Not that they'll be able to tell: U.S. laws passed five years ago requiring manufacturers to identify which country ingredients and foods come from have consistently been delayed by companies—particularly meat producers—who call them expensive and cumbersome, and unnecessary because of voluntary compliance and inspection. The limits of voluntary compliance are, of course, self-evident and predictable to everyone except the Bush Administration, as the disease outbreaks from hamburgers and salsa show every few months.
There's a direct link between the pet food that caused fatal kidney problems in cats and dogs last year and the watered-down, tainted milk that has killed four infants and sickened many thousands of people so far, as
Marion Nestle points out in her new book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.
Dairies and food manufacturers buy milk based on fat and protein levels. Pet food makers buy wheat gluten, a flour derivative, based entirely on protein levels. Even if it's toxic, melamine raises both, and it's cheap. It was tainted wheat gluten that caused the pet deaths.
Nestle's book is a detective story that identifies plenty of perpetrators as well as victims—non-human when she was writing it, but including frequent warnings that the problems wouldn't stop with animals. Did you know that pigs and chickens and farmed fish, including on U.S. and Canadian farms, are fed old and unsold pet food? Nestle didn't either, and a chapter called "More Melamine Eaters: Farm Animals and People" is particularly alarming in light of the day's headlines. (Nestle doesn't speculate on how concerned we should be about buying pork, chicken, and fish; industry says that the possible content of melamine is so small and diluted that there's no chance of sickening adults, who in any case are far less susceptible to harm than infants).
The larger problem is that no one has studied the risks, and when the pet food scandal broke, no one even bothered to look at prehistoric studies of the effects of melamine in farm animals—which had in fact been conducted. By prehistoric I mean pre-Internet, and Nestle uncovers indicative studies on sheep from the 1960s that could easily have indicated how dangerous contamination would be for cats and dogs.
As Nestle's reporting makes clear, the predictably frantic finger-pointing and blame-ducking as the pet-food scandal spread went all along the chain from Chinese suppliers to Chinese wholesalers to U.S. brokers and manufacturers. The current stories about Chinese authorities denying or hushing up the milk scandal only echo the behavior she describes in her book.
Some heroes of the U.S. pet food recall are surprising: several enterprising USA Today reporters who traced the taint to individual manufacturers much faster than the FDA did, and the food giant Procter & Gamble, which initiated the first pet-food recall before the FDA required it to and prompted smaller, foot-dragging manufacturers to follow suit. Toward the end of her book Nestle draws the links that will occur to any reader familiar with Upton Sinclair and the history of the FDA: China is in the unbridled free-trade days America was before The Jungle prompted the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and is no more lax or unscrupulous than American food producers were. As she says, we've been here before. But, as the reverberating news points out, we don't know where we're going.