A glistening golden retriever bounds across a field of green. A border collie leaps to catch a Frisbee. The perfect poster pups for health and well-being: dog food commercials from reputable companies that utilize state-of-the-art veterinary research to provide us with convenient, relatively economical, nutritionally complete and balanced diets we can just pour from a bag or scoop from a can. Trust me. This is a good thing. The advent of mass-produced commercial pet food has resulted in better nutrition and better health for the overwhelming majority of pets. Then, just when you’re feeling good about buying that big bag of the Best Dog Food on Earth, there’s a recall.
Food contamination. It happens. With pet food and with people food. With food you grow in your own garden or buy at a local farm, or with products from across the country or across the world. Contaminants may be nonbiological, like chemicals, pesticides, or bits of glass, metal, or plastic, or biological, including bacteria, fungi or mold, and the toxins they produce.
Salmonella is one well-known bacterium involved in recalls of pet foods and treats. In dogs and cats, it is primarily puppies and kittens who are at risk. Healthy adults rarely get affected, with one exception — dogs fed “raw foods.” One recent study found 80 percent of raw food diets sampled contained salmonella, and almost a third of the dogs eating these were carriers, shedding bacteria in their feces. Another study showed that dogs fed raw meat treats had a 12 times greater risk of being asymptomatic carriers. Although salmonella is easily killed by cooking, in feces-contaminated soil it can survive as long as three months, remaining a source of exposure for other animals and people. Thus it is particularly important not to feed such products to animals living with people who are elderly, undergoing chemotherapy, immuno-compromised, or otherwise debilitated. Therapy dogs who visit hospitals should not be fed raw food diets or treats.
Salmonellosis in humans can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache, lasting up to a week. Most young, healthy individuals recover without treatment, but salmonellosis can lead to life-threatening septicemia. Most human cases are attributed to ingestion of meats contaminated with feces from “carrier animals,” but in recent years, outbreaks have also been traced to contaminated fresh vegetables. Pet turtles are another common source of infection in children. No, they aren’t eating the turtles. At least we hope not. Turtles carry the bacteria on their exteriors. Kids play with turtles. Kids eat sandwiches without washing hands. Voilà: salmonellosis.
Many pet food recalls are due to substances called mycotoxins, produced by fungi or molds, which cause gastrointestinal illness and liver disease. Pets can be exposed by ingesting moldy food from compost or trash, but mycotoxins also occasionally show up at unacceptable levels in commercial pet food. For example, fusarium bacteria grow on grains like wheat and barley, producing a toxin poetically known as vomitoxin. In 1995, a nationally known company had to recall 16,000 tons of dog food due to the presence of vomitoxin.
The most notorious nonbiological contaminant case occurred in 2007. A producer in China cut wheat flour and rice protein concentrate sold to pet food manufacturers with melamine, a compound used in making plastics, to increase their profit margin. It took a while, but researchers eventually identified the melamine in the pet food and proved it was causing kidney failure in dogs and cats. This led to one of the largest pet food recalls in history. Around the same time, there was also melamine contamination of infant formula, affecting a quarter of a million babies in China, where two Chinese executives were later executed for the part they played in this devastating event.
Most recalls are voluntary. Manufacturers generally have excellent quality control, and value their reputations. Cynical about big business? Me too. But multimillion-dollar corporations know that recalls are public relations nightmares and not good for their bottom line. The Food and Drug Administration regulates pet food safety.
Now there is a lot of media attention on a lawsuit claiming Beneful kibble has caused illness and death. The plaintiffs allege pets developed vomiting, bloody stool, weight loss, kidney failure, liver malfunction, and lethargy after being fed this food. These can be symptoms of a multitude of diseases, and to date, there is absolutely no scientific evidence linking these cases of illness to the Beneful. One involves a dog who had been eating the diet for three or four years before getting sick, which makes one wonder why the owner blames the food. From what I have read, the lawsuit seems based on misinformation and unsubstantiated allegations. On the other hand, the connection of melamine and kidney failure took a while to track down. We simply have to wait for science to determine if the claims are legitimate or if this is the result of litigious or confused pet owners looking for someone to blame.
What should you do if you think a product has made your pet sick? Call your veterinarian. Save labels from suspicious products. Do not believe everything you read online. Check recall lists. Report concerns to the FDA. And think about this one: In 2012, Petco learned one of their foreign suppliers had used small amounts of radioactive scrap metal when making stainless steel bowls. In a news release, the Illinois government said “a person would have to hold one of the bowls against their chest for roughly six and a half days to receive a dose of radiation equivalent to a single chest X-ray,” and that “these bowls do not pose an immediate health risk.” Petco did remove all products from that supplier, and tried to contact the few customers who had already purchased the hot items. So try not to worry. Everything is fine. Just go feed the dog … but don’t hold the bowl for too long.