Pet food recalls on the rise, which is bad for you, bad for your pet

dog food recalls salmonellaWith food poisoning on center stage recently, from E.coli at Taco Bell to salmonella at Subway, the latest trend in bacteria-carrying edibles has been in pet food that can sicken anyone who handles it -- and pets, too. Dry pet food has been a particular problem.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration attributes the rise in pet food recalls, including a major recall by Procter & Gamble's Iams and Eukanuba brands, to better reporting and better follow-through by the agency.

Salmonella bacteria infections affect pets and people in similar ways -- symptoms include fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain -- and can be easily passed from animal to people.
"Yes [there's been an increase in recalls], but there is no single reason we can point to," FDA spokesman Ira Allen told Consumer Ally in an e-mail. "Because of the Reportable Food Registry, the violations or problems are being reported to us, where as before it was up to an inspection to find it. Also, the agency has hired more personnel to follow-up on complaints."

That registry started last September -- it was mandated by Congress -- and requires manufacturers, processors, packers and distributors to report safety problems with food and animal feed, including pet food, that could result in serious health issues. Between September and March, the registry collected 125 primary reports, of which 37% were reports of salmonella. Of the total amount of primary reports, 14 involved animal feed or pet food -- four of those reports were for possible salmonella contamination. Those numbers are "too small to draw meaningful conclusions," Allen says.

However, the founder of a grass-roots industry watchdog group points to the manufacturing plants themselves as the culprits. "Pet food is cooked at high temps, which would kill any salmonella that raw ingredients might have picked up," says Don Earl of the Pet Food Products Safety Alliance in an e-mail. "That means it is the pet food factories themselves that are unclean." The group supports independent testing of pet food products and works to raise public awareness of pet food safety issues.

Consumer Ally took a look at the pet food recalls listed on the FDA's site since April that were for potential salmonella contamination.

Since April, pet food recalls for possible salmonella contamination include:
  • Tuesday: Merrick Pet Care expands its recall of dog treats.
  • July 30: Procter & Gamble expands its recall of dry pet food to include 60 varieties of Iams and Eukanuba brand dog food and cat food for potential contamination as a precautionary move. All the pet food was made at an Ohio plant has been shut down until the cause of contamination is found.
  • July 27: Mice Direct recalls frozen reptile feed. Illnesses that may be related to the feed have been reported in 17 states.
  • July 25: P&G recalls some prescription dry cat food because of potential salmonella contamination.
  • July 15: Feline's Pride expands its recall to include another batch of its raw cat food.
  • July 2: Merrick Pet Care recalls beef filet dog treats and expanded the recall on Aug. 3.
  • July 2: United Pet Group expands its recall of dog nutritional supplements to include more tablet and supplement powder for dogs and cats.
  • July 1: Feline's Pride announces its nationwide recall of raw chicken cat food product.
  • June 22: United Pet Group recalls its Pro-Pet adult daily vitamin supplement for dogs because of possible salmonella risk.
  • June 18: Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc. recalls its sweet potato and chicken dry dog food.
  • April 12: Response Products recalls some of its Cetyl M for dogs for possible salmonella contamination that was tracked to a vegetable protein ingredient.
Kurt Gallagher, communication director for the industry's Pet Food Institute, tells Consumer Ally that more explicit reporting requirements and the FDA concentrating its efforts on salmonella in all food makes it appear that there's been more pet food recalls, but that's just not the case.

"Pet food is a very small percentage of the total number of recalls," he says, pointing to recalls of human food that seem to happen every day. The institute says that in 2008, more than 8 million tons of pet food was made in the United States. Pet food manufacturers remain vigilant in their production practices and follow federal regulations. Each recall has to be looked at separately for the cause.

Allen says salmonella cases have been targeted by FDA because it "is particularly concerned about salmonella being transmitted to humans through pet food because contamination poses a significant health risk to humans who contact or ingest the food, and the animals that eat it."

While seeing an increase in precautionary recalls, American Veterinary Medical Association's Kimberly May says it's a sign of more FDA attention and not unsafe pet food. May is the nonprofit group's assistant professional and public affairs director and also a veterinarian.

"Based on what I've seen so far, pet food is not becoming unsafe," May tells Consumer Ally. "We're not seeing any evidence that these foods are unsafe and more animals are getting sick."

The problem with salmonella is that it can be found in many places other than food sources, May says. The best ways to safeguard your family from the bacteria is good hygiene and cleanliness. Don't keep the pet food where the people food is in the house and wash hands after handling the food or pets.

"They're pretty simple things to do," she says.

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