BSE? Nope.

Worries about a virulent foreign animal disease like foot-and-mouth disease introduced by accident or intention? Nahh.

Increased price volatility and decreased profitability because of international trade disputes based on perceived animal health and meat safety risks? Try again.

Worries about Fluffy's prospects for a long, healthy life? Bingo!

Laugh if you want, but consumer concerns over pet health could advance the development and adoption of animal and food traceability standards more than wonderments about livestock security and human health ever have.

Pet power

There are about 800,000 beef producers in this nation and a total beef-cow inventory of 33 million head. The total value of U.S. cattle and calf production was $36.7 billion in 2005, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.

By contrast, there were 63 million dogs and more than 81 million cats in the U.S. that year, according to the Pet Food Institute, spread over a total of 111 million U.S. households. And feeding these dogs and cats generated a record $14.1 billion in pet food sales.

That's the stake in this spring's massive pet-food recall, one of the largest in history. These are the folks who, according to various reports, filed more complaints with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a few weeks than the agency normally receives in a year.

Recalling the future?

It started with Menu Foods, a pet-food manufacturer for lots of local and nationally recognized brands. The firm voluntarily recalled its moist and canned dog and cat food after they were linked to illness and death in cats receiving the company's food as part of a taste test.

Initial analyses conducted by New York officials uncovered a chemical called aminopterin, which is reportedly used as a rodenticide in some parts of the world. This immunosuppressive chemical has been used in chemotherapy and also as an abortifacient.

FDA investigators didn't come up with aminopterin, but did uncover melamine in pet food samples, and in the urine and kidneys of deceased cats that were part of the aforementioned taste test.

“Melamine is an ingredient that should not be in pet food at any level. However, we are not yet fully certain that melamine is the causative agent,” an FDA report says. “As in any investigation, we follow leads, use advanced forensics and try to narrow down the cause.”

Melamine is produced from urea and is used in everything from plastics to laminates; it's also used in some countries as a fertilizer, though it's not approved for such use in the U.S.

Ultimately, these samples traced back to wheat gluten from a single supplier, ChemNutra of Las Vegas, NV. ChemNutra says it got the wheat gluten from a Chinese firm — Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. (XABTD).

Wheat gluten is used in a number of pet-food applications. It's also used extensively in human food production.

“The toxicity of melamine is not clear,” explain ChemNutra officials. “However, since melamine is not approved by FDA for pet food, it should absolutely not have been in wheat gluten… The company is particularly troubled that the certificates of analysis provided by the above-named supplier did not report the presence of melamine.”

By April 5, ChemNutra had recalled all the wheat gluten it had imported from XABTD — 792 metric tons. ChemNutra officials emphasize none of the wheat gluten was shipped to facilities that manufacture food for human consumption, only to pet-food manufacturers.

Among the logical questions pet owners are asking are: How did melamine get into the wheat gluten to begin with? Don't such companies test feed ingredients to verify what the supplier's label says? If it can happen with pet food, what about human food?

The answer includes something typically missing from recent years' debate about animal ID, animal tracking and food traceability — a common system for verifying the traceability of products and their ingredients.

In other words, it's one thing to have an auditable system to document and track such attributes as age and source within a company — as Process Verified Programs and Quality Systems Assurance programs do. It's something entirely different to verify that a product and its ingredients are traceable across the spectrum of companies involved in their manufacturing, processing and distribution.

Without them, it's easy to imagine concerned pet owners supporting flawed concepts like country-of-origin labeling, in the mistaken belief that knowing where a product is from also means that you know what's in it.