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A New Must-Read on the Politics of (Pet) Food


Marion Nestle's Pet Food Politics

© Lee Friedman
Marion Nestle's Pet Food Politics

This month, nutrition expert, NYU food-studies professor and What to Eat author Marion Nestle has a fantastically readable, lucid new book on an otherwise ridiculously turgid, daunting subject: our ever-more globalized food chain and its inherent risks. In her wryly titled Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, Nestle uses the infamous pet-food recall of 2007 to portray the interconnectedness of our entire food industry, and its need for greater oversight. Last year, the Canadian Menu Foods company had to recall a mind-blowing 60 million-plus cans and packages of cat and dog food, packaged under a whopping 95 different brands, after discovering that they contained wheat gluten from China that had been tainted with melamine and a byproduct, cyanuric acid, two industrial chemicals that together caused kidney failure in animals.

Many of us might look for the nearest pile of sand to bury our heads and try to forget the unfortunate event, but Nestle follows the melamine trail to explain in clear English what happened, why, and what to do about it. On more than one subway ride, I found myself so absorbed by her Grisham-esque narrative that I missed my stop. And I’m surprisingly heartened: She reports how the pet-food industry has begun to clean up its act—and explains out how the rest of the food world can, too (For anyone concerned about the recent baby-formula scandal, this book might help.)

Last week, Nestle took a moment to talk about writing Pet Food Politics, what pet owners should feed their animals and her relationship to the beautiful Samoyed dog that appears with her in the photograph on the book jacket. A Q&A follows after the jump.

F&W: You’re known for books on human nutrition; how did you get involved with animals?

Marion Nestle: In 2006, I published What to Eat, using the supermarket as an organizing device. I felt guilty about ignoring the pet-food aisle, but when I looked at the labels, I couldn’t understand them. My partner, Malden Nesheim, is an animal nutritionist, so I asked him to do something with me. We just turned in the manuscript for that book, What Pets Eat.

F&W: So how did that lead to a second book on the pet-food recall?
MN: In 2007, when the recall happened, Malden and I had just gotten the contract with Harcourt. We were facing a lot of hostility about the project; we kept hearing how people were disgusted at how much money is spent on pets when people are starving in Africa and so forth. I had a feeling when the recall started that there were bigger issues involved, that it could help explain the reasons behind our project. Initially, I thought I’d do a 10-page appendix to What Pets Eat, but the information I uncovered was so complex, it quickly grew into its own book, which the University of California Press was able to publish quickly.

F&W: Do you think the pet-food industry is safer now?
MN: I do. The people in the pet-food industry I spoke to felt like they were completely sandbagged. They didn’t even know they were getting ingredients from China. There are so many intermediaries, nobody knows where anything comes from unless they ask. Everyone’s checking now. They have specific tests for melamine. More oversight is still needed; we badly need to separate the food function from the drug function of the FDA. But we'll need a regime change for that to happen.

F&W: So what should pet owners feed their cats and dogs?
MN: Owners should be advocates and activists. Call up the company and find out what they’re testing for. If they don’t tell you, don’t buy it. Calling those consumer-affairs numbers on the packages does have an impact.

F&W: Do you have any pets?
MN: Not at the moment;  I travel too much. The gorgeous dog that I’m posed with in the author photograph lives upstairs from me. It’s fully disclosed that it’s my neighbors’ dog.

F&W: So it does: It says “Klara, the Samoyed, courtesy of Irv Shenkler and Lynn Russell,” right there on the flap.
MN: Yes, Klara and I spent half a day together having our picture taken. I picked the one that was most flattering to the dog.

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