Nutrition


The Royal Canin recall hit us hard. Hypoallergenic is the prescription diet we use second most (after Royal Canin’s Calorie Control). Over fifty of our clients feed it to as many as 100 of our patients. On Friday we sent out thirty-nine sets of bloodwork to Antech, almost what we’d expect to perform in a full month. We had another thirteen cats scheduled to come in for testing on Saturday. We’re performing urinalyses in house and sending out for CBCs and general chemistry profiles. I expect our bill to Royal Canin (who told us they will pay for testing of any cat that has eaten Hypoallergenic in the past six months) to be in the $8,000–$10,000 range, not including treatment costs for those cats showing signs of renal failure (so far, at least two) and not including overtime costs for our staff who have worked extra-long hours the past few days.

Royal Canin’s Handling of the Recall
Catmanager’s wife contacted our Royal Canin representative about three weeks ago to report a cat she had seen in early February with unusual urine crystals. The cat had slightly elevated BUN and creatinine (but still within normal range), had been vomiting, and was generally ADR. Fast forward several weeks and those odd crystals were popping up all over the country, now identified as melamine (Antech has a nice PDF with nine photographs). When my wife realized what she’d likely been seeing, she called our Royal Canin rep. The cat had been eating Hypoallergenic. Our rep said he was unaware of any problems but advised my wife to contact one of the company’s staff veterinarians.

Now that Royal Canin has recalled Hypoallergenic (along with a few other diets) because it contains tainted rice protein, we really wish my wife had made that second call (the birth of our first child got in the way). Had she talked with one of Royal Canin’s vets, would they still have reported “we have no confirmed cases of illness in pets” in their press release announcing the recall?

Probably yes, because a “confirmed” case is worlds away from a “suspected” case. Although I find the semantic game frustrating, it’s a small annoyance in what seems to be an otherwise forthright and responsible response—certainly Royal Canin has outperformed Hill’s in handling the recall. Unlike Hill’s, our Royal Canin rep contacted us immediately about the recall. We also didn’t have to wait for days for them to announce that they’d reimburse for testing. We were simply told that testing would be covered as long as we could show that the client had purchased a bag of recalled food within the last six months.

The response on the two companies’ Web sites is also quite different. Royal Canin’s front page is currently all about the recall. You can’t miss it. If one were unaware that Hill’s products had been recalled and visited the main page of their Web site, one would leave still unaware (unless one read the “Letter to Pet Owners” that is linked to from the main page). The page instead implies that Hill’s foods are unaffected by the recall: “Feed with Confidence.” “Wheat Gluten Free.” “Hill’s products not affected by rice protein concentrate recall.”

(We don’t use any P&G or Purina products, so I haven’t been as aware of their responses. Checking quickly, I don’t see any mention of the recall on Iams’ U.S. page. Purina addresses the recall on its main page.)

For several years now, my wife’s confidence in Hill’s products has steadily declined. For at least the past eighteen months she has refused to carry most of their maintenance diets. She finds that the Royal Canin prescription diets are generally more effective (k/d and z/d are the only Hill’s Prescription Diets we regularly use). Now, after watching them respond poorly over the last month to the pet food recall, her confidence has plumeted to new lows, and we’re seriously considering carrying only k/d and z/d.

Royal Canin, itself not free of warts (we’ve complained loudly in the past about poor communication from them), does at least seem to handle recalls well, admitting the problem in a timely manner and not shying away from their fiscal responsibility.

The American College of Veterinary Nutrition released a statement on the food recall (thanks to Pet Food Blog).

The statement expresses condolence to pet parents whose pets have been “adversely affected by the recent pet food contamination incident.” (Incident is an interesting term to use for an ongoing problem.)

It argues that the “ever-changing news about the pet food recall” and its media portrayal

has created confusion and panic . . . and allowed for wild speculation about the safety and wholesomeness of commercial pet foods in general and mistrust of both the industry and government oversight of the industry.

It notes the college’s confidence that everything possible is being done to “identify the source of contamination and isolate pet foods affected by the contamination” and further notes that this process takes time.

It makes the sensible comment that “Contrary to the assertions of some, it simply is not in the best interest of companies to want to sell potentially unsafe product.”

It urges caution among those inclined to start feeding their pets home-prepared foods.

Overall the statement is, as the Pet Food Blog notes, a “voice of reason.”

Catmanager received a letter from Hill’s (makers of Science Diet) today informing me (actually the letter wasn’t addressed to me but to “Our Valued Retail and Professional Partners”; yeah, right) about the pet food recall. Is late really better than never? This just seems insulting.

Now, to be fair, I should point out that the letter implies I would have heard earlier from Hill’s had my practice been in possession of any of the recalled products:

If you have not received notification from Hill’s, then the Savory Cuts you currently have in your possession are outside the scope of this voluntary recall.

Catmanager hopes veterinary practices that were in possession of affected Savory Cuts at least heard from Hill’s prior to last Wednesday, which is when the letter I received was dated.

Also to be fair, I should acknowledge that the Science Diet recall was precautionary. Hill’s did the right thing by withdrawing food that was manufactured at the same plant as the rest of the recalled foods even though neither they nor Menu had received reports of illnesses in cats eating Savory Cuts. What remains unclear is whether Hill’s supplied their own ingredients to Menu Foods or relied on that company to procure ingredients. On VIN/VSPN one person has reported a conversation with a Hill’s rep in which the rep said that Hill’s supplied its own ingredients. Catmanager hasn’t seen that claim verified, however. In fact, several posts on VIN/VSPN by a Hill’s official seem to carefully avoid the issue. Catmanager suspects that if Hill’s were supplying its own ingredients it would be taking great pains to advertise that fact.

So why do I feel it’s insulting to receive a letter from Hill’s nine days after the recall was announced? (Aside from the fact that it’s nine days after the recall was announced.) The letter concludes by noting that we might be asked by consumers about the safety of the Savory Cuts products. Why couldn’t Hill’s acknowledge that many consumers are greatly concerned about with this question? That, in fact, the question is actually more along the lines of “Are any Science Diet products safe to feed my pets?” Then the letter asks us to believe

that those products that remain in the marketplace have been manufactured with the hightest quality ingredients and production protocols to “help enrich and lengthen the special relationship between people and their pets.”

I really want to believe this statement. And I have NO evidence to the contrary. But given what I’ve learned about Hill’s in the past week, I’d like more than bland assurances.

Specific questions I’d like answered:

  • Why didn’t Hill’s notify us sooner?
  • Even if Hill’s knew my clinic didn’t have any affected products, what about my clients? How were we supposed to notify them?
  • Why was the Hill’s notification letter signed by the vice president of sales? (A letter from their head veterinarian, vice president of quality control, or the president of the company would have carried more weight. A letter from sales just implies that their primary concern is $.)
  • When did Hill’s know about the recall?
  • What is the basis for Hill’s claim that their nonrecalled Savory Cuts products are safe?
  • Does Hill’s supply their own ingredients to Menu Foods or rely on Menu Foods to supply them? If the latter, how does Hill’s ensure quality control? (Are they inside Menu’s factories? Do they supervise the cleaning of equipment prior to manufacture of Hill’s products? Do they test and monitor the raw ingredients?)
  • How can we believe that their foods are made with the highest quality ingredients? (Just because they say so isn’t going to cut it.)
  • Why were we told that Hill’s doesn’t farm out their production?
  • Why is Hill’s making diets that place marketing concerns (cuts and gravy foods are apparently highly popular with customers) before the health of cats and dogs (again, why is wheat, a well-known allergen, in these and other foods made by Hill’s)?

Catmanager just heard on NPR’s Day to Day a story about the recall. To my knowledge, this is the first story NPR has done on the issue.

The story (here; audio won’t be available until 4 p.m. ET) includes a lengthy conversation with Ohio State University College of Medicine veterinary nutritionist Tony Buffington. Dr. Buffington explains what ingredients typically go into making wet pet food and talks generally about the recall. (The story recaps what is already known about the recall and doesn’t add much new information.) When asked if he has any concerns about manufactured pet foods, he replies with an emphatic no and says that on the whole the manufacturing process conforms to the same extremely high standards as human food production. (This was news to catmanager. I suspect other experts might dispute that claim.) Then he makes what I think is a valid point: we see fewer recalls of pet foods than we do of human foods. His point wasn’t to minimize the seriousness of the current recall but to reassure people that, on the whole, the pet food supply is safe.

Slate.com explains what goes into the manufacture of pet foods. (The Slate story is the basis for the NPR story but doesn’t include any quotations from Dr. Buffington.)