Books: in defence of furry friends

North American companies recalled tainted pet food from China in 2007 after animals became ill. Natalie Whittle sees the depth of dog-owners’ love in Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics.

Pet Food Politics: The Chihuhua in the Coal Mine
Marion Nestle
University of California Press, 2009

The love of a dog has many guises, and takes on a very different form in Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, a serious investigative tome with a faintly ridiculous title. Nestle explores how a case of contaminated pet food from China in 2007 flagged up a wider problem of cheap exports that respond to western demand but ignore its safety standards.

The book highlights how passionately aggrieved pet owners can become when they believe their furry friends are under attack.

Nestle’s book focuses on a recall of pet food in North America prompted by complaints that animals had developed kidney problems after eating. Some pets never recovered, and 60 million units were recalled by pet food manufacturer Menu Foods. A subsequent investigation found the culprit: melamine in Chinese-made wheat gluten.

As Nestle notes, the events exposed “catastrophic weaknesses in global safety systems” of food production and consumer products. What is interesting about this particular case, however, is the way in which the owners fought for their rights: “Dogs and cats may seem remote from fundamental questions about the functioning of democratic societies, but in this particular instance they were central.” Like other writers about dogs, Nestle highlights an undeniable truth: to their owners, these animals are as vulnerable and valuable as a member of the family.

And these pet owners are powerful, too: three months after the first customer called Menu Foods to complain, the Canadian company faced 75 class-action lawsuits. It eventually settled these, and other suits, for US$24 million.

Nestle’s story of “the pet food recall” is one of principle rather than scale. The recall was a big media story, but critics argued that the number of fatal poisonings was insignificant. US television host Rosie O’Donnell, for example, dismissed the problem: “It’s all over the news and people are like ‘The kitty! It’s so sad!’” she said. Yet the death toll of US soldiers since the recall – 29 people – was ignored, she said: “It’s not newsworthy. I don’t understand.”

Nestle’s response to this is as predictable: “Protection of the health and safety of society’s most vulnerable members is the cornerstone of American democracy. In this particular incident, the most vulnerable were cats and dogs.” The grave irony here is that in July 2007, China executed its former head of state food and drug administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, as punishment for the debacle.

These days the old Roman motto “cave canem” – “beware the dog” — seems less pertinent than “beware the dog owner”. The depth of an owner’s love can be frightening but it is also valid – and real. In the poem “To Flush, My Dog”, Elizabeth Barrett lovingly praises her spaniel’s good character, grateful for his vigil at her sickbed, though “Other dogs of loyal cheer/Bounded at the whistle clear”. As she says: “This dog only, waited on,/Knowing that when light is gone/Love remains for shining.”

[This article is extracted from a longer review of books about dogs in the Financial Times.]

Natalie Whittle is the FT’s assistant books editor

The Financial Times Limited 2009