Pet food recalls back in the news
Two unrelated issues have consumers concerned about pet foods.
A specific and rare strain of salmonella (Salmonella Infantis) was recently identified at the Diamond Pet Foods plant in Gaston, S.C., leaving 14 people sick in nine states. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA CVM) helped identify the problem.
For pet owners, this is confusing. While it appears that only one manufacturing plant is affected, many brands of food are made at the Gaston facility, including Diamond, Wellness, Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul, Canidae, Natural Balance, Apex Pet Foods and Kirkland. One by one, these companies have issued voluntary recalls.
Since the outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created an advisory on their website to help consumers.
Protecting people is the most important issue, according to veterinary epidemiologist Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, leader of the CDC outbreak response team. That's because, overall, pets are less likely to get sick from salmonella. But it's certainly possible animals may also become ill from eating the contaminated food, though there are (so far) no reports of this.
Pet owners should take precautions to avoid contamination.
"Always wash your hands after handling pet foods or treats, especially before preparing food or handling a baby bottle," Behravesh advises. She says people can also contract a secondary infection if a dog that's eaten tainted food then offers its owner a big wet kiss. A cat who eats tainted food can pass on salmonella if the pet grooms himself, then family members pet the cat. Owners should also wash their hands after cleaning up a dog's droppings outdoors, or scooping a cat's litter box. Salmonella can also be excreted through feces.
While the threat of infection is real, "Let's put this into context," says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Washington-D.C. based Pet Food Institute, "People far more commonly get salmonella from uncooked meats or other routes of transmission."
That may be true, but Barton Behravesh says emphatically, "Salmonella shouldn't be in pet foods in the first place; that's a reasonable expectation."
Dr. Dan McChesney, director of the Office of Surveillance and Complaisance at the FDA CVM, also notes that pet food companies have special challenges.
"The good news is that pet food plants look very much like human (food) plants. The problem is the product, dry food in particular, is so susceptible to bacteria because of the high protein level and because it's treated with flavoring." This is like putting a condiment on a burger, but in manufacturing that flavoring is often where contamination occurs.
While instances of salmonella identified in pet foods has actually decreased in recent years, today people are more aware of salmonella contaminations due to increased transparency by pet food companies and because of the Internet. Still, McChesney says the goal is for incidences of salmonella contamination (and pet food recalls as a result) to decline further. The Food Safety Modernization Act, approved by Congress in January, will help, he says.
One concern for pet owners is that the recall will grow, as it did in 2007. "That (situation) was very different," says Ekedahl, "Horribly, pets were dying, and it proved to be as a result of criminal adulteration." (Melamine and cyanuric acid were added to the affected pet food products in China to mask protein.)
Dog jerky treats
China is again a topic of discussion, this time in connection with dog treats. For over a year, the FDA CVM has been receiving complaints about dogs becoming ill and some dying after eating various brands of chicken jerky treats made in China. Since January, the FDA has received more than 800 complaints from consumers saying their dogs were sickened.
Of course, some cases are not substantiated, and some pets may have been affected but owners never complained or even connected their pet's problem with the treats, McChesney notes. In any case, he concedes there's apparently a problem with chicken jerky treats.
Alas, scientists still haven't pinpointed what's wrong with the treats. Scientists investigating all of the obvious explanations have come up short. The FDA CVM even sent a team to China. Scientists are now seeking far more unlikely explanations.
China's checkered history with pet food no doubt fuels skepticism among pet owners. McChesney notes that dealing with companies outside the U.S. is always a challenge. One easy option and common sense response might be for the FDA CVM to ban the jerky treats in the U.S. However the agency doesn't have the legal right to do so without a scientific explanation. Besides, most dogs, including McChesney's own son-in-law's dog, have had no problem with the treats.
Of course, chicken jerky treats aren't a required staple of dog diets.
"If you're concerned, there are lots of tasty dog treats on the market," says McChesney.
Here is the CDC alert on the salmonella outbreak.
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