NEW YORK (Reuters) - A massive pet food recall has touched a nerve with pet-loving Americans, many of whom see their pets as family members.
The recalled products, manufactured by Menu Foods of Ontario, Canada, account for 1 percent of pet food sold in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has said. But in a country where more than half the people in a 2004 survey said they would risk their lives for their pets, the thought that food could kill their animals sent fearful consumers scrambling for information about affected products.
Stories about the recall were the No. 1 most popular search on Yahoo.com’s news page and among the top 10 most e-mailed stories listed late Tuesday on The New York Times Web page.
The pet food recall has in many ways affected more people than some of the biggest recent food scares for humans such as a peanut butter recall and concerns over spinach and lettuce.
“These are our furry babies,” said Jan Rasmusen, author of the book “Scared Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care”, in which she makes a case for a switch to natural, nonprocessed foods for pets.
Rasmusen said previous pet food scares turned her off most canned brands.
“I get more scared for the animals because I can just avoid spinach, but if you don’t know about pet nutrition, you can’t just avoid pet food,” she said.
The FDA said during a media conference call on Tuesday it was investigating the deaths of 13 cats and 1 dog related to the recall, and was looking into the Kansas plant operated by Menu Foods because some recalled food was made there. It said it was still getting calls from people reporting pet deaths and asking if they could be related to recalled food.
Veterinarians said they have been flooded with calls from pet owners since the recall began on March 16, including one Boston woman who wondered if her cat that died unexpectedly a month ago could be exhumed for a post-mortem.
As of 2005/2006, 69 million American households owned a pet, including 90.5 million cats and 74 million dogs, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA).
For companies like Procter & Gamble, which owns the Iams and Eukanuba brands, and Nestle’s Purina, the pet foods business alone will generate $16 billion this year, according to the APPMA. The organization added that spending on pets for everything from food to cremation services is expected to rise to $40.8 billion in 2007.
“(The market) continues to be driven by the humanization of pets,” said CIBC World Markets analyst Vivian Ma. “It is this theme of being a pet parent rather than a pet owner (that) is driving a lot of this spending.”
“There is some degree of craziness that goes along with pet ownership,” said Dr. Jake Tedaldi, a veterinarian who makes private house calls in upscale Newton, Mass. “It’s a form of therapy for (people), and they can indulge in it and feel good.”
At the root of it is the deep emotional attachment that people form with pets, Tedaldi said. For many empty-nest parents, single women or childless couples, pets often become “surrogate children, or are treated as such.”
“We think of our pets as more helpless versions of ourselves and treat them like human infants,” he said.
According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), which did the 2004 survey, four out of five people believed their pets have human-like personality traits, while 56 percent said their pets listened to them more than spouses, friends or family members.
“Pets are a very valuable part of our lives,” said Dr. Kimberly May, a veterinarian with the American Veterinary Medical Association. “The thought of losing a pet is terrifying to many people.”
Menu Foods Income Fund makes a number of different pet foods sold under private label and store brands at companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Safeway Inc. and at specialty pet stores like Petsmart Inc.
Lists of affected brands and other recall details are on www.menufoods.com/recall/.
Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman