Well, now we know the company responsible for distributing the tainted wheat gluten, however there are some big questions that still remain. If you look at the timeline, it looks like the FDA knew that the gluten was tainted and sat on that information for three weeks. The FDA was notified by Menu Foods on March 8th, but did not issue their recall until March 30th. How many pets died because that information hadn't been released? And given how slow they've reacted, how can we be sure that the gluten has not made it into human food?
To the thousands of Americans whose dogs and cats have already been sickened or killed, and the many millions more who rightfully fear for the health of their beloved pets, the recent massive pet food recall already represents a disastrous failure of our food safety systems. But if it eventually turns out that toxic wheat gluten made its way into the human food supply, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) tentative response and equivocating public statements might have set the stage for a collapse of confidence of post-Katrina proportions.
In finally identifying itself today, the U.S. importer of the melamine-tainted wheat gluten - the unappetizingly named ChemNutra - revealed new information that is sure to anger aggrieved pet owners: Menu Foods knew their product was causing problems as early as March 8, a full week before the first recall was made public. And while ChemNutra insists that none of its 792 metric tons of contaminated wheat gluten shipped to facilities that manufacture food for human consumption, one can forgive suspicious consumers for not accepting the suddenly talkative company at its word, especially considering that this assurance directly contradicts an FDA report from earlier today. For whatever the true risk to our food supply, the corporate and regulatory response is shaping up to be a textbook example of failed crisis management.
[..T]he FDA should have acted as if the human food supply was at risk from the moment Menu Foods notified it that test animals were dying, presumably sometime before March 8. Tainted wheat gluten was always the prime suspect, and anyone given the facts and a little familiarity with our food processing and distribution system should have heard alarm bells. Yet the federal regulators charged with safeguarding our food supply seemed more concerned with protecting the interests of the corporations involved, then in giving consumers the facts they needed to make informed decisions on their own.
While the FDA focused on pet food, it was left to persistent bloggers and journalists to slowly tease out the full scope of this potential public health disaster. Wheat gluten is not an obscure feed stock, but rather a common ingredient widely used in a large number of processed foods and baked goods. And while federal regulations distinguish between "food grade" and "feed grade," the overwhelming majority of wheat gluten distributed in this country is sold as the former. MGP Ingredients, the largest U.S. manufacturer of wheat gluten, only produced and distributed "food grade" product, shipping to Menu Foods the same high quality wheat gluten meant for human consumption until 18-months ago, when they lost the business to cheaper, Asian imports. And responding to an e-mail query, a spokesperson for Del Monte Foods quickly confirmed that it was "food grade" gluten that led to its own recall.
The FDA always knew the tainted wheat gluten was sold as "food grade," but never offered this information to the public. And even now they continue to obfuscate the matter.