Since the widespread pet food recalls of 2007 that resulted in the deaths of over 8,500 American cats and dogs, it appears that pet food recalls are occurring with increasing frequency.

This year alone the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a staggering 18 pet food recalls and safety alerts.  In light of a recent study connecting two specific recalls from one company to 79 cases of human Salmonella, it is time to reevaluate the way that dog and cat owners handle pet food in the household.

The Salmonella study published in the journal Pediatrics, titled “Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Contaminated Dry Dog and Cat Food, 2006-2008”, is confirmation that humans can indeed fall ill in large numbers from being exposed to contaminated pet food. The study focused on 79 infected individuals in 21 states, 32 of whom were 2 years old or younger. The Salmonella strain identified in the study is a rare one called Salmonella Schwarzengrund, and was traced back to a particular type of dry dog food that was included in a 23,000 ton 2007 recall. In 2008 a second recall traced back to the same Pennsylvania plant resulted in its permanent closure.

dog-eating-iphone.jpgSince January 2010 the FDA has announced 18 pet food recalls and safety alerts, up from only 9 last year. These include:

– January 14, FDA health alert for Merrick Beef Filet Squares

– February 12, Nature’s Variety recalls Raw Frozen Chicken Diets with best if used by date of 11/10/10

– March 8, Nature’s Variety expands recall to include all Raw Frozen Chicken
Diets with best if used by dates on or before 2/5/11

– April 16, Purina Mills recalls some Strategy Hourse Feed and Layena Poultry Feed

– June 2, Kent Nutrition Group recalls Kent Feeds 20 Lamb DQ45 Medicated

– June 9, Procter & Gamble recalls Canned Cat Food

– June 18, Kent Nutrition Group recalls Kent Feeds Swine Products

– June 18, Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. recalls Natural Balance Sweet Potato & Chicken Dry Dog Food

– June 22, United Pet Group Recalls Pro-Pet Adult Daily Vitamin Supplement for Dogs

– July 1, Feline’s Pride Issues Nationwide Recall of Natural Chicken Formula

– July 2, Merrick Pet Care Recalls Beef Filet Squares

– July 15, Feline’s Pride Expands Nationwide Recall of Natural Chicken Formula Cat Food

– July 25, Procter & Gamble recalls two lots of Prescription Renal Diet Cat Food

– July 27, Biggers & Callaham recalls Frozen Reptile Feed

– July 30, Procter & Gamble expands recall of Specialized Dry Pet Foods

– August 3, Merrick Pet Care recalls Texas Hold’ems 10 oz Bag because of Salmonella Risk

Did the pet food industry learn its lesson after the deaths of over 8,500 pets in 2007?

Some experts think that the industry has indeed self-regulated and that the increase in recalls does not reflect a decrease in pet food safety.

cat-food-recall-iphone.jpgThe American Veterinary Medical Association’s Kimberly May thinks that the rise is just a sign of increased vigilance and attention from the FDA and not necessarily decreased safety.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, pet food is not becoming unsafe,” May told Consumer Ally. “We’re not seeing any evidence that these foods are unsafe and more animals are getting sick.”

The Washington State Veterinary Medical Association agrees with May. In a recent newsletter sent out to all registered Washington state veterinarians, the organization lists possible reasons for the uptick in recalls:

– The large-scale, melamine-related pet food recall of 2007 increased public and media awareness of and sensitivity to pet food safety concerns.

– Increased vigilance of the manufacturers and the federal government regarding Salmonella and other public health concerns, leading to increased surveillance and reporting.

– The recent launch of an early detection reporting system–the Reportable Food Registry–that requires and allows immediate reporting of safety problems with food and animal feed (including pet food), instead of relying on inspection to identify problems. According to a July 2010 FDA press release, the registry has been very successful in identifying at-risk foods.

The registry newsletter claims that, “These recalls are not an indication that pet foods are unsafe. Considering that the majority of these recalls have been precautionary and no illnesses have been reported, these recalls may indicate that they are preventing illness by catching the problems earlier.”

Consumer Response

Though many of these recalls may be preemptive, the Pet Food Products Safety Alliance is concerned about the dangers posed by pet food. This non-profit conducts independent testing on many different types of food, treats, and biscuits, hoping to regulate the industry through test results.  The alliance claims that powerful pet food lobbyists have resulted in a lack of oversight for the industry.

The alliance Website says: “Aggressive lobbying tactics have resulted in poor legislation, leaving pet owners with little recourse when their companion animals are harmed by dangerous or deadly pet food products.”

Don Earl, the founder of the watchdog alliance, told Consumer Ally that the manufacturing plants are probably behind the contaminated batches. “Pet food is cooked at high temperatures, which would kill any Salmonella that raw ingredients might have picked up,” he said in an email. “That means it is the pet food factories themselves that are unclean.”

girl-cat-featured.jpg“An American Pet Owner” wrote on her blog, “The poisoning of thousands of househeld pets and the 2007 North American Pet Food Recalls should have been a wakeup call to all pet owners. Apparently, they weren’t. Here it is 3-1/2 years later, and we still see recall after recall of the food we feed our cats and dogs. Pets are now considered family members by the majority of US families. Is this any way for pet food companies to treat our family members? Is human food any safer than pet food? I don’t think so. Buyer beware.”

Anni Quinn, another concerned pet owner, gave Food Safety News a list of five ways she feels pet food can be made safer and fewer recalls issued:

1. Redefine the legal status of pets as more than replacement-value property, but as a special class of family members, and include damages to the owners and families of pets sickened or killed by pet foods or pet treats or pet supplements. Make it cost pet food manufacturers
to sicken and kill pets with inferior quality food products.

2. Remove regulation of pet food and pet treats and pet supplements from the American Association of Feed Control Officials (and indirectly from the Pet Food Institute) and make it the sole responsibility of the FDA through the Center for Veterinary Medicine under the same
standards as human food regulation, not for-slaughter animal feeds.

3. Inspect pet food/treat/supplement facilities at least yearly and give the FDA mandatory authority to recall any and all dangerous pet products of any type, foods, treats, supplements.

4. Make the results of Quality Control {QC} practices listed on pet food manufacturers’ websites also be posted on pet food manufacturers’ websites for the consuming public to review by lot, batch, and UPC number as delivered to retail shelves.

5. When a pet food, treat, supplement is recalled, publicize it in the press, TV, and newspapers, as well as social media online, and post prominently on the pet food manufacturer’s website. No more silent call-backs or product withdrawals.

“That would be a start at keeping the contaminants/adulterants away from my pet family members,” Quinn wrote in an email to Food Safety News.  “And more importantly, my kids and grandkids!”

Preventing Salmonella Infection After Handling Pet Food

Though the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association does not think that food is any less safe than it was before the 2007 recalls, it does publish a comprehensive list of pet food safety guidelines to help protect both humans and pets from contracting Salmonella. The association recommends that pet owners:

– Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any pet food or treats

– Don’t allow your children to handle the food; or, if you choose to let them handle the pet food or treats, make sure they thoroughly wash their hands (under your direct supervision) afterward.

– Do not allow immunocompromised, very young, or elderly people to handle pet food and treats; or, if they handle the products, they should thoroughly wash their hands immediately after handling the products.

– Keep all pet foods and treats away from your family’s food.

– Do not prepare pet foods in the same area or with the same equipment/utensils you use to prepare human foods.

– Do not allow pets on countertops or other areas where human food is prepared.

– If it is possible for you to feed your pet in an area other than your kitchen, you may wish to consider doing so. If it is not an option, or if you choose to feed your pet in the kitchen, feed your pet as far away from human food preparation areas as possible and follow the other guidelines above.

The last of these guidelines is in tandem with one of the central findings of the Pediatrics study. In this study, researchers determined that most human Salmonella infections occurred in households where animals were fed in the kitchen. The abstract of the study explained, “Illness among infant case-patients was significantly associated with feeding pets in the kitchen.”

There are approximately 10,000 guide dogs in the U.S. and Canada, with equally high numbers assisting people with other disabilities. Service dogs are becoming increasingly popular for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dogs are integral units in the police and military services. Small furry animals captivate children and are companions for the lonely. Pets are an integral part of American culture and will remain as such.

Most food safety attention is understandably focused on human food, but don’t forget the importance of ‘man’s best friend’.