Catastrophes beyond the public eye

In any case, the facts may be worse than we think they are, or we believe the story is worse than the facts suggest.

Consider last week?s major news story about contaminated pet food and the deaths of less than two dozen pets. The Canadian-based pet-food manufacturer recalled 60 million cans and packets of moist cat and dog food after discovering an unknown toxic substance in the ingredients.

Later, investigators at the New York State Testing Laboratory found Aminopterin in samples of wheat gluten the company provided for testing.

According to HealthDay reporter Steven Reinberg, Aminopterin is derived from folic acid and in the United States it is approved for use as a cancer drug, not as a rodent poison. But it is used to kill rodents in some other countries.

The toxin is known to cause cancer and birth defects in humans and kidney damage in dogs and cats.

Coming back to the main story, the documented deaths of less than two dozen pets, though tragic and noteworthy, hardly seems worthy enough to be reported on the front pages of national media when compared to the human tragedies occurring elsewhere at home and abroad.

According to the latest statistics, 2.465 million people died in the United States in 2006. That?s more than 6,753 deaths per day, or 281 per hour or 4.7 per minute. Even if we eliminated all deaths that were from normal aging, the death rate is too high.

Included in these figures are the victims of alcohol and drug abuse, deaths from traffic accidents, spousal abuse, murders and accidental weapon discharges.

Other catastrophes continue unabated worldwide. A Web site not known for keeping quiet about the larger issues is Overpopulation.com. In its Jan. 13, 2006, publication of the article, ?Overpopulation doesn?t kill people, war kills people,? editors cite a study that suggests as many as 38,000 people die each month as a direct result of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These deaths are mostly from malnutrition and disease, not to mention the ongoing fighting between factions.

The entire civil war took nearly four million lives since 1998. This war even makes the war in Iraq and Afghanistan look small. And yet, it seems world opinion in general has chosen to ignore this story.

From a personal perspective, mortality figures numbering in the millions are difficult to comprehend. I can easily relate to a smaller, single-digit number, even if it is only a pet. An unfortunate, untimely death hits closer to home. I see a face and a name and immediately am drawn into the story through my connection with the individual or pet.

Even when a tragedy closer to home occurs without a significant loss of life, my sense of loss seems like it is worse than anything else is. The Hesston and Andale tornados were such events. I pitched in and volunteered to help with the cleanup, as did others in our community.

Lately, however, these events are coming in greater frequency, or so it seems. Hurricane Katrina was the ?mother of all disasters.? Though I try to respond by helping where I can, I feel numbed by the numbers of families displaced and news stories covering one catastrophe after another.

Perhaps that is the only rational reasoning why people are drawn to this pet-food fiasco. The loss of life that these small numbers describe makes one believe it is possible to do something about it, even if the only recourse is to take time to read the label on the latest purchase of pet food.

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Perhaps this side note might have been equally newsworthy, if not more so, than the original story. The contaminated wheat gluten was imported from China and used by two pet-food plants, of which one is in Kansas.

Kansas, a.k.a. the wheat state, is well known for producing top-quality wheat and wheat by-products, including gluten. And yet, management at Menu Foods were convinced importing gluten from another country more than 10,000 miles away was in their company?s best interests. In light of the impending legal costs when all is said and done, I cannot imagine how management could have ignored the long-term risks of its shortsighted decision to purchase cheaper, lower-quality wheat gluten from a country who?s environmental and health record is suspect at best.

Not to mention the looming perception of their customers that the higher-priced, premium pet-food product?s main ingredients may have been inferior to locally available products?meaning their primary commitment was to the bottom line and little else.

And that says volumes about Menu Food?s commitment to overall food safety in their production system.