In just the first nine months of 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted 31 recall and safety alerts for commercial pet food and treats. In 2012 there were 45 of these FDA alerts. Salmonella contamination or contamination risk lead the reason for recalls.
So, why are there so many recalls? And why does Salmonella dominate the recalls? There are many theories but the reality is that the problem is complex with many inter-related reasons.
Chickens Have Salmonella
Chicken is a popular protein source for pet food makers because it is less expensive compared to other protein sources. Unfortunately, chickens are notorious for harboring Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract. Pet food is made from internal body organs including the intestines. These body parts are more likely to be contaminated by Salmonella from the intestinal feces (poop) than the chicken muscle meat that we eat.
No Inspection Requirements
There are no mandatory inspection requirements for pet food manufacturers by the FDA or USDA. These agencies can legally inspect plants to investigate a complaint, but do not provide personnel to regularly inspect the facilities. Although slaughterhouses are required to have USDA inspectors, there is no further oversight of the carcass parts once they are removed and separated for shipping to pet food plants or rendering plants. The USDA does offer a voluntary inspection program for canned food only, but this option is infrequently used by pet food makers.
Out Dated Salmonella Testing
Testing for chicken carcass for salmonella contamination is antiquated. Chicken carcasses are randomly selected during various stages of the slaughter process and dipped in bags containing special chemicals. The birds are then returned to the line for further processing and shipping.
The dipping samples are sent to USDA labs for Salmonella testing the following day. By the time Salmonella is confirmed the chickens have already arrived at the butcher shop or grocer or consumer. The infected by-products would have already been turned into pet food. It is also suspected that the chemicals used can actually mask Salmonella contamination.
The Co-Packaging Trend
The major reason for so many recalls is the trend toward co-packaging. Most pet food is not made by the company brand on the label. In fact 3 major pet food manufactures actually make most of the hundreds of different pet food brands. That means one plant is the origin of many brands.
If such a plant experiences Salmonella contamination problem it will show up in multiple brands. Inspection of the FDA recalls will often reflect this trend.
The massive pet food recall in 2007 due to melamine contamination was a result of co-packaging. Gluten protein contaminated with melamine (a plastic manufacturing chemical) caused over 8,500 pet deaths due to kidney failure. Over 130 brands of pet food were recalled. Every recalled brand was either made by one pet food company or supplied with gluten from that same company.
What Is The Answer?
Because chicken is inexpensive, pet food manufacturers will continue to use lots of it. USDA inspection or improved testing methods are not likely to happen overnight or at all given the present paralysis in DC. Co-packaging is here to stay because food plants are too expensive for every food maker to build. Such investments make little economic sense for large or discount retailers.
The obvious answer is to make homemade dog food. That is what we have done and why we help others to do the same.
Dr. Ken Tudor,
THE DOG DIETITIAN