LEXINGTON, KY. -- Pet food recalls, and pet food with ingredients imported from China are intertwined issues very much on the minds of pet owners. Mark Lyons, vice president of Corporate Affairs for nutrition giant Alltech, who is based in China, is eager to speak about these issues, and some of his responses are surprising.
"Increasingly, China is focusing more on feeding their own population" says Lyons, also a committee member of the Chinese Toxicology Association. "I see the trend of China exporting product being reversed, to importing more from countries including the U.S." In other words, Lyons is suggesting that soon enough, China may need the U.S. more than we need China as a trade partner.
Food safety is also important to Alltech. In 2007, thousands of pets in the U.S. were sickened or killed as a result of adulterated pet food. It turned out the problem was caused by a criminal act in China, where toxic melamine and cyanuric acid were unlawfully added to pet food to falsely mimic protein.
"Food adulteration and criminal acts regarding food are pretty unique to China," says Lyons. "They have so many middle-men involved, and all are concerned about financial expectations and margins. But that culture, which encourages deceit, is changing. The (Chinese) government is increasingly concerned about food safety."
That concern isn't enough to convince millions of concerned U.S. consumers, particularly since pet jerky treats from China remain a source of frustration for pet owners, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
As of May 1, the FDA has received approximately 4,800 reports of pet illnesses which may be related to consumption of the jerky treats, some dating back to 2007. The reports involve more than 5,600 dogs, over 20 cats, and also now three people; and include more than 1,000 canine deaths. While there have been spotty recalls, most of these products remain available.
Last year, the FDA again dispatched inspectors to China to discern what was going on with the jerky treats, and independent scientific inspectors also knocked on the doors of manufacturing facilities. The experts were either unable to determine what was going wrong, or not even given that chance because they were refused access.
Lyons concedes, at least for now, that avoiding jerky treats from China might be prudent. He also understands how U.S. pet owners have become gun shy about all products produced in China.
The problem is that even many foods (for pets or people) made in the U.S. likely have some ingredients sourced from China. For example, Lyons notes that 70 percent of the world's vitamin E is from China.
"This is not a tenable situation, is it?" says Lyons. "We definitely need to begin to produce these products in America. I understand labor and cost issues, but the Chinese aren't the low-cost producers they were."
Pet owners aren't solely worried about the Chinese; some U.S. companies are suspect, as well. During 2011, 26 U.S. pet food companies issued recalls for 131 pet food products. In 2012, 24 companies recalled 67 foods, and a plethora of recalls have continued to this date.
"It's not completely bad news," explains Dr. Patrick Wall, a professor of public health at the University College Dublin, and chair of the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency Advisory Group. "Pet food companies don't want to issue recalls, but worse would be suffering the consequences of knowing about a problem and not issuing a voluntary recall. Also, we don't want people becoming ill (which can happen when the recall is due to food tainted with salmonella, which is the most common cause of U.S. pet food recalls). "
"I see it as good news that pet food companies are being responsible and proactive by issuing recalls," says Juan Gomez-Bassauri, Alltech global director-Companion Animal Business. "The recalls tell me systems are in place to protect pets and their families."
Gomez-Bassauri says that while recalls may be more prevalent today, it's not as if they never occurred 20 years ago. "However, pet owners decades ago may have never known about recalls, while today the second a recall occurs it's all over the Internet."
"I travel around the world," adds Gomez-Bassauri. "I understand the frustration people have, and while there's no excuse for inadequate food safety, our food is safer than anywhere in the world."
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)
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