April 23, 2007

Pet food recall raises deeper issue of lax standards in developing countries

By: Colin Isaacs

Many organizations are speculating on the impact of the recent pet food recall on consumer confidence in pet and human food products. There is a widespread belief that there will be a groundswell of calls for greater regulation of food safety.

I am inclined to disagree. It is always possible that a government will seek to enhance its political profile by announcing more strict regulation of product safety but, when previously faced with major recalls, Canadians have demonstrated great resilience in their confidence in the food safety system.

As yet, there is no evidence of a major public demand among Canadians for tougher rules, even though news media are now giving greater prominence to recalls than ever before. The situation is somewhat different in the U.S., where a greater number of non-governmental organizations are always actively looking for issues to advance.

Nevertheless, every major incident inevitably weakens public confidence and brings closer the day when demands are made for more regulation. Industry can delay that weakening of public confidence through voluntary programs that are seen by the public to be effective.

Maintaining public confidence without more government regulation will require independent third-party inspection and certification, clear labelling of certified products, good communication of the details of the certification program, and widespread industry adoption of such programs.

The impact of the pet food recall may have a greater impact in two less direct sectors: plastics and non-food products, and in public concern over globalization. Previously the public associated melamine with widely-used, durable plastic tableware. The use of the same word, melamine, for both a chemical and a resin--different substances, though the

latter includes the former in its production--may weaken confidence in melamine plastic products and could cause consumer and environmental groups to ask more questions about other plastic products, particularly those used in food contact applications.

Environmental group concern over non-food products is already on a roll. The Ottawa-based organization Environmental Defence has already linked in a positive way the federal government's Chemicals Management Plan, announced last December, to household cleaning products and detergents, even though there is virtually no link between the two. Concern over melamine contamination in wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate will enhance the public perception that nasty chemicals produced by the chemical industry are to be found everywhere and need to be controlled.

The public is already concerned that public health standards in other countries do not match those of Canada. Products grown or manufactured elsewhere are viewed with suspicion. If China is confirmed as the source of the melamine contamination, goods and products from that country are likely to be viewed with increased suspicion.

Brand owners, importers, manufacturers with plants in developing countries, and governments need to work together on international product safety and quality assurance regimes if the benefits of globalization are to be protected from a backlash arising from problems caused by just one or two vendors.

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