Tuesday, 18 September 2018
Pet Food Industry
How much do we value our pets? That's the question at the heart of the current inquiry into pet food regulations. For owners who gave evidence at the public hearings, the answer was never in doubt. They always put the welfare of their pets before their own. They'd done the research and chosen a premium pet food product, thinking they were giving the best possible care to their pets. What they didn't know was that that decision would have a lasting impact on their lives would be the beginning of the end for many of their pets.
Over the course of a few weeks, they would watch their dogs transform from lively, boisterous, outgoing family pets to helpless, vulnerable invalids requiring constant specialist care. They were then dealt a cruel blow when it became apparent that their decision to feed their dog one particular brand was the reason that their pets are dead. But it was the revelations that followed in the weeks after the deaths of their beloveds animals that turned that sorrow and guilt into anger. Our pets place their trust in us to make sure we feed them a healthy diet, and we in turn place our trust in the pet food industry to ensure that what they put on the supermarket shelves is safe. As it transpires, that trust may be misplaced.
Don't be fooled by the adorable fluffy kittens on the packaging. This is a seriously big industry. Pet food is a product that commands an entire aisle in every supermarket and every vet practice. It is an industry worth almost $4 billion—$4 billion! By way of comparison, Meat & Livestock Australia estimated a year ago the gross value of Australia's lamb and mutton production, including live export, was even less than that at $3.9 billion. To put it into context, just a handful of players in the pet food industry are actually on par with an entire meat industry segment.
The pet food industry is highly successful and profitable, but it is not necessarily safe because it is entirely self-regulated. There is no independent oversight whatsoever. In the absence of a mandatory recall processes—or, indeed, any sort of mandatory regulation—companies are left to decide on their own when, if at all, they recall a product. So what is their primary consideration? Is it the welfare of our animals or their bottom line? At what point do they decide it is economically prudent to commence a recall? In other words, how many pets have to die before their hand is forced?
Some assistance is provided through the Australian Veterinary Association's PetFAST reporting system, which allows vets to lodge an incident report online when they suspect an illness or disease may have been caused by pet food. That sounds great in theory, but in practice there are so many flaws that the effectiveness of the PetFAST system has to be questioned. First, only vets are allowed to make a report, but barely half of all vets in Australia are members of the Australian Veterinary Association, and many who are members don't even know what PetFAST is or how to use it. Second, if you, the consumer, opens up a bag of cat or dog food at home and finds it is mouldy or contaminated, you can't report it via PetFAST. Finally, even if you do get a vet to make a notification, a copy of that then goes straight to The Pet Food Industry Association, which then passes it onto the manufacturer in question, remembering that a representative of that manufacturer more than likely sits on the board of the industry association. There is a giant red flag here, and what happens to that notification is anyone's guess, because there is no public record of PetFAST notifications and no obligation whatsoever on anyone to take any action at all.
We need to fix this system fast, because pets are dying. Pets are our companions, part of the family. We need to do the right thing by them and ensure the regulations around their food are as strong as ours. I'm confident that the current Senate inquiry will deliver strong recommendations which the federal government and the states and territories can use to guide lasting reforms that will protect and improve the health of our pets.