No product or service will be ever be totally free from human error. Whether it’s the transmission on our Chrysler minivan a few years back, the artificial hip the attorneys keep advertising about on TV, or the Healthcare.gov website, glitches and product recalls are an inevitable part of life. Some of the recalls and warnings do indeed involve serious threats to health, and when those threats affect our pets we as veterinarians pay close attention .
Recently here have been several news reports concerning the recall and warnings over certain pet jerky treats. According to official FDA statistics, almost 4000 pets have been affected since 2007, making this one of the most serious and long-standing instances of pet food safety in United States history. By reviewing and discussing the the data released by FDA and the American Veterinary Medical Association, we can learn more about this specific problem, and about the process that helps keep our pet food system the safest and most wholesome in the world.
First of all, I do believe that our pets’ food is safe. Any consideration of animals negatively affected by pet foods or treats must be taken in the context of BILLIONS of meals fed each year to our millions of pets. Even one sick pet is one too many, but the number of dogs potentially affected over the past 6 years is truly small compared to the number of pets who have eaten pet foods and treats during that time.
Additionally, there is no one way to feed pets which can guarantee freedom from problems for all dogs and cats. Some pets may be allergic to certain ingredients which are entirely wholesome, while others may be exposed to pathogens in home-cooked diets even made with the very best intentions. Therefore any specific product recall or warning must be taken with the understanding that alternative diets may also have their own risks.
The proper perspective on these issues can best come when we understand the process of pet food manufacturing and the process of monitoring its nutritional value and wholesomeness.
The pet food industry has become a multi-billion-dollar international business, with large global food manufacturers providing many of the common brands found on the shelves of our local grocery store. Before Purina or Science Diet or Iams, most pets were fed homemade diets of leftover human foods, which were not based in an adequate understanding of animal nutrition. Once it became practical to purchase commercially-prepared pet diets, the research on proper nutrition and the governmental regulation of those diets based on that research became a standard that in many cases even outpaces the standards for our human diets. Today, we can buy our pets’ food which has been proven to supply all of their nutritional needs for their lifetime, and which helps them live longer and better than ever before.
But despite the benefits of prepared diets, there are sometimes problems. The pet food recall from several years back involving a contaminate called Melamine, and the periodic outbreaks of Salmonella bacterial infections from pet foods are stark reminders for the need to keep an open and inquiring mind as we feed our pets.
Here’s how the system has worked in the current instance of apparent problems with chicken and duck jerky treats: In addition to the periodic inspection and monitoring of pet food manufacturers, the FDA also monitors reports from “the field” (that’s you and me) about any strange illness or sickness that could be related to foods. Beginning in 2007, veterinarians began to report to FDA that we were seeing occasional dogs with acute gastroenteritis or unexpected kidney problems not related to age or other known causes. ( Let me say that we, at our office, have not seen any specific cases that have been traced or suspected to be related to this issue.) There are many potential causes for kidney disease, including age, infections, mineral crystals, immune diseases and toxins. When no specific cause for those reported illnesses could be identified, the normal epidemiological investigations began to make a possible connection with certain poultry-based jerky treats.
When many of the reported pets with GI illness or kidney disease seemed to have the common denominator of having recently eaten those treats, extensive testing of the treats involved was performed to try to identify the specific “problem.” Cultures to look for contaminating bacteria were negative; assays for pesticides, heavy metals, irradiation, mold and mold toxins, rodent baits, and other known toxic chemicals were all performed, but were all negative!
The manufacturing facilities where the treats were made were also inspected by FDA, even though in China, and still no problems or specific toxins or contaminations were found.
Even with no specific cause known, the coincidence seemed too great to be random, so the FDA and AVMA issued alerts and voluntary recalls of the treats were done as early as 2007. As part of the normal surveillance of the pet food industry, several chicken jerky treats were specifically recalled earlier this year because antibiotic residues were found in them, but even those antibiotics were not believed to be the underlying cause of the long-term problem. The FDA updates have recently caught the attention of several news organizations, and a new round of publicity has begun.
Where do we stand now? The FDA and the AVMA are continuing to test products and receive information through the established surveillance programs to evaluate possible causes of this problem. Quite honestly, when there is no specific cause yet known for these problems, there is not much else left to do, so we “in the field” must make some choices.
My personal approach is to recommend not feeding treats made with poultry or poultry by-products. Who knows, there may still be some connection and some as-yet undetectable toxin or infection which is to blame. Because treats are NOT necessary for our pets’ good health, why take any risk at all if there are simpler ways to provide all of the nutrition our pets need? I know I sound like a broken (and dull) record, but staying with a diet based in a major manufacturer’s plain-Jane dry food is a good start… The larger companies do have more invested in research and quality control, and they have even more incentive to get it right to protect themselves from liability issues.
In addition, we monitor the FDA and AVMA reports and post any appropriate warnings on our practice website, catawbaanimal.com. WE encourage you to let us know if you have any questions or would like to report and concerns. Please know that we, as do all veterinarians, keep your pets’ health and happiness in the forefront of everything we do.
Your job, as always, is to be your pets’ advocate, and our eyes and ears and hands at home, watching carefully to know what is normal for your pet and keeping us posted if you see anything unusual. With any illness, the sooner we are involved the sooner we can help get your buddy back home to you.
Despite any sporadic individual issues, the system really does work, and I am glad to report that our pets actually enjoy better nutrition that do we.