Plants that manufacture dog and cat food are not routinely inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and it wasn't until federal officials received recent reports of pets dying from kidney failure that they went to the Emporia, Kan., pet food factory operated by Menu Foods.
Menu issued a recall of suspect products Friday. All are "wet" foods sold in cans and pouches, many with labels indicating the products are "cuts" and gravies.
"There are limited resources. We focus on pre-approval of animal drugs" and on animal food that contains medications, said David Elder, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. Inspections of companion animals' food products "are more on a for-cause basis. It's based on risk."
Mr. Elder indicated that federal officials inspect or investigate pet food plants when there have been past problems or complaints from consumers.
His comments came yesterday in a 30-minute telephone news conference with reporters throughout the country.
With the manufacture of food for companion animals, companies "are absolutely supposed to have their own quality assurance programs," Mr. Elder said. There are government standards and regulations for the production of pet foods and companies are expected to comply.
Menu Foods, based in Canada, manufactures food for 40 brands of cat food and 51 brands of dog food.
On Feb. 20, the company started receiving complaints from pet owners about kidney failure and death among cats and dogs, the FDA reported Monday.
Menu Foods alerted the FDA Thursday night, said Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. He could not explain why the company waited nearly a month after complaints began arriving before recalling the pet foods and contacting government officials.
Dr. Sundlof fielded most of the questions from reporters yesterday in the telephone news conference. His remarks included some corrections to information that was released by the FDA on Monday.
"There are 14 confirmed deaths -- one dog and 13 cats," Dr. Sundlof said yesterday. Nine of the cats were animals used in what he described as "company tasting trials." Four of the cats and the dog were "companion animals" owned by consumers. On Monday, FDA officials had said the company was reporting the deaths of 17 animals.
The test animals that died were involved in quarterly taste tests routinely done by Menu. The animals were not intentionally given tainted food, as earlier FDA reports had indicated.
"The company was testing to see if animals find the food palatable," Dr. Sundlof said yesterday.
The FDA and Menu Foods are collecting information from consumers about animals that got sick and died after eating tainted food. Dr. Sundlof said the numbers of affected animals have not been tallied and he could not provide an estimate.
"One would be too many," the veterinarian said of pet deaths. Right now officials are focusing their efforts on investigating the cause of the food contamination.
Government officials are now saying the recalled foods came from Menu's Kansas plant, and not from a second plant in Pennsauken, N.J.
"The FDA is doing everything possible to identify the problem, including obtaining samples and reviewing the manufacturing process," Dr. Sundlof said. "The company still suspects the problem came from a change in their wheat gluten supplier."
Menu is no longer using that supplier.
While the FDA is trying to trace the sources of Menu's wheat gluten, officials are looking at other products and ingredients, including substances that are known to be toxic to the kidneys of dogs and cats.
Wheat gluten is used in wet pet foods to thicken the gravy, Dr. Sundlof said, and is apparently not used in the production of dry and kibble foods. Dry pet foods have not been involved in the deaths or recalls.
Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.