Pet food industry added to confusion over recall

It's been almost four weeks since Menu Foods' dog- and cat-food recall led to confusion and fear among retailers and consumers, prompting many questions and few answers.

It's been almost four weeks since Menu Foods' dog- and cat-food recall led to confusion and fear among retailers and consumers, prompting many questions and few answers.

Now, as the Food and Drug Administration attempts to determine what caused thousands of furry friends to fall ill - and at least 16 to die - the crisis and recalls linger on.

Almost 100 brands of "cuts and gravy"-style wet pet food - and one dry cat food - originating from Menu Foods were voluntarily recalled; they range from store brands sold at Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Kroger to higher-end products made by Iams, Purina, Hill's, and Nutro. While the toxic ingredient appears to be melamine, a plastic derivative used as fertilizer, people were more concerned about which brands were being recalled than why.

The severity of this incident shows that every industry, be it pet food, peanut butter, or petroleum, needs a comprehensive crisis communications plan. There might have been no way to avoid confusion, but some difficulties could have been avoided had the pet food industry, as a whole, been truly prepared to take a strong, unified position. At the least, it might have alleviated some confusion as to which brands were unsafe.

The DC-based Pet Food Institute, which bills itself as "the voice of US pet food manufacturers," has issued statements and information throughout the crisis. Its messaging, though - like that of Menu Foods - seems to have come too little, too late. While news of pet illnesses trickled out on March 16, misunderstandings among customers and consumers spread much faster.

But when consumers and even media were more likely to be helped by retailers, which more quickly updated their Web sites and in-store materials, than the industry, the public will think twice before trusting the traditional pet food industry again.

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