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6 Days Later, FDA Still Unaware Of Its Own Recall

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On April 10, after failing to get a hold of anybody who could answer my questions by phone, I sent the following email to a number of contacts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

"Do you have any information regarding the report in the Marin Independent Journal that three varieties of Nutro Max cat food, not currently on the recall list, have tested positive for melamine by an independent lab?

Is the FDA aware of this information, is further testing being performed, and do you expect the recall to expand? Does this suggest that the universe of recalled food will be expanded beyond these additional Nutro varieties?"

And yesterday, April 16, Veronica Castro of the FDA's Office of Public Affairs, finally sent me the following succinct reply:

"We do not have this information at this time."

Um... which is curious, because only hours after I sent my query, the FDA issued a press release expanding the recall to include the Nutro Max varieties and other products. Hmm. Yet six days after recalling the products in question, the Office of Public Affairs still tells me that "we do not have this information at this time."

Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

I once mocked former FEMA director Mike Brown for suggesting that his agency's catastrophic failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was largely, well, my fault. "In the middle of trying to respond to that," Brown complained during Congressional testimony on the massive hurricane, "FEMA's press office became bombarded with requests to respond immediately to false statements about my resume and my background."

As if the most critical element of any disaster relief effort comes from the press office.

But all snark aside, the press office does play an important role in crisis management, by getting accurate information out through the media and to the public -- information that can save lives. And throughout this entire pet food recall the FDA and the pet food industry have repeatedly failed to adequately perform this crucial function.

It was on March 2 that Menu Foods learned that the first of its test animals had died. By March 8, Menu Foods, ChemNutra and the FDA knew that imported wheat gluten was the culprit, knew the name of the Chinese manufacturer printed on the side of the 25 kg sacks, and knew that the gluten was imported and distributed as human food grade. The initial recall wasn't issued until March 17, and the name of the Chinese manufacturer wasn't revealed until March 30, prompting three more pet food companies to issue recalls within hours. On April 3, 26 days after first being notified that its gluten was killing animals, ChemNutra finally issued a nationwide recall.

Throughout this unfolding crisis, consumers were consistently reassured that the remaining pet food supply was safe, even as the recall expanded day by day. So I guess it shouldn't come as much of a surprise when the FDA's own Public Affairs Office claims to be totally unaware of a week-old recall.

This scandal will surely prompt Congressional hearings focusing on the safety of the food supply, but the FDA's failure to provide the public with accurate, timely information is as inexcusable as its failure to adequately safeguard our food. We not only have the right to know what the FDA knows -- and when they know it -- we have the need. For when it comes to both our pets and ourselves, it is far better to avoid products out of unconfirmed fear, than it is to consume unsafe products out of ignorance.

The FDA and the pet food industry had an obligation to inform the public. They failed.

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