Something To Chew On: Recovering from a crisis

We have ongoing signs that our industry is still strong and continuing to grow. - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

It was about this time a year ago - March 16, 2007, to be exact - that the petfood industry, at least in the US, became aware of some sort of product recall. We started hearing that Menu Foods had issued a precautionary recall of cuts-in-gravy style dog and cat foods because of possible contamination.

What started as "precautionary" and "possible" quickly became a real crisis, as more than 60 million cans and pouches of petfood representing about 100 brands, from economy-priced to superpremium, were pulled from shelves over the ensuing weeks. It seemed nearly every day brought a new recall notice, as another manufacturer's products were implicated, including a few dry foods.

Dozens of pets were reported sickened or killed by petfood contaminated with melamine that had been added to ingredients, wheat flour mislabeled as wheat gluten, plus rice protein, imported from two Chinese suppliers.

One year later

A report issued a couple months ago by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians showed more than 300 North American pets - 236 cats and 112 dogs - had died from eating the contaminated food. (That number may increase, because it included only verifiable cases reported to authorities at that time.)

As we were working on this issue, we received news that a federal grand jury in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, had indicted the two Chinese companies along with ChemNutra, the Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, company that had imported the contaminated ingredients into the US.

And, as reported in recent issues, the US federal government has introduced and, in some cases passed, new laws and regulations affecting petfood safety. At the same time, many manufacturers, those that had products recalled and those fortunate enough to escape direct involvement in the crisis, have been stepping up their safety and testing programs to prevent similar contamination problems in the future. These companies and others have also begun to promote their safety measures to consumers.

The silver lining

Our April issue will include much more in-depth analysis of how the 2007 recalls have affected the industry in the short and long term. Not all the outcomes are negative. A renewed focus on safety can only be a good thing, especially if it might lead to at least closer to adequate funding for US regulatory oversight.

And, we have ongoing signs that our industry is still strong and continuing to grow. Besides hard data, such as sales gains in both the US and global petfood markets, my recent business trips have provided anecdotal evidence:

  • A Feeds & Pet Food Extrusion seminar at Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas, USA) in late January included participants from around the world seeking to learn more about petfood. They represented not just developed markets like Western Europe and North America but also countries from regions starting to come on strong, such as Egypt, Thailand, Romania, Columbia, Mexico and Trinidad.
  • A visit to Novus International Inc. in St. Charles, Missouri, USA, revealed how animal feed ingredient suppliers are beginning to see the huge potential in petfood and are even considering going directly to consumers with retail products.
  • Global Pet Expo, the largest pet trade show in the US (held in San Diego, California, in February this year), showcased dozens of new petfood-related products: potentially category-changing ones such as WholeMeals from Mars, plus lots of premium, natural or organic petfoods and treats (sweet potatoes and exotic animal parts were everywhere, along with functional ingredients).

While we're all still learning from the lessons of the 2007 recalls, I'd say most of the industry is moving quickly ahead.

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