Student Research

In addition to faculty research, the Animal Law Policy Initiative encourages student work in the field. Below are some of the projects that have been undertaken by students within the Initiative.

The Pet Food Recall and Food Safety

abstract by Vince Field of paper to be presented at Animal Law Week 2008

In March 2007 Canada’s Menu Foods announced that it was recalling more than 60 million containers of dog and cat food sold in the United States.  In a period of about four months, more than 1,000 brands of pet food were recalled, including dozens of the most familiar and trusted brands in the marketplace.  Responsible for the recall were two contaminants, melamine and cyanuric acid, which were blamed for kidney failure that killed possibly thousands (the actual number of deaths is widely disputed) and sickened tens of thousands of pets from what came to be called melamine-associated renal failure.

Once the contaminants were identified, the reason they ended up in pet food was clear.  Melamine and cyanuric acid falsely show up as proteins in certain tests of food ingredients, allowing the two chemicals to be added to plain wheat flour in China so that it can be sold as a more expensive, higher protein ingredient called wheat gluten.  In effect, thousands of pets were deliberately poisoned in the name of profit (melamine costs about $1.20 for each protein count per ton whereas real protein costs about $6).  Moreover, the practice of adding melamine and cyanuric acid to low protein ingredients in China is a longstanding and widespread open secret and there are no laws or regulations against doing so.  Of course, the presence of melamine in any form of American food is illegal, raising questions about the screening of international foodstuffs marked for the US market.    

In the end, the 2007 pet food recall would grow to be the largest consumer recall in history.  Not only did it trigger an international trade scandal that would put a spotlight on Chinese imports (revealing lead in children’s toys and toxins in toothpaste), but it launched congressional hearings, and spurred proposed legislation on food safety.  Most recently, it has led to the indictment of both Chinese and American businesses for importing contaminated ingredients, as well as an FDA led public meeting on changes in the regulation of pet food ingredients with representatives from the pet food industry, government agencies, veterinary health organizations, animal health organizations, and pet food manufacturers.

Not surprisingly, since the recall the focus has been on the source of certain pet food ingredients and the FDA’s role in guaranteeing the safety of the commercial pet food chain.  Not only have there been calls to give the FDA mandatory recall authority over the pet food industry, but to increase the quantity and quality of FDA inspections of pet food plants both nationally and overseas as well.  Not to mention the demands for a comprehensive overhaul of the patchwork of state, federal and industry manufacturing standards and regulations that guide pet food manufacturers.  While such changes may in fact be necessary, it is important to note that they involve only a small subset of the actors involved in the commercial pet food industry as a whole.  Yet, interestingly, other important links in the pet food safety chain like the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and even pet food companies like NestlePurina and Hill’s Science Diet have largely escaped public scrutiny. 

For example, while there have been calls for the creation of a veterinary reporting system for the nationwide emergence of disease, veterinarians in general have faced very little, if any, criticism for their role in the 2007 pet food recall.  At first glance, the link between veterinarians and the recall of hundreds of pet foods tainted by imported protein may seem obscure at best but even a cursory analysis demonstrates that there exists a longstanding and powerful connection between the pet food industry and the veterinary profession that might prevent veterinarians from dutifully fulfilling their oath to use their “scientific knowledge and skills” to protect “animal health.”  Not only are some of the major pet food companies shareholders in AVMA itself, but AVMA is well represented on the boards of these same companies, as well as on that at AAFCO and other industry organizations like the Pet Food Institute (PFI) and the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association (APPMA).  The largest pet food companies like Iams and Science Diet also have a major influence on veterinary education, providing students with lecture courses taught by industry scientists as well as free educational materials on animal nutrition like veterinary textbooks, The Purina Research Report, The Clinical Handbook, scientific proceedings and informational videos.  These same companies not only sponsor student representatives at each of the twenty-seven US Veterinary Colleges, they also provide these schools with grants, scholarships, and even free feeding programs.   

This paper will argue that the breakdown in the commercial pet food safety chain as evidenced by the 2007 recall goes beyond the FDA’s lack of resources or a hodgepodge of inadequate state and federal laws.  It will demonstrate that just as responsible for the recall are longstanding systemic problems with the manner in which the veterinary profession is organized and operated.  More specifically, it will argue that the commercial pet food industry’s connection to the veterinary profession has resulted in the creation of a system in which veterinarians are not only ill suited to counsel their clients on pet nutrition, but have a financial stake in their clients’ market decisions as well.  One of the key questions to be examined here is the ethical implications of a system in which pet food companies are used to educate veterinarians about pet nutrition while at the same time providing veterinarians with exclusive rights to the sale of their pet food products (which may account for up to 40% of the profit of veterinary clinics). 
An analysis of all twenty-seven US Veterinary Colleges will be undertaken in order to demonstrate not only the prevalence of the practices listed above, but the level of support provided to these schools in the form of grants, scholarships, and food programs.  Data will be collected from each veterinary college on the following: whether they offer a course on animal nutrition; whether this course is mandatory or offered as an elective; the total number of animal nutrition courses available to students; the percentage of any mandatory nutrition course that deals with companion animals; whether these courses are taught by college professors or industry representatives; the nature and source of course materials; the presence of an industry feeding program; whether the college offers scholarships provided by one or more of the pet food companies; whether the college offers other sources of funding provided by one or more of the pet food companies; and whether the college counts any of the pet food companies among its corporate sponsors.  This system will then be compared to the veterinary profession in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the UK in order to determine whether a similar close-knit relationship with the pet food industry exists in these areas.  This section will be informed by recent research on the relationship between major drug companies and human medicine.

Finally, a survey of veterinarians and an examination of industry data will be undertaken to demonstrate the pervasiveness of pet food sales in veterinary clinics as well as the financial dependence of veterinary clinics on these sales.  The goal here is to understand the economic incentives that underpin this system.  Economic data demonstrates that while small animal veterinarians and veterinary general practitioners earn close to the U.S. median household income, many struggle economically due to the high cost of veterinary education and the costs associated with outfitting and staffing private veterinary offices.  The key question to be examined here is whether an increasing number of veterinarians are having trouble meeting the sometimes conflicting demands of maintaining ethical standards while at the same time making a living.