04/03/2007 08:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does FDA spell FEMA?

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.

First it was only "cuts and gravy" varieties from a single manufacturer, then late last week products from three more facilities were suddenly added to the recall, including one variety of dry cat food. And now the FDA not only admits that the recall could widen further, it has also revealed that the melamine-tainted wheat gluten was indeed delivered to processing plants that make human food as well. Still...

"To date, we have nothing that indicates it's gone into human food," said Dorothy Miller, director of the FDA's Office of Emergency Operations . "We have a bit more investigation to do."

They certainly do. But the 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.

According to import records, the wheat gluten was shipped to the United States from Nov. 3, 2006 to Jan. 23 of this year and contained "minimal labeling" to indicate whether it was intended for humans or animals.

The FDA officials who provided this information either don't understand our nation's import regulations, or are intentionally misleading reporters with this "minimal labeling" canard. For as Steve Pickman, VP of Corporate Relations for MGP Ingredients explains, all "edible" imported wheat gluten is meant for both human and animal consumption:

Regarding imported wheat gluten, U.S. Customs allows for two different gluten classifications to come into the country, "Edible" and "Non-edible." Non-edible product is not considered destined for the food/pet food markets. Product used in industrial, or non-ingestible, applications would be considered non-edible. Both food and pet food products are under the jurisdiction of the FDA. These products must adhere to the same standards. Non-edible gluten would be allowed into applications where no food/ pet food products are made.

Over 70-percent of the wheat gluten consumed in the U.S. is imported, mostly from Asia, and the remaining 30-percent produced domestically is almost entirely "food grade." There is no separate channel for "food grade" vs "feed grade" wheat gluten, so the FDA should have understood that the Chinese imports involved were always graded for human consumption.

Given the nature of the industry and the scope of the recall thus far -- over 60 million units from four manufacturers at five separate facilities -- and the three month period of time over which the suspect wheat gluten was imported, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that at least some of the tainted product would make its way to facilities that process human food, and then onto store shelves and into our kitchens and restaurants. It has been at least a month since the FDA was first made aware of a potentially widespread food supply contamination, and yet they continue to hold their information close to their vest as they do "a bit more investigation." Meanwhile, it only took Nestle Purina four hours to discern that it had a contamination problem after the FDA announced on March 30 that the culprit was tainted wheat gluten from a Chinese supplier -- information the FDA apparently had since at least March 8.

The American people have the right to know the facts in a timely manner -- all the facts -- including the identity of the unnamed distributor mentioned in ChemNutra's press release, the facilities suspected of receiving contaminated wheat gluten, and a complete timeline detailing what was known, and when. When it comes to issues of public health and safety the best way to avoid undue speculation and give consumers the information they need to properly protect themselves is to be completely and openly honest. ChemNutra was notified that its wheat gluten was killing animals back on March 8. We need to know why contaminated product was still on the shelves as late as March 30.

But there is a larger issue here: the failure of the FDA to keep up with the challenges of safeguarding a food supply that has become so deeply integrated into the global economy. Perhaps us humans dodged a bullet, and the contamination was indeed limited to pet food. But if it had been the other way around, how would we know? Renal failure can be slow and progressive, the symptoms sometimes not manifesting themselves until months after the initial toxic exposure. Our dead and dying pets may very well have saved thousands of human lives, warning us of the poisoned gluten before it inevitably reached the dinner table.

The FDA failed to protect these dogs and cats, but it just as easily could have been people who paid the price. It is time to rethink the laws governing the FDA, and reevaluate the officers running it. As Mike Brown proved at FEMA, it is best to have government agencies run by people who actually believe in government.

[Read more from David Goldstein at]