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Read the Label

Pet foods: Be careful what you buy.

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In New York City's East Village, a string of Indian restaurants stretches side-by-side for a block along Sixth Street. The running joke is that tucked behind the row is one kitchen that dishes up the same food for all the restaurants. But while that model makes for urban myth on Sixth Street, it is nearer to corporate reality when it comes to pet foods.

A 2007 recall of possibly poisoned cat and dog food revealed that Canadian-based Menu Foods Income Fund produced ingredients that ended up in 100 brands of pet foods manufactured in two U.S. plants. No one knows how many pets ate the tainted chow before companies recalled 60 million cans, pouches, biscuits, kibbles, and treats. The Food and Drug Administration listed 250 different flavors of recalled cat food alone.

Menu Foods' suspect ingredient was 1.7 million pounds of wheat gluten imported from China by Las Vegas-based ChemNutra. ChemNutra's PR firm admitted that the company had sold the gluten to three other pet-food makers but said that confidentiality agreements precluded revealing the names.

The FDA called the companies' names "commercial confidential information," raising questions not only about the distribution of the wheat gluten but about the secrecy of the regulatory process itself.

ChemNutra also appears less than transparent. It has not filed as a Nevada corporation, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and California listed its incorporation status as "surrender," which means the company has voluntarily surrendered its right to transact business in California.

But while ChemNutra and Menu Foods may lack corporate pedigrees, the pet food industry they supply boasts top breeds. Three of the five major pet food companies in the United States are subsidiaries of major multinational companies: Nestlé, Del Monte, and Colgate-Palmolive. Other pet food biggies include Procter & Gamble, Mars, and Nutro.

These companies' pet foods rely on industrial food production for most of their ingredients, and industrial food relies on the alchemy of pet food to turn its waste into profits. But let's be clear: What's wrong with pet food is not that it contains animal parts such as beaks, intestines, animal necks, feet, and undeveloped eggs that finicky Americans reject as icky. After all, Fido's ancestral diet includes deer carcass and Fluffy is partial to rat parts.

The problem with pet food — whether it's ground steak or chopped rectum, sawdust or grain filler — is that, with FDA approval, it can include ingredients that are putrid, disease-ridden, and filled with chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

In addition to helping industrial food transform potential garbage, pet food also serves the restaurant industry by buying up tons of used and possibly carcinogenic grease.

And then there is the generous contribution made by pets themselves. The corpses of the 7 million homeless cats and dogs euthanized every year have to go somewhere. Many are sent to rendering plants, which sell their products — you guessed it — to the pet food industry. Some pet food manufacturers deny using rendered pets in cat and dog food, but the industry is secretive. FDA oversight is spottier than a Dalmatian, and, short of DNA testing, who's to know?

We are not talking chopped liver, here; the stakes are huge. Americans fed their 75 million dogs and 88 million cats almost $16 billion worth of food last year. That amount surpasses the GDP of almost 100 of the world's 229 countries. The $38.5 billion that Americans spent on pets last year is slightly less than the GDP of Kenya for its 35 million people.

Almost a month after the original recall and five full months after the tainted food was first manufactured, there is still no conclusive evidence about what caused the deaths and illnesses of so many pets. Wheat gluten is the chief suspect, but why it was toxic is up for debate.

The lesson for pet owners is clear: Read the labels on the pet foods you buy. You might be surprised what's in those cheery bags. Your safest bet is to ask your vet to help you determine the best food for your furry friends.

Reprinted by permission from In These Times.

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