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  • Pet Food Recall: The Tip of the Iceberg

    John B. Symes, D.V.M.
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    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Winter 2009 Issue. NOTE: This article is from a back issue of our popular subscription-only paper newsletter. Some content may be outdated.

    Image: CC BY 2.0--ETersigni
    Caption: Image: CC BY 2.0--ETersigni

    Celiac.com 07/17/2020 - I am saddened by the recent deaths of affected pets and the trauma this has caused their owners. However, this is the absolute best thing that could happen to the pet food companies. I could not be more excited about the potential for seeing the much-needed changes in pet food manufacturing that may finally come about as a result of this “scandal” in which Menu Foods has recalled a portion of the dog and cat food it manufactured between December 3, 2006 and March 6, 2007. This recall should serve as a huge and important warning. 

    The latest information is that 14 pet deaths have been linked directly to the recalled foods. Six of them were cats that died in the studies conducted by Menu Foods to confirm that their food was the culprit. Mortality and morbidity rates have shown that cats are more susceptible to the effects of this food. This makes sense since cats are more strict carnivores than dogs, and would be less adapted to eating foods derived from grains. The FDA, as of this date, still holds that they do not know what the exact culprit is while the company itself has been quoted as saying that they believe it is the wheat gluten acquired from a new supplier. According to one report I read, the company has replaced the gluten and gone back to the previous formula. If that’s true, they must be convinced that the wheat gluten is the problem.

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    Gluten can cause these health problems and more. Gluten, in sensitized individuals, can induce both chronic and acute kidney failure. This form of kidney failure is typically what we call an IgA nephropathy, in which antibodies and immune complexes formed against gluten are deposited in the kidneys, which leads to damage and ultimately failure. Again, this can be chronic leading to persistent blood (microscopic) and protein in the urine or it can be acute.

    In most cases of the “tainted” food deaths, the pets had been eating these foods for months before succumbing to its effects. You may have seen the emotion-charged interviews on national news that dealt with owners who thought they were doing the right thing by feeding their pets these foods. They have now learned that they were poisoning their dogs and cats.

    First, is it a “tainted food -one that contains a poison or a toxin? Or is it one that simply contains a form of gluten that is too powerful for pets’ (or human) consumption? I can easily believe the latter, and that they will find that this new source of gluten came from some genetically modified (GMO) or hybrid wheat that is unsuitable for human consumption and hence, cheaper.  That would explain why it was chosen to replace the company’s old source of gluten. 

    It could be the old Starlink (CRY9C) corn story all over again. You remember that one, right? This occurred in 2000 and Taco Bell became the poster child when they had to recall taco shells suspected of having this GMO corn that was intended only for animal feed. Of course that story died quickly (like I am trying to keep this one from doing) and the public never heard about the millions of dollars spent to rid our food supply of this transgenic maize (GMO corn). They recalled over 350 brands of corn products in their attempt to fix this situation. Who knows whether they were really effective?  Corn allergies in humans have risen as I certainly believe they have in pets. The expressed concern was that it may cause “allergic reactions.” Well, if you call immune-mediated reactions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and asthma “allergic reactions” then that might be accurate.

    The story of this recall, and the underlying cause, should be sending shock waves through the public and veterinary communities. But the response thus far has been limited to concern similar to that seen in an E. coli outbreak. However, if we knew that it was the wheat gluten, and if we knew what wheat gluten was capable of (like we who study celiac disease know) then we should be seeing the bigger picture here: This is just the tip of the iceberg. Dogs and cats have been dying from this stuff all along and we just haven’t known it. We need to wake up to the fact that dogs and cats should not be eating these grains to begin with, regardless of the extent to which Humankind has genetically modified these foods.

    The startling but well established fact is that the lectins of gluten (wheat, barley, rye) dairy products (e.g. casein, lactalbumin) soy, and corn are all capable of inducing serious health issues in those (sensitized) individuals consuming them. I am of the firm belief that these “big 4” are not healthy foods for anyone. They are simply more harmful to some individuals than others.  It is a matter of when, not if, they will cause a problem. That’s why I lovingly call them the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”. 

    You may wonder why the problems caused by these proteins do not happen immediately. That is a great question and one that sometimes keeps people from seeing the truth about these harmful glycoproteins/lectins. The fact is that the onset of the lectin-related disorder, whether it be rheumatoid arthritis, type-one diabetes, lupus, etc., is usually preceded by another event such as viral or bacterial infection. Vaccines can also act as triggers. The result of such secondary events is a sudden influx and attachment of these inflammatory proteins to various cells in the body, ushering in what we often refer to as “autoimmune” disorders.  I hate that term because it implies an immune system that has gone haywire, attacking the body for no reason. Our bodies and immune systems never make that kind of mistake! These things happen for a reason and these food proteins are often the cause. Viruses also play a role, as described on my web site.

    All one needs to do is study celiac disease (gluten intolerance) to see how all of this works and appreciate the health implications that accompany this extremely common condition. It does occur in dogs and cats. That has become painfully obvious over the past 7 years I have been studying this issue. The Irish setter is the only known breed to suffer from gluten intolerance but it is clear that gluten is affecting many other breeds of dogs and cats. Why wouldn’t it? It is affecting us and we have had millennia to adapt to eating wheat. Our pets have only been eating wheat-based pet foods for about 20 years now.

    The fact is that wheat gluten can cause kidney failure. With the relatively small number of deaths that have occurred, gluten is the most likely culprit. Wheat gluten can cause an IgA nephropathy that can either result in chronic or acute kidney failure. There does not have to be another toxin involved. In fact, mold toxins primarily affect the liver and the amount of other toxins that could be present would have to be much higher to cause kidney damage. If so, many more individuals would have been affected. 

    Thus, the FDA is correct in pointing the finger at gluten but very wrong in saying that wheat gluten cannot cause kidney failure.

    This leads to my final point (other than the fact that many of you are up in arms about so many of your “quality pet foods” being made by one big company in Canada): Are your pet foods really formulated “scientifically”? I used to think so. Hey, I used to parrot what I was taught - that the pet food companies spend millions of dollars and years of intense research coming up with balanced and nutritious foods. I used to warn people not to add any table food so that they did not upset this “balance”. I was one of their biggest fans...patsies. 

    Then I woke up and wrote “Gluten Intolerance and Your Pet”. Why are we feeding dogs and cats with wheat, barley, soy, and corn (and now dairy products...again...after having removed them 20 years ago)? The manufacturers of pet foods either don’t have a clue as to what they are doing or they know better and are doing the wrong thing anyway. If I were in the pet food industry, I’d rather claim ignorance, but I’ll let readers decide for themselves. 

    If the research and development departments of these companies that are starting to use dairy products again truly think that lactose is the culprit (rather than the lectins of casein, lactalbumin, etc), then the executives in charge need to fire the entire lot of them and start afresh. If they really don’t know what gluten can do to the kidneys, joints, intestinal tracts, brains and other organs of our beloved pets, then they all need to go back to school or find another line of work.

    DO NOT let this story die. It does not matter whether they ever tell us that wheat gluten caused these deaths. The fact is that it can, and does. Thus, gluten has no place in pet food. The gluten found in the non-recalled dry food versions of these foods is only incrementally better, causing sub-clinical issues that shorten our pet’s lives. 

    Do you really want to know why the average dog’s life is 12 years and that of the cat is 13 years (in the USA) when the former can live to be nearly thirty and the latter to 40? Look no further than what we put in their bowls. In a study done in Europe, pets that were fed table scraps lived an average of 3 years longer than those fed commercial diets alone. Why? Highly processed foods cannot possibly contain all of the essential nutrients found in fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. If our veterinarians can’t understand that, then they too need a refresher course.

    The combination of these foods is woefully deficient in nutrients and the fact that they are downright harmful is an abomination. It is time to change this! Let this recall story be a warning sign but please do not let it die. This increased awareness of the pet food industry and how it works is actually good news for the pets and may also awaken many people to the hazards posed to humans.

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    Our cat is a very picky eater. We get him to eat Hill's chicken flavored dry food. But sometimes he eats it reluctantly so we also give him chicken meat from the rotisserie chicken from Kroger. We eat the same rotisserie chicken the cat does. There are times when we find the cat does not want it. Sure enough, when the cat finds this chicken less than ideal we find that it has an "off" flavor. Sometimes it is downright funky. Yuk! 

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  • About Me

    John B. Symes, AKA “DogtorJ”, DVM is a veterinarian who has been practicing veterinary medicine for over twenty-five years.  He graduated with honors from Auburn University in 1979 and followed that with an internship at the prestigious Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston.  You can read Dogtor J.'s blog.

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