The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided updated information on the continuing saga of suspected contamination of "jerky"-type dog treats, primarily made from chicken and typically manufactured in China. Coincidentally, at least two major pet retailers have recently announced their commitments to stop selling pet treats manufactured in China.
The latest update by FDA was issued on May 16, 2014 (see link in “For More Information”). Briefly, it reports in question-and-answer format on the number and types of complaints it received regarding injury to dogs (as well as cats and a few people) after consumption of the treats, how it is following up on these complaints, and how it is working with other agencies on the matter. The update describes its inspection and laboratory testing efforts, as well.
Although some unapproved substances have been found in some samples, to date FDA has not been able to make a connection with their presence and the reported signs of adverse effects. Despite all this, no definitive answers have been found. The update goes on to advise the pet owner on signs to look for, what to do if he/she suspects a problem and how to file a complaint.
A few people in the petfood industry have complained to me for years that this whole issue is simply a case of mass consumer hysteria, i.e., that the reason FDA can't pinpoint an etiologic factor is because there is no cause. As mentioned before (and for which I received some flak from both sides of the issue), I personally do not have the information in hand to either confirm or contradict these folks. Fortunately for all, it is not my opinion that matters, as it is clear that FDA does believe there is a connection.
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. 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. 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. Thus, FDA interprets this as more than unsubstantiated consumer frenzy.
Why aren’t these products being taken off the market? In fact, that is one of the questions posted in the recent update (although FDA doesn't really answer it directly). A "recall" would retrieve product currently in distribution, but does not do anything about newly manufactured products coming in. The fact remains, despite FDA's powers, an effort to banish an entire category or source of petfood from distribution in the US without a means to distinguish the good from the bad product would be subject to serious legal challenge as arbitrary and capricious; that is, an abuse of authority. So, at this juncture FDA can only reiterate its cautions to consumers while it continues to work on discovery of the cause.
Privately held retail companies do not face that government impediment, though, so they can choose to sell or not sell something with far less restrictions. At the time of this writing, two major petfood retailers have made announcements that they will cease the sale of Chinese-made dog and cat treats (presumably jerky treats, but could include other types of products, as well) by late 2014 or early 2015. Some consumers have lamented about the long time frame for this to happen, though I'm sure there are very heavy contractual obligations in play. Still, most advocates applaud this action, so I'm sure other big retail names will join soon.
This development is a little bit like the ethoxyquin fiasco in the 1990s, except then it was at the manufacturer rather than the retail level. I recall talking to some petfood companies at the time that swore they would "fight it with scientific facts" when consumers first demanded removal of ethoxyquin from products, and despite all the data at hand FDA never found anything to warrant a change in the regulations regarding its inclusion in petfoods. However, once one big company took ethoxyquin out of its products, the bulk of the rest quickly followed suit.
Bottom line, it probably doesn't matter what FDA does or fails to do at this juncture. In fact, unless FDA uncovers a specific and addressable cause, the fate of Chinese-sourced jerky treats in the US marketplace appears sealed.