Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Pet food politics

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Marion Nestle is an important writer on food and the food industry. Unlike most writers on the topic, she has a secure (tenured) position (Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University). Moreover, she doesn’t depend on grants from the food industry, so she can publish even findings unpleasing to the food industry. She has a blog, and she wrote a very important book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, which I highly recommend.

Murray Whyte of recently interviewed her. The interview begins:

In March 2007, Menu Foods, a Mississauga-based pet food manufacturer, issued a massive recall. The reason: Melamine, a polymer used to make countertops and glue, among other things, was causing so much trauma to the kidneys of cats and dogs that some had to be euthanized.

It’s the same substance found in tainted milk formula that has sickened more than 50,000 babies in China and Hong Kong this month. Two days ago, H.J. Heinz Co., as a precautionary measure, recalled a small batch of vegetable cereal baby food in Hong Kong that showed trace levels of melamine.

Tracking how melamine ended up in the products of North America’s largest pet food maker is the thrust of Pet Food Politics, the new book by Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health. What follows is an edited version of a phone interview she gave last week from New York.

The book starts with the Menu Foods recall but isn’t restricted to the pet-food industry.

I didn’t do a book on this because of the emotional attachment of pet owners to their dogs and cats. I saw it as a huge gap in the food-safety system. And guess what? It is. And it’s everywhere. I just got something from a reporter that says melamine has turned up in candy in New Zealand. Chinese-made candy, of course.

Melamine is plastic, isn’t it?

Yes. Plastic dinnerware, that sort of thing. The production of it leaves an industrial scrap, and it must be water-soluble. So this scrap is very high in nitrogen, and it looks like protein when you test for it. The fraudulent use of it goes back 30 or 40 years, at least. In the ’60s they showed that it killed sheep, so you knew right away that it was toxic. In Italy in the 1970s, melamine contamination of animal feed was so common, they developed a test for it. They found that 60 per cent of the fish feed in Italy was contaminated.

Manufacturers know this stuff is toxic but choose not to test for it. The obvious question is why?

Protein is expensive. Melamine is cheap. And these are unscrupulous producers who are only interested in making money in a hurry. This is rampant, unbridled capitalism in action. This is the kind of thing that was done in the U.S. before we had food and drug laws. And one would hope that China will do the same.

One of the revelations about the pet-food recall was the number of ingredients that were coming from China. The reason everybody had gone to China to get wheat gluten, for example, was because nobody made it here – it was too expensive. A number of pet-food companies told me they had to go to China to get ingredients because they couldn’t source them here.

Most of us just assume that, in the West, we have a whole litany of protective measures when it comes to something as essential as our food supply.

No, we don’t. We don’t have farm-to-table food safety in the United States. Absolutely not. We have a food safety system that begins with animals at the slaughterhouse, and vegetables whenever they appear – certainly not at the farm. We only have oversight of vegetables for sprouts and fruit juices.

Why those two?

Because they caused problems, and the FDA, during the Clinton administration, was able to require food-safety regulations for those two products because of it.

So there has to be a problem, first, before any kind of enforcement comes to bear?

When I’m at my most cynical, I’ll say it has to be a very big problem that personally affects the family of a very important senator. Without that, I don’t think we’ll get any movement on it at all.

So if Cindy McCain were to eat some bad clams…

That’s right.

That’s extremely cynical.

Isn’t it, though? But I actually believe that. That’s why we have (problems with contaminated) spinach two years ago, and tomatoes, or jalapenos, or cilantro this year – they still don’t know. And I believe you have a little listeria problem up there, don’t you?

Indeed. It’s been a terror. But you hope more rigorous standards will come of these things.

Yes, you’d hope. But …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2008 at 11:27 am

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