“Government agencies and the feed and food industries routinely screen grain for contamination; however, it’s the responsibility of the manufacturing company, i.e. the firm whose name is on the label, to produce a safe product and to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that.”

Laura Alvey
Deputy Director, Communications Staff
FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine

In the month since Thanksgiving, there has been a flurry of pet food recalls due to elevated levels of aflatoxin.

The first recall in the series wasn’t a recall at all, according to the manufacturer. Procter & Gamble described its November 25th store-level removal of several Iams brand dry pet foods as a “product pull” and did not issue a news release until after Price Chopper – a regional supermarket chain – posted a notice of the action on its recall web page.

The Price Chopper notice was picked up by eFoodAlert, and readers of this site helped to publicize the “product pull” throughout the pet community. Price Chopper – possibly under pressure from Procter & Gamble – withdrew its recall notice for several days, before reposted it with additional explanation.

Events overtook this initial product withdrawal on December 6th, when Procter & Gamble announced the recall of a single Iams dry puppy food due to elevated levels of aflatoxin. Similar recall notices from several other pet food producers followed.

Today, FDA posted – for the first time – a recall notice dated December 12, 2011 issued by Petrus Feed and Seed Stores, Inc. (Alexandria, LA). The company recalled  21% Protein Dog Food in 40 lb Petrus Feed bags (Packaging date codes 4K1011 through 4K1307; Lot numbers 4K1011 through 4K1335), after elevated levels of aflatoxin were found in the corn used as an ingredient in the dog food. The recalled pet food was produced for Petrus by Cargill’s manufacturing facility located in LeCompte, Louisiana between December 1, 2010 and December 1, 2011.

The same Cargill facility also manufactured several other recalled brands of aflatoxin-contaminated dog food, including Arrow, River Run, and Marksman. It is “unlikely”, according to FDA Spokeswoman Laura Alvey that the recalled Iams puppy food was manufactured using the same corn that went into the Cargill-manufactured product.

“Aflatoxins,” Alvey explained in response to my request for comment, “are a naturally occurring toxin that develops when the mold Aspergillus species grow on the corn in the field or after harvest if it’s improperly dried and stored. Corn is a common ingredient used in both dry and wet pet foods,” she added.

The 2010 crop year was a wet one, and generated higher than usual levels of aflatoxin in the field. While this may have created special challenges for farmers and for companies such as Cargill and Iams, rapid quantitative tests for aflatoxins and other natural toxins are readily available. The manufacturers easily could have – and should have – tested the corn for aflatoxin before using it to produce pet food. There is no excuse for releasing product containing untested corn onto the market and allowing that product to remain on the market for as long as one year.

In my “Have Your Say!” survey of readers’ opinions of the five most significant stories of 2011, the Iams pet food recall story earned second place. I believe that this story is significant for two reasons:

  1. It underscores the futility of trying to carry out a stealth recall in an era of instant communication.
  2. It highlights the importance of preventative measures, including testing ingredients before incorporating them into a human or animal food product.

The one bright spot in this sorry saga is the ethical behavior of Price Chopper. This relatively small grocery chain advised its customers of the initial Iams “product pull” – complete with UPC and Lot codes – and offered its customers a full refund on these products. The company then had the guts to post an explanation of the sequence of events, making Procter & Gamble (owner of the Iams brand) look like a very shabby bunch of operators by comparison.

Kudos to Price Chopper’s management. May you continue to be guided by your sense of ethics and fair play in the years to come.