Adventures in Pet Food

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

Media perpetuating petfood safety myths, misconceptions

Another day/month/year, another media report on petfood safety with misleading, out-of-context or downright inaccurate information. Since the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the proposed preventive control rule for animal feed (including petfood) in late October as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), it's been big news throughout mainstream media. Unfortunately, it's difficult to see how some of the news being disseminated is at all helpful to pet owners, let alone the petfood industry.

The latest media reports that had me scratching my head in puzzling disbelief happened to hit my email inbox the same day. First was a article written in late December but just now being distributed via various newsletters. Since the release of the animal feed preventive control rule, has started a series on petfood safety sponsored by ABC Research, a "company that conducts testing on petfood products," the website says. In my opinion, would better serve its sponsor, not to mention its readers, if it found more qualified sources and more accurate information for the articles in the series.

The December article offers a doozy of an example of the series' shortcomings. To start, it's entitled "Pet Food Problems: 10 Ways to Make it Safer." Perhaps the writer, Cathy Siegner, or her editor were trying for alliteration, but from the top the article carries a mostly negative connotation. However, my main problem lies with the so-called experts cited throughout the article. Except for one quote by Richard Sellers with the American Feed Industry Association, none of the experts have any direct ties to the petfood industry or petfood manufacturing. Siegner seems to merely quote their verbatim opinions, and based on the statements, those opinions don't seem well informed. Following are a few gems.

From Brenda Stahl, PhD, national food safety manager for EMSL Analytical Inc. in Morrisville, North Carolina -- “The issues you see are cold extrusion, an ambient or cooler method of preparing or pelleting or extruding the food for dogs to eat. The problem is there’s no kill step. The process itself kind of spreads things around, and there’s no protection against contamination.” This may be true, but a very small percentage of petfoods in the US are manufactured this way.

Dr. Stahl also comments on the rising number of petfood recalls over the past 10 years and that "90% of the time ... they're happening because of manufacturing." Well, sort of. The main reason petfood recalls have increased so dramatically in the US over the past few years is that under FSMA, FDA has a zero tolerance for Salmonella in petfoods, even though this bacteria is nearly everywhere in the environment and nearly impossible to eradicate 100%.

Even another person quoted in this article, Chip Sammons, owner of the Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Oregon, comments that this policy isn't realistic and conflicts with the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) allowable levels for Salmonella in meats intended for human consumption. (It should be noted that the USDA policy is for meats also intended to be cooked; other meat-based products for humans have a zero tolerance for Salmonella, as David Dzanis, DVM, PhD, DACVN explains in his latest Petfood Insights column.)

Another out-there opinion comes from Barbara Royal, DVM, of the Royal Treatment Veterinary Center in Chicago -- “The extrusion process (a high heat processing), creates two potent carcinogens, a heterocyclic amine and an acrylamide, which will be in every extruded kibble food, but certainly not be on the label. It is a by-product of the extrusion process, and because it is not an ingredient that is added, it need not be put on the label,” she explains. “So owners are unaware that, with every bite, they are feeding a potent carcinogen. I believe that this is one reason we are seeing such an increase in cancers in our pets.” Wow. That's the first I've ever heard that I might be feeding my cats cancerous crunchies. Where is her data? And why didn't Siegner ask for substantiation or try to find it on her own before including that doozy in the article?

I could go on and on, but you can read the full article for yourself. To be fair, there are some points made in the article that seem reasonable. For example, Royal also is quoted saying she doesn't believe petfood should have to adhere to the same exact safety standards that human foods do, because that could drive up petfood costs too much. But unfortunately, the misinformation far outweighs the reasonable.

The other article hitting my inbox, also via a newsletter, was posted on and obviously intended for consumers, making it almost more alarming than the series. While not outright inaccurate, it was lacking in context. "Here's something to chew on: bad petfood," read the headline. Another catchy yet highly negative title. Then the writer, Kim Campbell Thornton, imparted this information: "Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes and, increasingly, petfood and treat recalls. There were 33 in 2013. On average, that's one every 11 days. Between 2008 and 2012, the Food and Drug Administration received more than 2,500 complaints from consumers regarding petfood and livestock feed. The complaints ranged from an animal refusing to eat a food to illness and death."

This is factually accurate. Yet Thornton failed to mention that FDA's safety and recall registry (which she indirectly references) includes far more reports of human food-related recalls than petfood-related ones. Currently, the registry lists 25 food-related reports from just the past two months (dating back to November 9, 2013). The number of animal health reports currently on the site? Two: one for a poultry feed and one for some sort of injectable drug or eye drop.

Further, in terms of recalls and related instances, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gives these numbers related to human food: "CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases." A chart on that same web page attributes the sources of those foodborne illnesses to various human food product categories.

(Full disclosure: Thornton is a former colleague of mine whom I'm still in touch with. I plan to send the above FDA and CDC data to her.)

Petfood safety is a very complex subject; I admit that I'm no expert, even though I think I am fairly well informed about petfood and how it's manufactured. It's understandable that people outside the industry would have difficulty comprehending it. But media reports that are inaccurate, simplistic and/or lacking context only ratchet up anxiety and confusion among pet-owning consumers and really do no service at all.




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