PET FOOD AND SECRECY
Written by Gary Alexander
In dedication to 9-year-old Jizo, who died of renal failure in the early stages of the recall. We miss you, boy.
Those who have been following the twisting course of the ongoing PET FOOD recall crisis have been privileged to witness a remarkable exercise in slight-of-hand, deception and deceit on the part of a corporate media culture determined to keep an already explosive story from detonating fully. With few exceptions, the key words underlying the crisis have been kept out of the debate for an alarming and disheartening reason…
In retrospect, the mysterious wave of deaths from acute renal failure and similar illnesses had begun to rise last year but failed to attract widespread attention until early March. Kidney failure has, in fact, been a leading cause of pet death for over a decade but the toll was rising dramatically in 2007. The first company to issue a recall notice, after it was observed that “routine” taste tests in February were killing one in six of their test animals, was the Canadian distributor, Menu Foods, who initially recalled over 60 million cans of “wet food.”
At the time the recall was announced, an employee of the NY State Health Department confided that a rodent poison named ‘aminopterin’ had been detected in pet food samples by a state lab but, like so much else in this episode, the idea that folic acid-inhibiting rat poison (detected in only two samples, according to an early story on the recall), suggestive of other symptoms which should have been present but were not, could have contaminated 873 hundred tons of wheat gluten destined for pet food just didn’t add up even in a layman’s mind. Cornell University quickly entered the investigation but, like the FDA, failed to confirm the aminopterin traces.
Toward the end of the month, the new villain was announced to be the industrial chemical melamine, which was present in the urine of affected animals but, in none of the readily available studies, displayed anywhere near the toxicity levels that would account for the lethal results reported. Again, the idea that a chemical contaminant could infect so many tons of wheat protein also seemed unlikely, prompting suspicions that something else was going on.
Locally, the extent of the secrecy became evident last month when attempts to gauge the impact on pets of the Catskill-Hudson Valley region of the Food and Drug Administration’s national recall of some brands of dog and cat food were met with one of two typical responses from local veterinarians. If no deaths had been reported, area vets and animal hospitals would announce that they had performed some “blood work” for concerned pet owners but no fatalities had been recorded. Responses from other vets when asked about pet fatalities, however, were more along the lines of an ambiguous “We’re only dealing with the (pet) food (company) representatives and we can’t give out that information.”
Since Menu Foods, as lawsuits began being filed in late March, announced that they would be responsible for veterinarian bills proven to associated with the recall, it would seem apparent that some sort of secrecy provision was attached these arrangements. Secrecy and misdirection, in fact, seemed to attend almost every aspect of the recall to the extent that, for weeks in March and early April, the FDA website’s recall page, which withheld vital information about the brand names involved at a critical time, played down the threat by listing pet fatalities in the teens—a number that was reflected in major media coverage until the Associated Press released their first story on the crisis, by Andrew Bridges, on April 9th, advancing an estimate of 39,000 injured animals.
Meanwhile, as websites maintained by veterinarian associations and pet-owner groups were posting deaths in the thousands by the end of March, National Public Radio ran a recall story in early April citing the FDA figure of 17. On the same day, 3,168 dead pets had been recorded in a survey by a pet-owner site. [As of April 28, 2007, 4,546 pets have been reported as deceased.]
As pet-owners scrambled to keep up with the new names being added to the recall list of over a hundred brands, some of them checking Internet listings twice a day because of media sluggishness on the issue, it was websites like Pet Connection, Itchmo, Howl911 and others which provided the most valuable insights and updates on what was really happening. Their message boards flowed with accounts from bereaved pet-owners—some of whom had just lost the most precious and dependable presence in their life—carefully detailing exactly what they had been feeding their pets, which symptoms developed and what actions they took. It was only by monitoring these heartrending accounts that shoppers could anticipate the next brands to be recalled. In many cases, this saved animal lives.
The web pages of the PET FOOD companies themselves were generally defensive and, well, corporate—to a point that even the Financial Times ran a story advising them adopt a more sensitive and tempered approach. But denial held sway even as reports flooded in and brands like Alpo, produced by the Swiss corporation Nestlé, remained on the “safe” list, inflating sales until the company finally slipped out its recall announcement at a 4 AM weekend “press conference.”
While the full scope of this story cannot even be approached in the space available in these pages, some urgent points still ignored in major media need to at least be touched upon. The heart of the story isn’t about PET FOOD companies or supermarkets but rather about corporate culture and the national news media which has, as part of that culture, been largely missing in action on these developments—just as it was on related issues leading up to this point. It is also about public agencies serving as little more than appendages of the industries they’re supposedly designed to regulate. It is also the sorry story of the corporate corruption of science by CEOs with their heads up their bottom lines.
The missing words in this crisis are ‘genetically modified.’ They are words Cornell, a GM-foods advocate closely associated with the leading biotech firm Monsanto, kept out of the discourse when it leaped in to assume its prominent role in the testing. Wheat gluten has never been demonstrated to be lethally toxic—nor has melamine. The same can not be said for genetically engineered wheat and that is the elephant in the room that stands behind the stalling and cover-up in this case. Aminopterin, an anti-metabolite which, aside from its brief and aborted career as a rodent toxin and cancer “drug”, is more commonly used as a DNA-marker in genetic engineering through the bio-resistance it provokes. Melamine may have been illegally added to boost the protein readings of the product but that’s a question that avoids the central facts.
In the twists and turns of this saga, a Las Vegas firm called ChemNutra was named by Menu Foods as the primary supplier of the “contaminated” wheat gluten. ChemNutra, which according to their own website seems to qualify for the benefits allotted to a minority or woman-owned company though it handles tens of millions of dollars in nutraceutival chemicals a year, pointed the finger at XuZhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, Ltd, a Chinese trading firm that, in turn, denied involvement with the suspect gluten. ChemNutra’s owners, New York attorney Stephen S. Miller and his wife Sally Qing Miller, have mixed credentials. Sally has a degree in Food Chemical Engineering from Hanzhou Institute of Commerce in Hanzhou, China, a nation currently spending $500 million annually on biotechnical research. Stephen, who testified before Senator Richard Durbin’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, worked with the E.F. Hutton Group in the 1980s when it was led by Scott Pierce (brother-in-law of then-Vice President George Bush—an association which may help explain why the FDA delayed naming ChemNutra when it identified XuZhou) who entered guilty pleas to 2000 criminal counts of fraud as the brokerage firm disintegrated in the organized crime “Pizza Connection” drug money laundering scandal. (The firm’s remains survive under the Smith Barney-Citigroup banner).
During this decade, investment in emerging biotechnology soared as incentives developed under the administration’s urging and, by 1992, GM foods had been approved for human consumption by the FDA’s decision that its content was “substantially similar” to foods which are not genetically manipulated and, so, could enter the marketplace without specific safety testing.
Due in large part to intensive lobbying and an aggressive Public Relations campaign to overcome consumer reluctance by Monsanto and other industry giants, engineered foods—even vegetables with human genes inserted did not have to be labeled in the American marketplace.
Bioscientists have recently produced an animal which is 85% sheep and 15% human. Lamb chops, anyone?
The GM food industry seeks to overcome consumer hesitation to eat produce with cross-species genes by claiming widespread benefits to farmers and a promise to conquer world hunger. Each of their claims is countered by groups like the Soil Association (click here to download their 68 page fact book, Seeds of Doubt), Greenpeace International, Science In Society, GMWatch, Network of Concerned Farmers and many other citizen and environmental groups. Those opposing the “GM revolution” commonly point out the industry’s failure to fulfill their glowing promises, characterize the introduction of GM crops as premature at best and projecting irreversible ecological damage and unprecedented monumental human disaster at worst. Farmers today are faced with concerns about cross pollination, market rejection and liability just for starters. New laws in Iraq dictate that farmers there cannot use their own seeds. The prime beneficiaries in all of this are seen as the biotech companies themselves, who can patent the life-forms they create and profit at every stage of the food chain.
As co-president of Monsanto’s agricultural sector, Robert Fraley, proclaimed in 1996, “What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies; it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”
The renowned biochemist, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, noted in a talk at the Franco-British Council Symposium in Paris, France on February 8, 2007: “…manipulation of scientific evidence appears to be the mainstay of the regulatory process. Both the FSA (Food Standards Authority) and the ACNFP (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes) have been operating on the anti-precautionary principle. Not only do they require the public and genuinely independent scientists to prove there is a hazard, they have persistently ignored all evidence of hazards submitted to them and, instead, continue to misinform the public by citing highly flawed studies that claim to find no effect against the latest findings.”
The same situation is present in the telecommunications field where the industry has a tight grip on both the research being conducted and the regulatory agencies. Despite massive evidence of physical effects from non-thermal radio frequency electromagnetic waves and numerous studies linking them to the current rise in maladies from cancer to chronic fatigue and autism, the billions available to the wireless industry have kept a lid on the threats to public health. Studies on the effects of electromagnetic frequencies on bees are finally gaining a bit of attention as Colony Collapse Disorder wipes out hives in electropolluted regions around the world. (Pollen from GM plants is also a suspect in this crisis threatening the food supply although the EMF factor is a more compelling answer to the mystery). Like the PET FOOD recall, many are taking the CCD phenomena as a wake-up call.
Since food industries create the standards for their own testing under our present system, it should not be surprising that Monsanto’s studies are favorable to their designs. But when Greenpeace Germany commissioned an independent study of Monsanto’s data on their transgenic corn MON863, approved for animal and human consumption on the basis of methods found wanting by independent scrutiny, the results were published in the peer-review journal /Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology/ and a follow-up study was reported upon by David Gutierrez of the Campaign for Labeling of GM Foods on April 10, 2007:
“A variety of genetically modified corn that was approved for human consumption in 2006 caused signs of liver and kidney toxicity as well as hormonal changes in rats in a study performed by researchers from the independent Committee for Independent Research and Genetic Engineering at the University of Caen in France.”
The Caen group found damage to the kidneys and livers of test animals as well as hormonal changes and blood abnormalities, possibly perforation of blood cells. GM food advocate Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute responded quickly by pointing out that the “studies have consistently found the variations occurred randomly,” implying that they should then be of little concern. But while the intricacies of molecular biology may be complex, the foundation of the viability of GM food is rather simple and it was demonstrated by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland in the first independent, non-industry studies of GM food in 1998 and the very problem isolated involves “randomness.”
When Pusztai spoke publicly of his findings, he was dismissed by Aberdeen, which was later revealed to have received a $230,000 grant from Monsanto, and his work fiercely attacked. But when Pusztai sent the research protocols to 24 independent scientists in different countries, they verified his conclusions. “The data showed that rats fed the GE potatoes for 10 days suffered serious damage to the immune systems and various organs, including the kidney, stomach, spleen, and brain,” wrote Dr. Richard Wolfson in Biotech News in May 1999.
“GM foods have been introduced on the back of just one published paper. Just one, in fifteen years of GM,” Dr. Pusztai said in an interview. “It was written by a Monsanto scientist and published in 1996…I could take it apart in 10 seconds…the main problem is that the researchers appear to have done their utmost to find no problem.”
The principle which entirely undermines the multi-billion dollar GM industry and potentially explains why some animals are stricken by the GM gluten (and not the incidentally present melamine) and why rice and corn gluten are also suspect is “substantial equivalence.” Dr. Pusztai explains: “We had two transgenic lines of potato produced from the same gene insertion and the same growing conditions; we grew them together along with the parent plant. With our two lines of potato, which should have been substantially equivalent to each other, we found that one of the lines contained 20% less protein than the other. So the two lines were not substantially equivalent to each other. But we also found that these two lines were not substantially equivalent to their parent. This could not be predicted. It demonstrates that the unpredictability is inherent in the GM process on a case by case basis—and also at the level of every single GM plant created.”
Although no one seems to have mentioned it, it would also appear to raise some questions about the intellectual property rights of the patent but that, of course, like a considerable weight of other evidence cannot be considered here.
As it stands, the $38 billion a year PET FOOD industry is dwarfed by the human market and many people are not aware that over 70% of processed foods they buy off grocery store shelves contains GM ingredients. They’d be doubly shocked to learn the percentage of foods, including frozen vegetables, are produced in China. In an already shaky economy, it’s small wonder that the FDA and the other players involved in the recall were determined to avoid the GM factor.
The PET FOOD crisis is an inevitable result of priorities misplaced in the corporate mind. They are priorities which will continue to terrorize shoppers until they are modified by the insertion of human principle. In the world of corporate think, it is conceivable to conjure self-justifying thoughts like — “How utterly contemptible of future generations to threaten this quarter’s profits when they only exist in theory….”