Pet Food Recall: Why It Took So Long

April 12, 2007 — -- The pet food recall hit home for the Senate's senior member and his little dog.

"I was worried I had poisoned her by giving her a treat," Sen. Robert Byrd, D- W. Va., said, relaying his concern for Trouble, a Shih Tzu that he lets walk the halls of Congress.

The remarks highlighted the first congressional hearing into the recall of millions of cans of pet food contaminated by a chemical used as a fertilizer and to make plastic products.

The expanding pet food recall is the latest example of a "broken food safety program," says Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who asked why the recall has unfolded so slowly. Durbin asked the Food and Drug Administration's top veterinarian if failing to recall tainted pet food until three weeks after the first suspicion of contamination was too long of a wait.

"I can't answer that. I don't know," said the FDA's Stephen Sundlof.

Durbin pressed further asking if Menu Foods' "failure to report" contamination led to more illnesses and death.

"Any delay would result in increased illness and death, yes," Sundlof said.

The top vet also couldn't guarantee that all tainted pet food had been recovered. Earlier today, the FDA warned consumers that some of the food that was contaminated with wheat gluten made in China may still be on store shelves.

Durbin called the hearing to once again highlight his call for a single-food safety agency.

The FDA admitted it rarely inspects pet food plants unless there is a problem and that it is up to the company to determine when it has a problem and then report the issue. "We need more timely reporting," said Durbin.

Sundlof told the subcommittee he doesn't know what the company knew or when it knew it. But he told reporters last month that Menu Foods received complaints of cats dying on February 20. The company's own animals started dying in taste tests on March 2. The recall wasn't ordered until March 16. The FDA was notified only the day before.

The chemical melamine was found in the wheat gluten shipped from China through the Netherlands and then to the United States. Scientists are still baffled. They don't believe the melamine should be causing deaths in animals, but there is not a lot of research into the ingestion of melamine.

Just yesterday, Menu Foods expanded the recall to some foods produced in Canada. The Canadian company had long claimed no tainted wheat gluten was shipped north of the border to its plant outside Toronto. But nearly a month after the recall was announced, Menu Foods said it had indeed used some of the contaminated product in Canada.