Sunday, May 06, 2007

The late Friday blip of further recalls has eased, and we'll see how many the next week brings. Back on April 26th the FDA said that they "don't have anything else that we expect to emerge". This was said when Kirkland Foods had announced a recall just before the FDA press conference, a recall that the FDA was unaware of. Since then further waves of recalls have crashed on this complacent shore. The problems with the FDA and its inspections(or lack thereof) have been repeatedly brought to light during the development of this affair. Diedtra Henderson of the Boston Globe tackled this question in an article dated May 1st. She notes that the odds of "getting caught" for dishonest food exporters are quite slim. While the number of products imported to the USA had skyrocketed the percentage "inspected" by the FDA had plummeted in the face of declining staff numbers.
This means that despite reassurances from the FDA that some feel that there are more food poisonings on the horizon. An article in Consumer Affairs on April 28th quotes Dr. Gary Weaver of the Program on Agriculture and Animal Health Policy at the University of Maryland as saying that the FDA "appears to be some 30 years behind as they use pre-global economy border food inspection strategies in our new global economy world of massive international food trade". The article goes on to note the difficulty in tracing such imports should a problem arise because they have often changed hands multiple times before arriving on American shores. The problems with the FDA inspection regime and how it has been gutted by the Bush regime are discussed at further length in this article in the Baltimore Sun.
Despite repeated assurances from the FDA ( see also this more recent article)that the threat from melamine that has entered the human food chain via mix fed to hogs and chickens is minimal the potential harm that could be done to people is an unknown at this time. Realistically the actual threat level is unknown. The chemicals involved may indeed be diluted by the time then reach the dinner plate. On the other hand they may not, particularly in certain organs. If I were you I'd swear off eating kidneys for some time. No loss to Molly's taste, but a hardship to some I guess.
The ability of the FDA to actually protect the public may be limited by things other than simple budgetary constraints. How this plays out is illustrated by stories that have appeared in the press just today, one in the International Herald Tribune and another in even greater depth in the New York Times. Diethylene glycol, related to ethylene glycol, is the prime ingredient in antifreeze and has many other industrial uses. Anybody familiar with veterinary medicine knows all about the commonality of antifreeze poisoning in animals. What is less well known to veterinarians- and seemingly the FDA as well-see later- is that it has become a major source of human poisoning over the years because it has been added to such products as cough syrups, fever medication, injectable drugs, toothpaste and others because it is less expensive than glycerin. Over the past few decades there have been thousands of human deaths attributable to such adulterated products. A 1995 article in the British Medical Journal by Dr. Michael Bennish, a pediatrician who works in developing countries, about a 1992 epidemic of childhood deaths due contamination of 7 different brands of fever medication in Bangladesh concluded that, given the amount of medication distributed, deaths "must be in the thousands or tens of thousands". Most of these dead children would never have been seen by a doctor. As Dr. Bennish says about poor countries, "most people who die don't come to a medical facility".
The latest victim of this scam is Panama. Last September government officials in that country mixed up large batches of cough medication anticipating a spike of respiratory disease during the rainy season. The supposed glycerin had arrived from China via Barcelona. Cases of poisoning began to show up in late September. The epidemic at first appeared baffling, and infectious causes such as Guillain-Barre syndrome were suspected as well as the blood pressure medication Lisinopril. All of these were false leads. It was the cough syrup. Hundreds of deaths resulted. Bodies are still being exhumed today for legal reasons and to gauge the actual death toll.
The falsified "glycerin" came from China, and three out of the last four outbreaks of this poisoning have been traced to Chinese sources. China itself has experienced outbreaks of this antifreeze poisoning. There is, however, a supreme irony lurking here. This sort of adulteration of medicine with antifreeze 70 years ago was one of the scandals that led to the creation of the American FDA. The FDA itself did the analysis for the Panamanians that identified the poison as they did in the deaths of 88 children in Haiti a decade ago. Yet the last major "catch" of bogus glycerin imported by the USA in 1995 was found not by the FDA but by the Chicago drug company Avatar who tested the materials in a shipment that the FDA claimed to be totally unaware of. Have a look at the New York Times article for a trackback of the Panamanian, Spanish and Chinese companies involved.
All of this is lead in. With a bit of a fire lit under their ass by the pet food scandal the bureaucrats at the FDA issued an advisory about diethylene glycol to manufacturers a full 2 days ago on Friday, May 4th. Love that speed. This advisory gives a lot of the history about this problem dating back to the 1930s even if it grossly underplays the number of deaths that have resulted. One wonders if this advisory would have been issued at all if the pet food poisonings had not gotten such media play. This sort of sloth and glacial speed cannot be corrected by simply throwing more money at the FDA. It says something about their whole bureaucratic culture. Seems that people deserve a little more protection than this. The pet food scandal is merely the tip of the iceberg.
A Few Odds And Ends:
According to the Itchmo Blog (links available there) American Nutrition has capped the compensation offered pet owners whose animals have died from their foods at $500. An article in the US magazine In These Times points out how difficult it may be for bereaved pet owners to obtain possible compensation from income trusts such as Menu Foods as well as mentioning other rather scandalous things about common practices in the Pet Food Industry. The title is 'Poisoning Pets with Industrial Foods'. Worth a look. A Molly thanks to Jeff from Sudbury for this item.
Another newspaper article from the Arizona paper The Republic caught my eye as well. It's basically relating the experiences of an Arizona veterinarian, Dr. Alex MacKenizie, with the recall. His quotation is, "That's been an eye opener for even someone like me" in reference to the fact that so many brands of pet food are made in the same plant with the same ingredients. Molly too. Molly has always known that the pet food industry was slightly "bent" and that a lot of relabelling was going on with the same food sold under different labels with different prices. As she said to many people, "You pay for the advertising". What was a surprise was the full extent of this practice as revealed by this recall. Molly is now leaning towards viewing the pet food industry with the same jaundiced eye as she views health food quackery where getting a product that actually contains what it says it does is a matter of pure chance and where nothing works the way it is claimed to. Unlike health food quackery and the "natural fad" ,however, the pet food scam doesn't have legions of vocal upper class politically savvy supporters who worship it. It actually has the potential for reform.
Which brings us to another news item. As reported in Consumer Affairs and in an Associated Press news release, the US Senate has unanimously passed an amendment by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) calling for early warning system for pet food products, fines for companies who don't report contaminated products, improvement of inspections and also improved pet food safety standards. The vote was 95 to 0. Molly wonders when was the last time there was an unanimous vote in the US Senate. All that is missing from the legislation is giving the FDA the power to issue mandatory recalls, and Senator Durbin says that he plans to continue to work towards that goal.
On other matters there's a recall issued recently that Molly missed. The Castor and Pollix Company has issued a recall of their 4 Natural Ultramix Canned Feline Formulas due to cross contamination at the Menu Foods plant. Their press release details their recall. Now as a regular reader should be aware every time Molly sees somebody trumpeting words like "natural" or "organic" she puts them in the same category as those you don't flash a fat wallet in front of when in a line-up at 7-11. Anyways, hopefully those who are thrilled by such adjectives may see what Dr. MacKenzie mentioned above and I have seen. Molly continues to advise her readers to keep up with the AVMA comprehensive list as well as the daily reports from the Itchmo Blog and the Pet Connection for reports of the daily recalls that may still be coming.
One final item. The Pet Hobbyist site plans to hold a panel discussion on the whole matter of the recall this Tuesday, May 8th at 10:00 pm ET. Panelists will include reps from Itchmo, Pet Connection, PetSitUSA, ThePetFoodList and PetFood Tracker, all bloggers who have done so much to keep pet owners up to date on the situation over the last two months, something the FDA seemed reluctant to do. As Molly said before this is an example of the value of the blogosphere in keeping the public informed. Information appears in one place and is almost instantly transferred to other places without a bureaucratic filter. Anarchy in action dare I suggest? How systems self organize themselves ?
That's it for now. I'm sure I'll have more to report tomorrow or even later today. But for now Molly has finally gotten to the bottom of the printouts on this matter and added them all to the tall, tottering stack of "processed" info on the pet food recall. I better get a box for the paper before it falls over.
Big smile Molly. A task is done.

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