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Pet-food safety: Does FDA measure up?
Scripps Howard News Service


February 05, 2010
Friday AM

WASHINGTON - Three years after thousands of outraged pet owners complained that contaminated food was killing their cats and dogs, Congress is considering measures aimed at making sure it doesn't happen again.

A Senate bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is intended to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It is awaiting debate.

In the House, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, sponsored by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., was passed last July. It would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority.

The bad-pet-food problem occurred in 2007 when Menu Foods Unlimited, one of the largest makers of cat and dog foods, was found to be selling melamine-contaminated food. Melamine is a synthetic chemical with a variety of industrial uses, including the production of resins and foams, cleaning products, fertilizers and pesticides. Ingested in sufficient amounts, melamine can result in kidney failure and death.

Approximately 18,000 consumers complained about the pet food, many saying that their cats and dogs grew seriously ill or died after eating Menu Foods products.

Over a six-week period ending in late April 2007, the FDA oversaw a voluntary recall of the food.

Those recalls, along with the peanut-butter scandal and others, prompted Congress to act.

"There was a general feeling that there was so much imported food coming in and so much going on domestically that the FDA needed to get more resources to start testing and ensure food safety," said Mark Mansour, a lawyer who specializes in FDA issues and represented Menu Foods during the recalls.

"The Senate agenda is still pretty much in flux," Mansour said.

The House version of the bill "is likely to be stronger," he said. "The Senate might have some questions on the scope of mandatory recalls."

Michael Markarian, chief operating officer at the Humane Society of the United States, said the bills will give the FDA more authority to control recalls and to make sure poisonous materials don't come in from abroad. Still, the bills will not completely solve the problem.

"We do believe there are still some gaps in the system," Markarian said.

Meanwhile, the Humane Society launched a line of pet food on Wednesday called Humane Choice.

"We wanted there to be another choice in the marketplace for pet owners who wanted safe, organic, natural pet food," Markarian said.

The Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general reported the results of its review of FDA oversight last August. The report was less than optimistic.

"FDA did not always follow its procedures in overseeing the Menu Foods recalls," Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson said in the report. "Furthermore, FDA's procedures were not always adequate for monitoring recalls as large as those of Menu Foods."

The FDA doesn't have the authority to force manufacturers to recall food, he said.

"FDA's lack of authority, coupled with its sometimes lax adherence to its recall guidance and internal procedures and the inadequacy of some of those procedures," make it difficult for the FDA to ensure that contaminated pet food was promptly removed from retailers' shelves, he said.

Levinson recommended that the FDA seek authority to mandate food recalls and penalize firms that don't comply. He said the FDA should try to make it illegal for companies to avoid recalling dangerous items when the FDA orders them to do so. As of now, the FDA can do little but offer suggestions.

In a written response to the report, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said the "unprecedented size and scope of the recall" caused the agency to ask the states for voluntary assistance.

The FDA had to use its limited resources to handle the public threat this "extraordinary outbreak" presented, he said.

Sharfstein agreed with most of the inspector general's recommendations.

Max Gleischman, Durbin's press secretary, said the Senate bill could come up soon.

"It's a bill that has strong bipartisan support," he said.



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