A treat! It is a reward, distractor and a source of pleasure for our pets. Yet, treats have been linked to mysterious illnesses and common pathogens at an alarming rate. From 2007 to 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received more than 3000 complaints of illness related to the consumption of chicken, duck or sweet potato jerky treats, many imported from China. Of these 3000 complaints, more than 580 were related to deaths.
Why is a supposedly innocuous food item intended to bring joy and satisfaction to pets being associated with illness and death? The 2007 pet food recalls began when many pets began developing unexpected acute renal failure. The culprit was melamine contaminated pet food and treats. Melamine caused renal failure because it formed crystals inside the kidneys and interrupted the kidneys ability to filter waste products and reabsorb beneficial nutrients.
Melamine was found in many contaminated pet food products resulting in the recall of over 5300 pet food products. Most of the products came from a single company, Menu Foods in Streetsville, Ontario. Melamine entered the food supply as an additive to vegetable protein in effort to artificially enhance the protein concentration. Melamine has a high level of nitrogen and nitrogen is measured to determine a food’s protein concentration. The vegetable protein was then added to pet foods to artificially increase the protein content of the pet food. The source of the melamine contamination was linked to two Chinese export companies, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd.
China initially denied the accusation they were the point source of the contaminated foods. Yet Chinese authorities eventually acknowledged that China was the source of the prohibited chemicals exported under the disguise of pet food ingredient and agreed to cooperate with US officials investigating the recall. The reports of widespread contamination of Chinese products led to investigations by the FDA and USDA. These investigations found melamine in infant formula and milk linkingin the death of six Chinese infants and more than 50,000 cases of illness associated with melamine ingestion. Melamine has also been found in animal feed given to pigs and chickens intended to enter the public food supply. A survey of hog farms in North Carolina found that 100% of market pigs had detectable levels of melamine.
Why was melamine allowed to enter the food supply? Well, it entered because no one was watching for it. China’s food supply is so contaminated that illness linked to consumption of contaminated food is a daily event. In the US, the Nutritional Requirements of Dogs and Cats, published by the National Research Council is the reference text for pet food nutrient requirements and prohibited substances. This publication determines the protein, fat content and nutrient requirements of dogs and cats and is performed by investigators at the NIH, FDA and Pet Food Institute. The FDA works with veterinarians and pet owners as well as manufacturers and distributors of pet food products to identify outbreaks and investigate potential sources of contamination or causes of illness. Yet despite these intentions, there is very little regulation over the non-human grade foods that compose pet foods. Because diseased animals unfit for human consumption are legally slated for animal consumption, it does not take very much imagination to understand how Salmonella or antibiotic residues are common causes of pet food illness and pet food recall. Similarly, there is no regulation or laws that determine how pet food is stored in retailer’s warehouses.
The FDA has proposed revisions to the Food Safety Modernization Act designed to improve regulations that govern pet food and the food fed to animals designated for human consumption. The FDA is requiring that pet food and animal food be held to the same good manufacturing practices and hazard analysis as human food. The increased heightened vigilance will not only protect animals from potential contaminants and pathogens but also people whom are exposed to contaminants and pathogens associated with pet food. It will be interesting to see if the number of pet food recalls changes with the implementation of the new revisions.