Study says killer combination turned up in pet food before 2007 recall

March 4, 2008

It seems that last year’s massive pet food recall wasn’t the first time thousands of pets suffered renal failure due to melamine and cyanuric acid contamination of pet food.

A recent article in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation says that a similar outbreak in 2004 was caused by the contaminants, and that “Findings in tissues from animals affected in the United States in 2007 were identical to those observed in the dogs from Asia that died in 2004.”

The 2004 outbreak sickened and killed thousands of dogs and cats and led to the recall of Pedigree dog foods and Whiskas cat foods in a number of Asian countries including the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. From a newspaper report dated March 15, 2004:

Taiwan veterinarians have reportedly said hundreds of dogs fed Pedigree Dry dog food have developed kidney failure and died in recent months.

But the company said that numerous scientific tests conducted by the Taiwan government and by its own experts have found no problems, and noted that since its dry dog food is the most popular brand in Taiwan and has major market shares in other affected countries, “we would expect a majority of dogs with any condition to have been fed our product.”

Renal disease, it said, is a common condition diagnosed in up to 100,000 dogs every year in Taiwan. Besides food and drink, it said, possible causes include infectious diseases, old age, natural or man-made toxins, and overall genetic susceptibility.

The Journal of Veterinary Investigative Diagnosis reported that the Asian cases were initially attributed to contamination with mycotoxin, and that “an estimated 6,000 dogs and a smaller number of cats developed nephrotoxic renal failure in 2004.” But their own research, working with tissue samples from animals from both years discovered characteristic crystals and kidney damage typical of melamine-associated renal failure (MARF) caused by the ingestion of melamine and cyanuric acid:

This study provides compelling evidence that the pet food–associated renal failure outbreaks in 2004 and 2007 share causation. In particular, the outbreaks share identical clinical, histologic, and toxicologic findings. Given the unique nature of the histologic features and the specificity of the toxicologic tests in this study, it is reasonable to conclude that both are examples of MARF. Although the source of melamine and cyanuric acid responsible for the 2007 MARF outbreak has been identified as vegetable protein concentrates imported from China, the source in the 2004 outbreak remains undetermined.


The addition of melamine, cyanuric acid, or both to enhance apparent protein content of vegetable concentrates is reportedly commonplace in some regions. Because chronic interstitial fibrosis is a self-perpetuating process and a common finding in animals with chronic kidney disease, sublethal MARF could represent an important, previously unrecognized cause of chronic kidney disease in dogs and cats. Interestingly, the contaminated wheat gluten in the 2007 outbreak was a human food–grade product. The potential effects of ingestion of similarly contaminated material by people are unknown.

With the one year anniversary of the first recalls almost on us, the issues raised by this study are both troubling and intriguing.

First is the reference to what it calls “chronic MARF,” or lingering effects of having eaten the contaminated foods. What happened to the affected animals in 2004? What will happen to the animals who survived in 2007 as they age? Can the fate of the animals from the earlier outbreak help us understand what’s happening to the survivors today?

Second is the fact that at least one previous massive pet food recall was attributed to mycotoxin contamination, calling into question any other pet food recalls — or human food problems, for that matter — previously thought to have been caused by mycotoxins.

Third is the question as to whether this has happened not only twice, but many times over the years. Certainly once the extent of melamine and cyanuric acid adulteration of protein concentrates in China was discovered it seemed fairly obvious the 2007 outbreak wasn’t the first one; it was just the first one we noticed. This study confirms that suspicion.

The study goes over the history of the 2007 recall, and brings up a question Pet Connection has been wrestling with since the beginning — the numbers. It has some for the 2004 incident:

The 2 outbreaks described in this study were widespread and catastrophic. It has been estimated that over 6,000 animals were affected in the 2004 incident and although the number of animals affected in 2007 is currently undetermined, the FDA has received over 10,000 complaints related to this outbreak.

The 2004 newspaper article contained some words that sound eerily familiar to all of us who followed the 2007 pet food recalls. About the dog and cat food recalls in Asia:

“We are taking this action out of an abundance of caution…This is the right thing to do to eliminate any concerns about the quality and safety of these products, and to ensure the health of our customers’ pets,” regional scientific affairs manager of Effem Foods Duncan Hall said in [a] statement.

The company advised customers to stop feeding products covered by the recall to their pets and said they should consult with their veterinarian if they have any concerns. It said it will offer a full refund for any unused product.

Let’s hope this never happens again, but if it does, the pet food companies can do better than that.

The study abstract is online here.

Filed under: pets, connected,recalls,veterinary medicine — Christie Keith @ 11:19 am


  1. Thank you for making this news——it is info we all should have!! Thank you , thank you!!

    Comment by Carol V — March 4, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  2. EFFEM Foods?! O please, this is too perfect.

    Comment by slt — March 4, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  3. My dead dog could have told them that in September 2006 prior to the recall.

    Comment by Nadine L. — March 4, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  4. I also thank you for making this news.

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — March 4, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  5. “The potential effects of ingestion of similarly contaminated material by people are unknown.”

    Uh, lets see, didnt FDA say that it was all OK, so let the pigs and chickens and fish go? Just great.

    And I wonder if this is the end of their study or is anyone going to try to track down the ingredient in the food that contained the melamine? Pedigree dry dog food doesnt show wheat gluten as an ingredient, at least not currently on their website. So what is the mystery ingredient that had the melamine?

    Comment by Sandi K — March 4, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  6. Wish I could say I am surprised. Still can’t understand why the safety of the food supply – pet and human – isn’t more of an issue to most people.

    Comment by Carol — March 4, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  7. Many thanks for this info Christie! Hope to see it in the Sac Bee and SF papers where it will reach a wide audience.

    Comment by MaineMom — March 4, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

  8. Christie said “Let’s hope this never happens again, but if it does, the pet food companies can do better than that.”

    I think that they could if they wanted to.

    The line from the Florida lawsuit Response to motion to dismiss from PFI defendants is telling…

    Quote from Docket- Plaintiff Attorney

    “One would think that is not a lot to ask, but apparently asking these Defendants to do the right thing is a lot to ask indeed.”

    Comment by Ann H — March 5, 2008 @ 4:29 am

  9. Aunt Jemima, too! The FDA has recalled a limited amount of their pancake mixes.

    Aunt Jemima, I always trusted you–and now you let me down. Boohoohoo!

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — March 5, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  10. (It was for possible salmonella poisoning that the recall for Aunt Jemima pancakes was made).

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — March 5, 2008 @ 8:03 am

  11. One of my cats was poisoned, but his renal values have returned to normal (St. Patrick’s day marks his one-year anniversary- he’ll be going in for another recheck next month), and a second ate the food but vomited shortly afterward and didn’t experience any measurable decline in kidney function. I fear for them both.. it drives me all sorts of strawberry-flavored batty not knowing how this will affect them in the future.

    Just to be on the safe side, methinks I will probably opt for yearly bloodwork at their physicals from now on.. at least until we get some more information that suggests I can stop being neurotic.

    Blargh. Having read this, I think it’s pretty safe to say these guys weren’t oblivious to the fact that the combination could be dangerous. What really concerns me is the possibility that foods may have been adulterated with this stuff for a lengthy period of time prior to the recalls, but that the concentration was low enough not to induce any apparent clinical signs.. that maybe the implicated batches of gluten were of a particularly poor quality and required a little extra “enhancement” or something. I don’t know how it works. I just hope I haven’t been subclinically poisoning the boys for years. (When I read the “MARF” bit, I couldn’t tell if they were referring to animals decompensating months or years after one subclinical poisoning event, or if they were referring to “MARF” as the cumulative effect of a lengthy period of low-level poisoning.)

    Either way, I’m kind of glad i haven’t felt the need to indulge in any pancakes or fish sticks as of late.

    Comment by "Mom" to 3 Cats — March 5, 2008 @ 8:42 am

  12. “Because chronic interstitial fibrosis is a self-perpetuating process and a common finding in animals with chronic kidney disease, sublethal MARF could represent an important, previously unrecognized cause of chronic kidney disease in dogs and cats.”

    I specifically remember speculative discussions around this possibility on verious PetConnection threads during the 2007 rolling recalls. Several people commented on how dismissive many vets were about kidney problems – particularly among older animals (cats in particular) – because it was so “common”. The question then became, has it ALWAYS been so “common”, or is the frequency of kidney issues in pets – aging or not – a relatively recent phenomenon which has been flying under the radar?

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — March 5, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  13. From today’s NYTimes… this is about Baxter Intl and Heparin (now up to 19 people killed), but certainly is a familiar story to this blog. Also, please note that the NYTimes is recognizing THOUSANDS of pets.

    “Counterfeit ingredients from China are a perennial headache for the FDA. If the heparin contamination turns out to be deliberate, it would be reminiscent of last year’s scandal when a Chinese company was charged with adding the toxic chemical melamine to an ingredient used in U.S. pet food, killing thousands of dogs and cats. The melamine let the ingredient pass chemical inspections for protein content.”

    Comment by CynthiaW — March 5, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  14. My cats wouldn’t eat any of the fish sticks, either. I did not buy them again.

    I used to go to Gloucester and smell the fish plant, Gortons. I returned for the first time in 20 years last summer and no fish smell. Did it go to China? Didn’t miss the odor, though. I could then smell the fresh sea air.

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — March 5, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  15. My Great-Grandmother, Grandmother, and Mother all had cats for many, many years. Their kitties lived long and healthy lives. For sure, they didn’t die too young of kidney disease and cancer like so many do nowadays.

    Comment by 5CatMom — March 5, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  16. im lost, my beloved was put down mar 2nd 2007 from eating the iamms food. But due to the fact he already had kidney diease, iamms says theres nonthing they will do nor can do for me for a settlement. Because I didnt get test’s done before I put him down. I had no other choice and he was at a deathly ill state. Nor did we get an autopsy, he was cremated. My only pet I ever owned, this just brings tears to my eyes and grief all over again. I was mad and emailed them a letter, along with dijon’s last home video taken prio to his death, chirpy and cheey playful. Taken on xmas day and he died mar 2nd 2007 you are all welcomed to view his video. Just copy and paste into your browser. Iamms says I have no evidence to his kidney levels were high due to the contaminated food, and yes thats true cause no tests were done, I never even knew about the news till it was released on tv in mid march, he was put down mar 2nd 2007. We will always miss you my little dijon the poodle, momma is at lost and sorry for not being able to fight for you. Heres hi s small video clip

    Comment by jolynn — March 5, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  17. I also wonder what effect feeding our animals cancerous parts of animals, roadkill, and possible euthanized animals has had on them. Maybe its just me, but I don’t remember many dogs/cats with cancer when I was growing up. Could be that because our pets are living longer that the cancer increases with age, but it could also be the cummulative effect of feeding our animals poison over the years.

    Comment by 2CatMom — March 5, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  18. The Pet Food Industry and the PFI knew this combo was deadly, knew, all this time and did not test for the contaminant, let it happen again, this _was_ the next time.

    Arrogant much?
    No wonder they had the cover up part down pat, practice.

    Comment by gotchapfi — March 5, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  19. My cat recently was operated on because she had cancer of the mamary gland which the doctor removed.

    She ate Nutro cuts and gravy packages, getting sick with diarrhea that had blood in it, until I heard about the recall.

    My boy cat got treated for hyperthyroidism and I kept feeding him Nutro cuts and gravy until the recall in 2007.

    At least the pet food industry sans Menu Foods appears to be healthy!

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — March 5, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  20. It appears that the “deadly combo” that now we know showed up in the 2004 recall is known to form a salt—-this doesn’t appear to be new news and I had thought that the Univ of Guelph had “breaking” news last May that these two chemicals formed crystals but in my ever going search for the truth—I found info that this may not be new news— here’s one website–melamine cyanurate appears to be that “salt”–wonder if this looks the same as what is in the kidneys? I pasted U of Guelph link first—


    Comment by Carol V — March 6, 2008 @ 5:11 am

  21. I wonder if there is any correlation with the “flame retardants” in cat food—

    and melamine cyanurate?? Now that I know melamine and CA combo is a flame retardant!(from my second link in my last post)

    Comment by Carol V — March 6, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  22. The missing piece of this study.. testing the 2004 pet food samples for melamine, cyanuric acid and melamine cyanurate.

    Why hasn’t that been done too?

    Pet food companies typically retain “library” samples of their batches of pet foods.

    Did they request samples from the 2004 pet foods to be tested for melamine, cyanuric acid or melamine cyanurate?

    It seems that would bring a scientific solid bottom line to your study to have that confirmation of the 2004 pet food ingredients/contaminants included.

    It’s a question that begs to be answered based on validating the findings and correlation of 2004 & 2007 pet food recalls.

    Comment by Ann H — March 6, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  23. The morphology of crystal formation varies widely depending on the specifics of the environment which crystals form in. My take on the U of Guelph findings was that they discovered that – specifically within the kind of environment present within (cat)urine – the combination of melamine and cyanuric acid would form a crystal whose morphology was those big honkin’ wheels that got stuck in (and clogged up) all the tiny little passages within the kidney, thus causing damage and shutdown. I’m not sure they were claiming to be the first to “discover” that melamine and cyanuric acid combined in a crystalline form. Rather, my impression was that they found that two chemicals that you would never expect to ever even FIND themselves co-existing in cat urine caused some pretty big problems when that unlikely event did – in fact – come to pass.

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — March 6, 2008 @ 9:38 am

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