for facts and unsubstantiated claims. As she states correctly, the damage of unsubstantiated claims can be serious. so serious that it can ruin especially a small business. The business which typically does not have a recall problem and does not import ingredients from China, the business which does very often everything right. So I’d say we should not expect them to capitulate because we as pet owners feel sorry about ourselves based on an unsubstantiated claim. Another good example would be the current stories surrounding DogsWell. (FDA and DogsWell Breathies Chicken Treats for Dogs: More pro’s and con’s of information sharing on the Internet) Now should we expect DogsWell to cave in and just in order to be on the safe side recall or stop selling its products concerned in the case? Because of a mistake made by the FDA? And with regards to whether pet owners will remember who was naughty or nice, it is a fact that mass marketed pet foods still are being sold without too many losses since 2007. Despite the fact that they continue to show up on recall lists. The smaller brands are loosing business because they are more costly. Pet owners, like we all do, unfortunately forget too fast. Like the fact that the smaller brand is the good one. For their very own, possibly economical reasons they revert back to buying the bad guys’ products, the ones who are famous for a lot of reasons, except a good one. Therefore this argument does not count.
Here is an idea: How about sticking to the truth and nothing but the truth? That would really go a long way with and for everybody, regardless whether they make pet food, control pet food, sell pet food, buy pet food or, most important are our pets and eat pet food.
Another subject to the discussion was the question if the Australian government should get more involved by overseeing and stricter regulating the pet food industry which currently is pretty much self regulated. In the broadcast everybody felt more federal involvement is in order. I for my part say let’s look at our situation here in the US. We do have a FDA. We have AAFCO. We also had a disaster in 2007. Despite these organizations. Therefore, if structured in any shape or form like the current ones, I don’t see a lot of benefits coming out of it. The basic idea was a great one. Maybe the Australian government takes a good look as to what needs to be done to make such institutions effective and useful in a more realistic manner. And then our people could get together with their people and figure out how to do it right.

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