Kansas City, Mo. A pet food recall that began more than three weeks ago for food made at a plant in Emporia, Kan., has since widened to six other U.S. manufacturers.
Even as the recall expanded to include some dry food and pet treats, pet owners still don't know what has sickened and killed perhaps thousands of animals, and the process has left many wondering who is ensuring the safety of pet food and how.
"It just eats me up we poisoned our dog," said Dan Wilson, whose family pet, a Chihuahua named Phoebe, died March 11. "How did this happen and how do we know it's not going to happen again?"
While the Food and Drug Administration has oversight at the federal level, much of the day-to-day regulation is relegated to states, each with its own laws, rules and systems, resulting in a patchwork lacking cohesiveness and consistency.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, says the system needs fixing, and this week the Senate is set to begin hearings that will include testimony from the FDA.
"The uncertainty about what is safe to feed their pets has gone on too long," Durbin said in a release announcing the hearings. "I want to hear how the FDA is going to work to resolve the current crisis and ensure this doesn't happen again."
Durbin is demanding that the FDA work with states to establish standard regulations and inspection requirements, which presently don't exist.
"Where there should be federal regulation, there is instead a patchwork of state inspection systems and voluntary guidance," Durbin said.
The FDA is responsible for enforcing the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which covers pet food and thousands of other products. The act requires that pet food, like human food, be "pure and wholesome and contain no harmful or deleterious substance and that it be truthfully labeled." Officials with the FDA declined to comment.
Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute, an industry association, disagrees that the system is broken. He says it is a system of tight checks and balances, which is closely watched by the FDA.
"From our perspective, regulation is pretty complete," Ekedahl said. "Like everyone, we're anxious for this investigation to be concluded and to find answers."
Ekedahl said products made by its members are the most highly regulated because they are made under federal and state oversight.
But Elizabeth Hodgkins, a veterinarian for 30 years and a former executive of Hill's Pet Nutrition, based in Topeka, Kan., said in a letter to Durbin that, "The certification of pet foods with entirely insufficient data to justify that certification is nothing more than an historical 'accident' of the slow and haphazard evolution of the pet food industry itself."
Hodgkins is slated to testify at the hearings.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture says it works to ensure that the 15 pet food plants in the state are inspected two times a year. The department randomly pulls product samples from all pet food and livestock feed manufacturers, with an aim of 20 percent of those being from pet food makers.
Tim Tyson, director of the agriculture commodities assurance program, the Kansas department charged with overseeing pet food, said he wasn't certain exactly how many pet food plants there are in Kansas, but that over the past year, five or six facilities have been inspected.
"Most of the things we regulate have to do with licensing, looking at labels and guarantees, including making sure they have the required levels of nutrients, but we don't test for toxins," Tyson said. "It's very tough to do. We don't have the capabilities."
The FDA had never inspected the Menu Foods pet food facility in Emporia until the recall but has contracted with Kansas for some inspections. In October state inspectors checked for BSE, or mad cow disease.
When it comes to pet food nutrition, the American Association of Feed Control Officials sets requirements. Most companies say they meet those standards, although there is no verification.
The association establishes guidelines for what can go into pet food. After reports of illnesses and deaths began, Menu Foods contracted with a New York laboratory to test the suspect food. It reported finding aminopterin, a poison used to kill rodents, in a sample of wheat gluten used in the food. But subsequent tests have not confirmed that.
The FDA later said it was certain that melamine, which isn't a highly toxic substance, is somehow related to scores of pets succumbing to rapid kidney failure. Scientists just aren't sure how it's related.
"In the scientific community, it's a substance we would label as moderately toxic," said Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "This is all very puzzling - there's a lot of work yet to be done."
Hansen said he knows the question that's been asked time and again in recent weeks is whether the FDA and Menu Foods acted fast enough to alert pet owners. And, questions surrounding oversight or lack thereof continue to build.
He said he would reserve his opinions until there is a better understanding of exactly what happened. "I think the debriefing of this whole disaster is a huge opportunity for us to learn and improve," he said.