Yesterday I wrote about the response to the food recall at my wife’s veterinary practice. I also wrote about the organized online responses of which I’ve become aware.

Today I want to talk about who, in my opinion, hasn’t responded well enough. First a shout out to Dolittler whose thoughts are close to many of my own.

No. 1. The pet food companies that have chosen to associate themselves closely with the veterinary industry
Catmanager doesn’t expect WalMart to notify veterinary practices that Special Kitty is being recalled (although doing so would slightly raise my rather low opinion of them). WalMart, after all, doesn’t produce or supply veterinary practices with pet food.
I do, however, expect Hill’s (makers of Science Diet and Hill’s prescription diets), Iams, Purina, and Royal Canin to make more of an effort than I’ve seen. As Dr. Khuly at Dolittler notes, “They certainly know how to get to us when it comes to selling their food.” (They also sponsor veterinary research, conferences, and professional associations. They want to be associated with us.) Yet when cans and pouches encompassing over ninety (now ninety-five) brands of pet food are recalled, we hear nothing. No phone calls from our local sales reps. No faxes. Not even an e-mail. In the case of Hill’s, Purina, and Royal Canin—all companies that rely on veterinarians to market their prescription diets and (often) to recommend their maintenance diets—this is just insulting.
Some steps that would have been greatly appreciated:

  • A fax notifying practices that your foods had been recalled, specific details about the exact foods, guidance on how to read the codes on the cans and pouches to determine whether any food we have in stock or that clients bring in is affected by the recall, and reassurance that you were taking steps to make sure none of your other food products were affected.
  • From Royal Canin, a fax notifying us that you were confident your foods were not implicated, including an explanation of why you believe that.
  • A quick call from our local representative to make sure we knew about the recall and to inquire whether we had seen any suspicious cases involving pets eating their foods. I understand the news broke late Friday, but are we to really believe that you found out about this at the same time everyone else did?
  • A plan for how you will handle returns and reimbursement claims related to the recall.
  • More from your Web sites than bland press releases directed at consumers. I cannot see that any of you have addressed the veterinary community online in any way (one exception is the Hills forum on VIN, where a representative from Hill’s has responded to comments and requests for more information; however, only about 7,000 veterinarians in the United States and Canada belong to VIN).

No. 2. Menu Foods and the FDA
A colleague of catmanager’s wife, Dr. Fern Crist, makes some excellent points in a posting on VIN today. She argues that while it is nice to know that Menu’s in-house testing revealed a mortality rate possibly as high as 20 percent, what the veterinary community really needs to know are the morbidity data. Of the animals that did not die: did they get sick? If so, what symptoms did they exhibit? How were they treated and what proved effective in their recovery? What tests should veterinarians be running? Should we be sending samples from deceased animals for pathology? If so, to which labs and what samples do they need?

Presumably Menu will require some sort of proof before paying out on claims of pet owners whose pets have died after eating Menu-produced food. Yet Menu hasn’t indicated what sorts of samples veterinarians should be collecting. Whole blood? Serum? Kidney biopsies? (In formalin or not?) These details could prove crucial down the road. [Update: The ACVIM, in advice to veterinarians posted here, recommends formalin.]

The FDA, which is working to try to identify the source of the problem, could also be providing guidance to veterinarians. Catmanager is not aware of any information on the FDA Web site that answers these or related questions.

No. 3. The media
New media—blogs, Internet sites such as Pet Connection, and so on—have been all over the pet recall. Traditional media? Not so much. As I noted earlier, midday today was the first time NPR did a story on the food recall. My local city paper (serving a metro area of 1.5 million) buried the recall story and gave it two column inches at best, and to my knowledge they’ve yet to say anything more about it. Some papers, of course, have been providing consistent coverage since Friday afternoon. The New York Times and Washington Post stand out in catmanager’s opinion. But most small-town papers I’ve looked at have either ignored the story or given it low priority.

And many of the stories that have run have continued to cite the original FDA press release that only ten deaths have been reported. NPR’s story earlier today cited that figure. Perhaps they are simply being cautious, reporting only “official” figures, but doing so masks the seriousness of the problem, which we now know from discussions on VIN and on various blogs to be far more widespread than the official ten deaths suggests.

The reporting in many of the stories that have noted the recall has also bothered me. A poster on VIN noted that his local TV station ran a story in which they interviewed not a veterinarian but a pet store employee who offered his expert opinion that renal failure was always irreversible and the affected pets would never recover!

Also, whatever in the recalled food is causing pets to become ill is affecting cats more than dogs. Yet many of the initial news stories focused only or predominantly on dogs becoming sick (e.g., “Eyewitness News Everywhere uncovers dogs dying in the Mid-South,” which I cited yesterday). This, too, creates a misleading impression of the crisis. I had a client today who said she had heard about the recall but thought it only involved dog food. As measured by pet owner spending on food, treats, and vet bills, dogs do command more attention than cats. Nonetheless, cats outnumber dogs as pets by almost 30 million.

A summary and caveat of sorts
I’ll acknowledge that my assessment of who has done a poor job responding to the recall crisis is probably less balanced than it might be. The pet food companies, Menu, and the FDA might have quite valid reasons for how they have responded (e.g., legal concerns), and I’m willing to listen. Frankly I’d love to hear anything from them.

Covering a major story that is still developing is surely not easy. Mistakes will be made, and I’d be naive to expect too much from my local FOX or CBS news station. And as I note above, some media outlets are doing a good job. Still, I strongly believe that we get the media we deserve. If we’re willing to put up with sloppy reporting and poor coverage of issues that are of concern to us, then that’s exactly what we’ll be given.

Something positive
In the time I took to write this post my Royal Canin rep returned my call to him from earlier in the day. He spoke with my wife. I appreciate that he returned my call so quickly.

Update (also positive!): Seems I was a little harsh toward Iams. A company representative has posted on this VIN discussion (post no. 280) information from the Iams database (this information is also available here). The clinical signs they have seen include acute vomiting, anorexia, lethargy, and greatly elevated kidney values on bloodwork, plus or minus excessive salivation, hematuria, weakness, and oral ulceration. Also of note in the rep’s post:

Iams is a reputable company and will do the right thing. We will be reimbursing clients for their veterinary expenses where we have documented cases of renal failure in dogs or cats who have eaten the affected code dates.