Pet-food scandal unleashes once-obscure Web sites

Ben Huh launched his Web site in February with the modest goal of helping Seattle-area residents find dog parks and pet stores. In the first month, - named in honor of his dog's constant demands to be scratched - registered just 350 hits.

"I don't even think our friends came," said Huh, 29, a software company product manager.


Then came the March 16 recall of 60 million containers of pet food after reports of illnesses and deaths. Huh posted a few bits of information on the suspect foods and links to recall lists.

Then hit blogger pay dirt: links to Web documents, such as the manufacturer's "Code of Conduct," that were not visible from the company's home page.


In two weeks, Huh logged 1.5 million hits from fearful and outraged pet owners.

"This is not like somebody stirred up a hornet's nest; it's like someone stirred up a flock of sheep," said Huh, whose wife quit her job to devote herself to the site full time. "We're not used to being mobilized like this. But we've got teeth."

The pet-food scandal has transformed once-obscure Web sites about litter boxes and doggy breath into poignant memorials to beloved companions - and hot sources of muckraking reporting.

Bloggers and owners of sites such as,,, and have been deluged by millions of pet owners who are grieving or railing or both - and digging for answers.

Their online barking is being heard in Washington's halls of power, including the Food and Drug Administration and Capitol Hill. They have the numbers to howl loudly: Americans own 73 million dogs and 90 million cats.

Just after releasing a letter to the FDA asking for a report on its pet-food investigation, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, sent the same letter to six pet Web sites that have closely followed the issue.

Durbin's staffers have posted information on pet blogs and solicited pet owners online for ideas about new legislation.

Those suggestions later made their way into an FDA bill amendment sponsored by Durbin, calling for stricter production and labeling standards for pet food, the senator said.


"The Internet has changed all the rules here in terms of mobilizing public opinion on important issues, and this pet-food contamination is a clear illustration," Durbin said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office.

"Through our Web site and other Web sites, we established lines of communication that might never have occurred before the Web."

The pet-food campaign has the hallmarks of other big blog-driven news stories, with dedicated crews of site owners highlighting, commenting on and linking to media reports and official statements.

The bloggers dig out and post documents, such as the FDA's missive advising that pregnant investigators not examine human foods that the FDA repeatedly has said are safe, and they e-mail reporters, government officials, company executives and anyone else who might have a part in the story.

They listen in on FDA conference calls, awaiting the rare chance that the agency's public-relations staffers will call on them, and some "liveblog" their own running transcripts.

"I don't know of a comparable case," said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who writes the media-criticism blog PressThink. "It shows what's possible when people get outraged and they ask themselves, what's happening here? They actually have the tools to start finding out."


The FDA says it has logged about 4,100 consumer reports of pet deaths, although the number could grow as the agency makes its way through a backlog from more than 21,000 total calls. That tally, covering a two-month period, is at least three times what the agency usually gets in a year, a spokeswoman said.

Menu Foods Income Fund, the Canada-based pet-food manufacturer that first issued a recall, said in March that it had fielded more than 200,000 calls. Nielsen/NetRatings said that Web traffic to pet-related sites grew from 9.1 million unique visitors in February to 19.5 million in March.

Part of the sites' newfound success is in offering a place for owners of sick or dead pets to commiserate and rage, and to link to photo and video pet tributes featured on various sharing sites around the Web., and others vow that they'll continue the kind of pressure and news-gathering on which their readers have come to rely., one of the larger sites that has devoted itself to recall issues, has the advantage of being organized by trained journalists who also write a syndicated pet column for newspapers around the United States.

Their work now is a long way from what Gina Spadafori, the site's executive editor, and Christie Keith, a contributing editor and blogger, were doing before the recall hit.

"In February, we were covering the latest in litter boxes at Global Pet Expo," Spadafori said. "And in March, I'm suddenly embroiled in an international trade story."


Abigail Goldman writes for the Los Angeles Times