Raw dog and cat food tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contained salmonella or Listeria bacteria in nearly one-fourth of the samples, the agency reported Wednesday.
The news, which drew immediate criticism from a manufacturer and a consultant, was accompanied by both the FDA’s acknowledgement that some pet owners prefer raw food over processed diets and by a stern advisory.
“The single best thing you can do to prevent infection is to not feed your pet a raw diet,” the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine stated in its report.
The CEO of K9 Natural Food Ltd. in Christchurch, New Zealand, took issue with the testing.
“We believe it is incorrect and unfair to treat all raw foods the same,” said Calvin Smith, whose company’s freeze-dried and frozen raw dog foods are sold worldwide. “It is very likely that individual pet food companies have different food safety standards; therefore, this test tarnishes the companies that have strict food safety standards.”
Carole King, CEO and president of Pawgevity, a Marshall, Va., company that left the raw pet food market in 2012, found deficiencies in the report.
“This is an incomplete and skewed study with no baseline studies for comparison,” said King, who now works as a nutritional consultant.
Other manufacturers could not be reached to comment or declined to comment.
The FDA testing occurred in the second half of a two-year study that screened more than 1,000 samples of pet food for bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses.
Salmonella contamination has been the cause of numerous recalls over the years in the pet sector—mostly dry foods and treats—as well as frequent recalls of human food. Listeriosis, a disease linked to the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, occurs most often in ruminants such as cattle, goats and sheep and rarely in dogs and cats.
Either bacterium can infect people. Salmonella kills about 400 people a year in the United States, compared with 250 deaths from Listeriosis, the FDA reported.
Infections often occur after a person eats or handles contaminated food. Animals fed bacteria-laden products can become both carriers and transmitters.
“Don’t kiss your pet around its mouth, and don’t let your pet lick your face,” the FDA advised. “This is especially important after your pet has just finished eating raw food.”
The FDA tested the raw pet foods after placing online orders through various manufacturers and having the food shipped directly to six laboratories.
Out of the 196 samples of raw pet food tested, 15 were positive for salmonella and 32 for Listeria monocytogenes. When hundreds of samples of dry or semi-moist foods and jerky-type treats were examined in the first half of the study, just one tested positive for salmonella and none for Listeria monocytogenes.
The agency did not identify any of the raw food brands tested, nor were manufacturers alerted to positive results. The researchers themselves “were blinded to these samples,” said Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH, a spokeswoman with the Center for Veterinary Medicine.
“The purpose of the study was to establish the potential for contamination of these products so that we could consider including them in future sampling assignments for compliance and enforcement purposes,” DeLancey said.
One of the study’s principal investigators, Renate Reimschuessel, VMD, Ph.D., said the study “identified a potential health risk for the pets eating the raw food and for the owners handling the product.”
Raw, fresh and frozen foods make up a small percentage of the $21 billion-a-year pet food market in the United States. The latest National Pet Owners Survey, compiled by the American Pet Products Association, found that just 3 percent of dog owners in the previous 12 months had purchased a specialty dog food, which the report defined as either a raw, frozen, fresh, vegetarian or kosher variety.
Four percent of cat owners acknowledged purchasing a specialty food over the same period.
Smith, of K9 Natural, said his company has a “very strict biological risk management plan” to prevent contamination.
“The New Zealand government regulations are very strict,” he said. “If we fail the tests, then we will lose our ability to export the product. … Our testing regime is more stringent than many in the human food supply chain.”
Pawgevity’s King cast doubt on the FDA report.
“This is straight out of the mouths of Big Pet Food,” she said, adding that a consumer embrace of raw pet food would force the large manufacturers “to lose their huge profit margins and cater to educated consumers.”
The health benefits of raw pet food “significantly outweigh the risks,” Smith said.
“A high-protein, balanced-fat, low-carbohydrate diet manufactured without heat treatment has significant nutritional benefits for a dog or cat,” he said. “Like all good things in life, there are risks. The key is to manage those risks.”
Reducing the health risk is what the FDA advised consumers who buy raw pet food to do. Besides laying out the test results, the report detailed how pet owners may safely handle raw food and prevent food-borne illnesses.
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