Low cost doesn’t always mean low quality, but when you go for rock bottom, you usually get what you pay for. So why is it that we’re so taken aback, as a nation, when we find out the goods we get from China aren’t exactly what we bargained for?

I’m referring here to the pet food recall issue—but not exclusively. I have little sympathy for the pet food industry. Sure, it wasn’t its intention to shoot itself in the foot by angling for a cheaper alternative to home-grown grain. But, make no mistake, a precipitous drop in quality was precisely what they consciously paid for.

Do they deserve what they got? Not entirely. While they certainly earned our outrage (after we learned how low they’re willing to go on the quality-of-ingredients scale), and they deserve the PR flak they got for dragging their feet on reporting and disseminating information, what’s warranted is substantially more pressure to change their practices and far more condemnation for their part than is currently being invoked in the wake of the recall.

They’re hiding behind China’s skirts and reveling in the media frenzy surrounding that nation’s more egregious role in this now-international debacle.

To be fair, pet food manufacturers are not alone in the supplier choices that spawned the recall. Ever buy clothes at Target? Shop at Wal-Mart? Most of us choose Chinese goods over others when the issue is price and price alone. And when we do so we’re generally aware that we’re trading cost for quality. I know the zipper on that dress will fail in record time if I buy the Target knock-off. And I know that cool lamp has a speed-of-light lifespan if it comes from Wal-Mart. And that’s fine. (It’s not a great option, IMHO, but we’re all adults here and we all make our own consumer choices.)

The problem arises when we don’t get the full disclosure we’re entitled to when we lay down our cash at checkout time.

The pet food companies have enjoyed airtight secrecy for decades—their research, their formulas and their methods have rarely seen the light of day. Ask anyone who’s researched the industry—it’s always shunned the probing light of the media by pleading trade secrecy.

We might still have bought their obstructionist ploy but not for the less-reputable practices unwanted toxins have revealed among our poorly regulated Chinese exports (antifreeze in toothpaste, among them). Since the recall, we’ve finally seen beyond the veil of high-priced pet food into the machinations of an industry previously unwilling to disclose their own bargain-basement consumer choices.

What we’ve been buying all this time when we chose bags for our pets that said “premium”? Yep. It’s been lowest grade all the way in too many cases. How far does it reach? How long have we been paying top dollar for bottom of the barrel ingredients? We’ll never know.

It’s one thing to say, “I know this cute top is a one-season wonder. I’ll suffer its low-cost sartorial lifespan and use it well as a dishrag for seasons to come.” It’s quite another to apply the same logic to our own personal health—or our pets’—especially when our intention was quite another. 

And this is what gets me going: We’ve been fed one thing while paying ignorantly for another. That’s not the fault of China or anybody beside the companies who paid cheaply for production while we paid dearly with our pets’ health.

The rest of us know what we’re getting when we pay a dime on the dollar for an item. Be it toilet paper or pet food, we expect companies to provide us value. (If we pay for Charmin we don’t expect cardboard.) The same is true for pet food. Now that we see past their smokescreen (hawking lowest-quality ingredients at high-priced premiums) we shouldn’t be so easily led back just because they, too, got sucked in when they paid pennies for poison.

Ultimately, nothing exonerates a victimizer—regardless of his own victimization, and especially when he should have known better.

But it’s on this point that the pet food industry is now basking in the congressional China-bashing occurring at this week’s trade talks. It’s taken the onus off their actions (and inactions) by milking our communal xenophobia. After all, China is the one country we love to hate. We stuff our faces with cheap goods that fuel our retail economy while collectively deploring its human rights record and environmental hazards. Hypocritically, we deride the Muslim world when they do the same (hating us while they guzzle Coca-Cola).

OK, so I’m getting a bit off point. But I couldn’t resist. I’m simply sick of sophisticated corporations hiding behind a curtain of international malfeasance, preying on our human weaknesses and still looking to trade on past “performance” when their basic practices have just been laid bare for all the world to see. Do they think we’ll forget? Get led off track? End up blaming China for the recall while they’ve been paying Wal-Mart prices on what we thought was Saks?

Animals are great sentinels for what ails us. Their own maladies often foretell the same in their human stewards, whether we’re talking about abused rights, cancer or corporate greed. And though, true to form, they brought this issue to light, I fear they’re least likely to reap the benefits of reform through appropriate condemnation of commercial practices that affect them (ironically, with the help of the AVMA’s industry-apologist stance). If so, we’ll get yet another demonstration of the power of corporate forces which threaten each and every one of us.

I’m no rabid anti-globalist, but I believe that buying products from nations whose political practices we don’t respect is a recipe for self-deception. Sure, it might make you happy to wear that hot frock on Saturday but don’t expect to be proud of who you bought it from when you read the paper on Sunday. And don’t plan on it lasting past Monday.

That’s a lesson the pet food industry knows well. In fact, they knew it before we did—when they bought ingredients from rock bottom suppliers. Now all that’s left is for them to pay a fraction of what we did for it. That’s all I ask.