Early this month, Jim Valentine found himself faced with a heart-wrenching decision: the 35-year-old, unemployed computer consultant from Lansing, Mich., had to decide whether to shell out thousands of dollars he didn't have to try to save his beloved dying cat, Silvus. His nine-year-old, silver-furred friend was suffering from kidney failure and he likely needed a pricey kidney transplant. Instead, Silvus was put to death on March 3.
"My only option at that point was to be somewhat financially responsible and have him euthanized," Valentine says sadly, "which was a terrible choice to have to make . I haven't cried like that since I was 13 years old."
Nearly two weeks later, on March 16, Menu Foods, a Canadian-based pet food manufacturer, announced the recall of over 60 million cans and pouches of wet cat and dog food produced in facilities in Emporia, Kan., and Pennsauken, N.J., between December 3, 2006 and March 6. The massive recall affected 95 different brands—from generic, in-store labels for Food Lion and Wal-Mart to so-called "premium" pet chow like Iams and Science Diet. (Click here for a full recall list) The company has since expanded its recall to all products on store shelves of the types originally withdrawn, in order, it claims, to ensure that all the possibly tainted merchandise is out of the food supply.
The company had received reports of potential problems almost a full month earlier, on February 20. But instead of alerting the public, it initiated "tasting trials" on 40 to 50 dogs and cats. Seven of the study animals died of renal failure, beginning on March 2, five days after the testing started. The company still did nothing, waiting over two weeks longer before finally taking action.
Menu Foods attributes the deaths of 15 cats and one dog nationwide (including the test subjects) to the tainted grub. But others claim the numbers are much higher. The Veterinary Information Network, which boasts a membership of 30,000 veterinarians, reports that at least 471 animals were sickened and 104 died from eating contaminated chow. Sarah Tuite, a spokesperson for Menu Foods, refused to comment on the lag time between the first test animal's death and the date of the recall. As for the discrepancy in death estimates, she acknowledged that "based on the media reports, it probably will increase," but said Menu Foods would have to "look at each case on a case by case basis."
The company believes wheat gluten imported from China is the cause of the trouble, which began about the same time that it switched to a new supplier of the protein (used to thicken the gravy).
The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (NYSDAM) determined that two of three samples of food (made with the suspicious wheat gluten) submitted by the company for testing contained a chemical substance known as aminopterin. Aminopterin is a toxin that in the 1940s was the first drug used that produced "durable remissions in children with acute leukemia," says Andre Rosowsky, a professor of adult oncology at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. In the 1960s doctors used aminopterin to induce abortions, but it was banned after a number of failed procedures resulted in severely malformed infants. Rosowsky says aminopterin is no longer in use in the U.S. and Canada except as "an experimental tool" in laboratories.
Aminopterin works by preventing folic acid, part of the B vitamin complex, from aiding in the replication of cells; this compound is necessary for cell division in healthy people but it can be deadly in cancer patients, because it also helps cancer cells reproduce more rapidly. The short-lived cancer therapy has since been replaced in leukemia patients by other drugs such as methotrexate, which is easier to produce, has a longer shelf life and has fewer side effects (it can be toxic to the liver, but damage in many cases can be reversed or reduced if patients stop taking it).