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    Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things petfood, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.

    Does fate of pet jerky treats rest with the marketplace?

    Jun 20, 2014 By Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

    In his July Petfood Insights column, David A. Dzanis, DVM, PhD, DACVN, provides an update on the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) investigation into pet illnesses and deaths linked to pet jerky treats from China. Besides reporting that, unfortunately, FDA is still no closer to finding any definitive answers about why pets have fallen ill or, tragically, died after eating such treats, Dzanis also compares the situation to the controversy over ethoxyquin in petfood in the 1990s.


    To be sure, there are significant differences between the two situations, with probably the most important being that ethoxyquin was never proved to be harmful to pets, despite consumer complaints to the contrary. As Dzanis said, FDA had considerable data on hand and none ever warranted excluding the synthetic preservative from petfood formulations.


    Nonetheless, consumers and activists continued to demand that ethoxyquin be removed from all petfoods; once one major manufacturer complied, Dzanis explained, most others followed suit. Such might be the outcome for pet jerky treats, especially ones sourced from China, he projected, though in the current case, it would be with more and more retailers refusing to carry the treats and veterinarians and other pet experts recommending they not be fed.


    That is looking likely given that, unlike with ethoxyquin, these treats from China have not been cleared of links to pet illnesses or deaths. “In my personal conversations with FDA, it related to me some well-documented complaints of injury that could not be explained any other way except due to the jerky treats,” Dzanis wrote. “In the recent update, FDA found that half (13 out of 26) of the bodies of dogs submitted for post-mortem examination actually died of unrelated causes. That means, though, that the other half could not be explained, hence jerky treats are still highly suspect.


    “FDA understands and considers the phenomenon of unintended false associations when it evaluates situations like this,” Dzanis continued. “So, if half or even the vast majority of reported adverse events were not, in fact, due to jerky treats, that still leaves a sizable number of unexplained cases of harm associated with the treats.”


    It is confounding and frustrating that FDA has not yet been able to find any explanation for these cases, though in the agency’s defense, it’s not for lack of trying – even though organizations like Food Sentry, a self-proclaimed global food monitoring service, assert the problem is that FDA is testing only finished products and not the ingredients from China at their source.


    If that is true, one reason why may have surfaced during a June 17 US Congressional hearing on the safety (or lack thereof) of foods and petfoods from China. Conducted by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which is chaired by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, the hearing included testimony from officials with the US Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM).


    According to an  ABC12.com (Michigan) report on the hearing, the officials testified that “they’re still having trouble securing Chinese visas for FDA workers charged with making sure the plants we rely on for our food and pet products are safe.” Which probably gets at the crux of the problem in sourcing anything from China: Companies and even the government there still don’t fully cooperate with outside efforts to ensure safety of ingredient and food supplies.


    It’s a huge dilemma,” said Daniel Engeljohn of FSIS in response to Smith’s questioning about the difficulty of inspecting food processing operations in a dictatorship such as China, as reported by  ConsumerAffairs.com. The website also quoted Smith’s response:  “The word of the Chinese government is usually not trustworthy. There's always laced in there a whole deal of misinformation, lying and deceit. It’s not a stretch to say if we rely on them for documentation, that’s an Achilles heel that is huge.”


    If and until that situation is ever resolved, consumers are probably justified in being wary of buying food, petfood or pet treats sourced from China. Even the CVM official testifying at the Congressional hearing, Tracey Forfa, said her best advice was for pet owners not to feed their pets jerky treats.


    With that sort of advice now coming from so many corners – retailers, veterinarians and even US agency officials – Dzanis is probably right: The marketplace will soon determine the fate of pet jerky treats, particularly those sourced from China.

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