Last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally issued another update on its ongoing investigation into pet illnesses and deaths linked to jerky pet treats. Apparently, this release was according to FDA's normal schedule of reporting on its investigation every six months -- and here I thought we hadn't heard anything since May 2014 because it's an infamously slow-moving government agency.
In total, FDA has received about 5,000 complaints of pet illnesses associated with eating jerky pet treats, starting all the way back in 2007 and going through September 30, 2014. Yet that total includes only 270 new complaints since the agency's last update in May 2014â€”representing a "significant decrease"? from the previous reporting period of October 2013 to May 2014, when 1,800 complaints came in.
Because it considers the drop to 270 a sharp reduction in complaints, FDA says it is now planning, at least tentatively, to issue only annual updates. Really? Six months already seemed a long time between updates (perhaps especially to pet owners whose pets have suffered illness or, even worse, death). Add in the fact that it took the agency nearly five months to issue this last report since September 30, 2014 -- presumably its own cut-off date -- and it just doesn't seem as though this investigation is really going anywhere.
To be fair, FDA has invested time and resources and conducted a thorough investigation, including asking for reports and input from veterinarians across the US and partnering with the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network, state agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has even met with Chinese regulatory officials and scientists, as most of the complaints have involved products reported from China (despite Chinese officials -- and exporters -- denials). A thorough Q&A discussion on the investigation is available on the FDA website.
After all this time and effort, however, FDA is no closer to determining exactly how or why the pets in the complaints, mostly dogs, became ill from consuming jerky pet treats. Nor has the agency established these treats are definitely the cause of the complaints, though it seems convinced of an association in many of the cases.
FDA also says that the change in its reporting cycle from biannual to annual does not correspond to a slowdown in its investigation; the agency insists it "continues to devote significant resources"? and will issue non-routine updates if anything notable occurs.
I suppose the reduction in reporting does correspond to the reduction in complaints; and, as I have speculated previously, the marketplace appears to have moved on. Major pet retailers have removed all China-made jerky pet treats from their shelves, and most US pet owners who still buy jerky treats make sure they are US sourced and made. And, with other types of treats so readily available and new treat products continually hitting the market, owners have plenty of other choices for their pets.
(For information on development and production of jerky treats and other formats, check out Petfood Forum 2015, which will include a session on manufacturing procedures for natural and organic jerky pet treats by Kohl Danielle Schrader, PhD, of Marlen International. Also, most of Petfood Innovation Workshop: Next Generation Treats will take place at a test kitchen where participates can make new treats.)
I also wonder if the FDA's downshift in reporting on the jerky pet treat investigation reflects the agency's manpower and funding issues as regulations from the Food Safety Modernization Act take effect later this year. Questions loom as to whether FDA will have the funding and investigators to fully implement the regulations (not that any petfood manufacturers should count on that and fail to prepare and comply).
Perhaps on a related note, during the American Feed Industry Association's eighth annual Petfood Conference, held in January, Daniel McChesney, PhD, of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine said that because petfood manufacturers had made such "enormous strides" in reducing the prevalence of Salmonella in dry petfood -- an incidence of 1.7% in samples taken during 2010-12, down from 13% in 2002-06 -- dry petfood will not be part of FDA's current fiscal year Salmonella sampling plan. This is definitely good news for petfood manufacturers -- and probably another sign of the agency's resource challenges.