Mar 5, 2014
By Debbie Phillips-Donaldson
"Most petfood is safe, but sometimes petfood and treats can become contaminated with bacteria that can not only make your pet sick, but you sick." That's one of the first few statements in a video recently released by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called " Pet Food and Treats in Your Home." The narrator, Dr. April Hodges, a nutritional scientist with FDA, goes on to say, "Salmonella is one of the best known bacteria that can be found in petfood or on pet treats, but it's not the only one."
OK, stop right there, Dr. Hodges. I applaud FDA for using modern media like YouTube to communicate directly with consumers; it's probably a much more effective method than an information-dense website full of regulatory code numbers and government-agency speak. But if it's incurring the time and expense of scripting and producing a video (with decent production values, by the way, albeit rather hokey background music) and announcing it to the world, shouldn't this agency -- charged with helping ensure safe food, feed and petfood supplies for the US, not to mention implementing one of the most complex and paradigm-shifting laws, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) -- at least have its facts straight?
For starters, that Salmonella reference in the video implies that it's one of the bacteria that can make pets sick, when in fact, pets rarely become ill from Salmonella. It's true, these bacteria can sicken people, and younger, older and immune-compromised people are especially at risk, a serious matter. But I've heard from knowledgeable members of the petfood industry that they and industry organizations have directly asked FDA to help communicate the information that Salmonella-induced illnesses are extremely rare in pets, and the agency's response was, essentially, that this communication is not part of its mandate. Now, however, it seems to be, at least judging by this video -- and FDA has it all wrong, or at least may be leading consumers to an inaccurate conclusion.
The Salmonella reference is also completely lacking in context and pertinent background information. "Contamination by Salmonella or other types of bacteria may not be frequent, but it happens," Dr. Hodges says in the video. "On average, 60 petfood or treat products are recalled each year due to Salmonella contamination." Interesting that she says "not frequent" but then gives a specific number -- which is higher than FDA's own safety and recall registry shows (for example, 33 total petfood-related recalls in 2013 and two to date this year). She also fails to give any context for how the number of petfood recalls compare to ones for human food, for which there have been 46 to date this year.
And, the video fails to mention that the main reason there seem to be so many Salmonella-related recalls of petfood each year is because of FDA's own zero-tolerance policy: Under FSMA, if even the most minute amount of Salmonella is found in a petfood facility (which is likely, considering that there are more than 2,200 serotypes that are found nearly everywhere in the environment) -- even if none is found on the product or packaging itself -- the manufacturer is pressured to issue a recall.
I have other concerns with the video, such as references to other forms of contamination or nutritional imbalances that can occur in petfood; after an initial statement by Dr. Hodges, there's no follow-up information, leaving the consumer hanging and probably more worried than ever. The video does give sound tips for handling petfood (including instructing children on how to do so), storing it and reporting any suspected products to FDA and the manufacturer. Unfortunately, the Salmonella-related portions negate any good the rest of the video might do.
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