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Pet Food Safety: $19-Billion Industry Coming in for Much Closer Scrutiny

Seven years ago, mostly in 2007, more than 8,500 cats and dogs in the United States died from eating contaminated pet food. Ever since, American consumers have been fearful and suspicious about the seemingly chaotic pet-food industry.

Concerns deepened when the journal Pediatrics published, “Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Contaminated Dry Dog and Cat Food, 2006-2008,” confirming that exposure to tainted pet food also made humans sick – including many children. Ever since, the pet food industry has come in for more concern and change than at any time since American James Spratt first sold dog biscuits in England around 1860.

Spratt had noticed that the owners of English sporting dogs were at the docks to buy leftover ship’s biscuits for their animals. He “decided he could do better with a carefully compounded preparation of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot, and meat,” according to the Washington D.C.-based Pet Food Institute (PFI), which has been around to advance the industry since 1958.

Spratt sold his formula and production to a British company, which, in turn, brought the commercial pet food industry to America around 1890, making biscuits and dry kibble available ever since. During World War I, canned horsemeat was sold as dog food. Canned cat food and dry-meat meal dog foods have been sold at retail since the 1930s.

By the 1950s, equipment made to produce breakfast cereals for humans was modified to turn out all the dry pet foods that the market demanded. PFI acknowledges that, early on, the formulation of pet foods was based “more on guesswork than science,” but it has evolved over the years. In the 1960s, with PFI sponsorship, the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) developed the first nutrient profiles for pet foods.

Pet food industry sales of dog and cat food reached $19 billion in 2012. That’s nearly 8 million tons of dog and cat food, treats and mixers. Americans buy that much pet food because they care for more than 75 million dogs and almost 85 million cats.

While pet food is sold at all sorts of pet, feed, grocery, convenience and one-stop mom-and-pop stores, a couple of chains are worth mentioning for their size and impact on the industry. Phoenix-based PetSmart, Inc., publicly traded with 24,000 employees and 1,278 retail outlets, had sales last year just shy of $7 billion. San Diego-based Petco, a privately held company with 1,150 stores, is PetSmart’s only big rival.

Although the big pet store chains sell everything from exotic birds to doggy beds, it’s their large pet food sections that bring shoppers back to their stores on a regular schedule. However, a big industry with big retailers does not mean there’s been very much regulation of pet food. That’s about to change, but, up until now, pet owners who have lost a dog or a cat to pet food contamination are usually surprised that they don’t really have any place to turn.

Over the years, the states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have practiced some oversight of pet food, mostly through a little-known organization called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Dating back to early in the 20th century, AAFCO came up with definitions and standards to govern the feed industry, including pet food. It accomplished things such as banning the use of the word “pure” in brand names and the like, mostly by writing model laws for states to adopt.

More recently, AAFCO developed nutrient requirements for dogs and cats, caloric statements for pet foods, and policy for mineral supplements, and it has been involved with the content of pet food labels going back to the early 1960s. AAFCO, however, is a frustrating organization for pet owners, especially those who have recently lost an animal to contamination. It only meets a couple times each year, and it has a habit of closing its more interesting sessions to outsiders.

Since 2007, it seems that pet food contamination incidents have been occurring on a more regular basis. The latest involves specific brands of chicken jerky treats, which have sickened thousands of dogs and killed nearly 600. The brands involved are products made in China, and, while authorities suspect certain ingredients must be harmful to dogs, they cannot figure out what is specifically causing the deaths. (The brands are Milo’s Kitchen Chicken Jerky Treats, Nestle Purinas Waggin’ Train and Canyon Ranch Treats.)

Pet food recalls have also been more frequent in recent years. Mass casualty incidents, such as the recent one involving the jerky treats, and people getting sick from handling pet food, are the reasons why pet food and animal feed were included in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA). It means the first serious regulation of pet food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is coming along with new rules for animal feed as well.  FDA regulation means, among other things, that pet food will be subject to hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls.

“Pet food makers share the FDA’s commitment to pet food quality and safety, and we’re proud of the strong safety record of pet food,” said PFI in a statement on FSMA rules for pet food. “We and our member companies have been in close communication with the FDA over the past two years as it developed the proposed regulations. We will continue to work closely with FDA to help ensure that pet owners can have total confidence in the food and treats they feed their pets.”

The pet food safety series on Food Safety News is sponsored by ABC Research, a company that conducts testing on pet food products. Read more about ABC Research pet food testing on the company blog.

© Food Safety News
  • Marge Mullen

    Recently at FDA headquarters in Washington, DC, the agency held a public meeting on the
    proposed regulations in pet food. I watched the meeting online – here are some
    highlights of that meeting.
    http://truthaboutpetfood2.com/the-fda-meeting-on-proposed-regulations

  • Natalie Jarnstedt

    Considering how horrible food safety standards are for us, and are being lowered by the minute, especially if Senator Steve King (R – OH) has anything to say about it), why would one be shocked about the pet food industry?

    • adeclercq

      Senator King is from Iowa, FYI.

      • V Van V

        And a distinct embarassment to the State of IA, too, I might add.

        • adeclercq

          I wasn’t saying that he isn’t.