Pet Food Recalls / Pet Food Safety
On May 4, 2012

Chicken jerky pet treats: the new melamine?

Are chicken jerky pet treats from China being falsely maligned, or is this the biggest petfood safety issue since 2007?

["A Web-based petition demanding a recall is nearing 60,000 signers at the time of this writing.", "Pat-on-the-head platitudes are inadequate in alleviating the current concern.", "Many consumers consider company responses such as ‘safe when fed as directed’ to be condescending."]

Are chicken jerky pet treats falsely maligned or the new melamine? To be frank, I do not know the answer. I am not privy to any of the details regarding reported incidences of harm to dogs from consumption of chicken jerky manufactured in China or to any test results or other investigative findings; hence I do not have a sufficient basis to make a determination. However, since this may be the biggest safety issue to affect the petfood industry since the melamine-related recalls of 2007, it deserves discussion.

While I may not have reached any conclusions, it is clear that others have. Many purchasers have placed direct blame on adverse effects, including death, of their dogs to feeding Chinese chicken jerky products. A Web-based petition demanding a recall is nearing 60,000 signers at the time of this writing. A class-action lawsuit against one company also has been filed.

On the other hand, a couple of small distributors have confided in me that in their due diligence, they cannot find any plausible explanation for the reported adverse effects and believe they are being unfairly accused of incompetence, if not malicious disregard for product safety.

Despite widespread testing, no cause for the reported effects has been determined at the time of this writing. It did take a long time (albeit months, not years) in 2007 to figure out that melamine, in combination with its analogs, was responsible for acute renal failure in pets consuming contaminated products. In this case, difficulties in determining presence of a contaminant (if any) responsible for reported effects arise from the:

  • Number of reports—hundreds were received soon after the Food and Drug Administration posted a warning in late 2011; the number of reports is possibly in the thousands by now. However, compared to the millions of dogs fed (and presumably still being fed) jerky products, the reported incidence rate is low, making efforts to find a connection problematic.  
  • Range of affected companies—the complaints received implicate products of most, if not all, companies importing these treats from China. While products of some companies have received more complaints than others, that appears to be due to their relative dominance in the marketplace, suggesting that any malfeasance would not be due to direct actions by any particular company and grossly expanding the investigation.
  • Lack of consistent signs—early reports appeared to associate consumption of jerky products with acquired Fanconi syndrome, a rare condition with unique signs. However, most complaints now associate consumption of jerky with a wide variety of non-specific signs of gastrointestinal, renal or hepatic dysfunction, again making a connection difficult.
  • Lack of consistent patterns—the onset of signs are reported to have occurred from within hours of consumption to only after months of feeding. That is not a typical pattern for a toxin or pathogenic microorganism.


Association alone does  not prove causality, so at this time there is no scientific evidence to support the complaints. In a way, I hope a responsible contaminant is determined so it can be dealt with effectively. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult to prove a negative (i.e., that the product is not contaminated), so the issue of safety of these products would fester for many years.

Unless and until a definitive etiology is established, companies distributing these products should consider better and more detailed explanations to the public of their own efforts to address the matter. Pat-on-the-head platitudes are inadequate in alleviating the current concern. Questions to address include:

  • What were the results of the company’s investigation of complaints?
  • What testing has the company done itself (beyond testing by the FDA), and what did it find?
  • Were any feeding trials conducted?
  • From investigation to date, what causes can be ruled out?

Unfortunately, in the face of potential lawsuits, companies are likely to be less rather than more open on details like this.

Companies should also  note that, based on comments posted on various websites, many consumers consider company responses such as “safe when fed as directed” to be condescending and an effort to deflect blame for any adverse effects onto the consumer.

Labels of products clearly identified as treats, and not complete and balanced, are not required to bear feeding directions. This is because it is reasonable to presume a purchaser would feed a “treat” as a treat, i.e., in appropriate amounts.

Most nutritionists would recommend that a treat not be fed at levels more than 5% to 10% of the total diet, but this is to help prevent long-term nutritional deficiencies. Regardless, feeding amounts above this level should not be expected to result in the acute, dramatic effects that are being reported except in extreme cases or unless something was very wrong.

Some of the consumer concern might be due to Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment), but after the melamine incident in 2007, it’s hard to blame people for that reaction. An alternative country of manufacture would greatly increase costs and may not be feasible at all but would be worth exploring.

Finally, while many consumers are demanding a recall, that alone would not be sufficient in alleviating concern, in that the action would imply there was “safe” product to replace what was removed from distribution. Rather, a suspension of further distribution would be required. 

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