Pet food recall: Re-examining what’s in the can

By Sally E. Bahner

If you buy your pet’s food in a supermarket, think again. The pet food recall that started in mid-March has resulted in heartache and confusion for dog and cat lovers. As frightening as this episode is, it can serve as a wake-up call for pet owners to reevaluate what they are feeding their pets.

The cause of acute kidney failure in dogs and cats was not pinned down by Menu Foods until almost a week after the news broke. More than 60 million cans and pouches of chunks and gravy style food within certain lots and dates of manufacture were recalled and that was expanded to all products on the list regardless of date.

A new source of wheat gluten (used to create the meat-like pieces) was suspected as the cause. Later it was determined that a rodentcide, aminopterin, may have been present on the wheat that was imported from China. Although aminoptern is not registered for use as a pesticide in the United States, trials are under way to tests its effectiveness in treating certain types of cancer.

The caveat here is that this chemical is not known to cause kidney failure, but rather works as an anti-coagulant. In other words, rats ingesting it bleed to death internally, something that has not yet been seen in the affected cats and dogs. And, investigators have not ruled out whether aminopterin is the only contaminant.

Because Menu Foods has the ability to produce canned food cheaper than anyone else, it’s the manufacturer of choice for many store brands and so-called premium brands such as Hill’s Science Diet and Nutro, as well as Iams and Eukanuba, which have a 10-year contract with Menu Foods.

The company has promised to take financial responsibility for deaths – the total number is still unknown – from the poisoning. Pet owners who believe their animals have been affected should submit information to the Food and Drug Administration ( But that doesn’t mean that all the questions regarding its production practices have been answered.

Almost every pet food on the market conforms to regulations determined by the American Association of Feed Officials (AAFCO), either by trial feedings or by formulation. These regulations state that the food must be “complete and balanced” for a given (or all) life stage, which gives the impression that all foods are nutritionally the same. The U.S. government has no regulatory power over the pet food industry. For much of its history, pet food was made from the leftovers of major food manufacturers. AAFCO has set the rules for the industry and defines ingredients, but enforcement is up to individual states.

Intense marketing campaigns by companies such as Iams and Hill’s Science Diet have led consumers to believe that those brands are premium, veterinarian recommended, optimum nutrition for our beloved pets.

Over the past few years, however, a whole subculture of high quality foods has quietly developed. They are found in smaller, independent pet stores rather than grocery stores and chains. Evo, Wellness, Nature’s Variety, Fromm, Petguard, Merrick and others aren’t exactly household words, but those companies have been putting their backing into ingredients rather than marketing. They use meat and organs rather than corn and wheat. When was the last time you saw a dog chewing an ear of corn or a cat buttering a slice of bread? They are carnivores and need meat to survive and thrive.

So what’s a concerned pet owner to do?

This is the time for pet owners to learn to read the label on a can of food. For cats and dogs alike, a “named” meat – chicken, turkey, beef, lamb or chicken meal, turkey meal, etc. – should be at the top of the list. If your package reads corn or corn gluten meal or meat by-product meal, put it down and quickly walk away. Other ingredients to avoid are meat and bone meal and animal or meat meal, preservatives such as BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin and artificial flavorings and colorings.

Carbohydrate-laden dry food is under increased scrutiny. Our dogs and cats simply do not need the amount of grains and fillers that comprise an all-dry food diet. So don’t fall for the suggestion that dry food should be fed until the canned food issue is resolved. In addition, by feeding a variety of foods, you avoid the finicky kitty or fussy pup trap and may deter allergic reactions.

A common complaint when switching foods is – But he won’t eat anything else! Indeed, it seems that the poorer quality foods are full of all sorts of flavor enhancers that make them especially addicting. But you are the boss, and the key to getting your pet to accept new foods is to do it gradually. A too-rapid introduction may also result in digestive upsets. Mix a little of the new food with the old, and gradually increase the amount of new food over a couple of weeks. Some of the higher quality foods are more concentrated, so a lesser amount should be fed to avoid extra pounds.

A better food may be more expensive at the onset, but it will save you money over the long run in terms of health. Good nutrition is reflected in your pet’s coat, eyes, energy level and overall well-being. And that is priceless.

Additional information is available from the American Veterinary Medical Association at For those who have not yet seen a list of recalled foods go to

Sally E. Bahner is a member of Cat Writers’ Association and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is a regular contributor to Pets Press.

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