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Tips from a nervous cook: How to make pathogen-free pet jerky treats

I admit it; I’m not in love with being in the kitchen, mainly because that place makes me nervous. I can’t help thinking about all the places in there where germs are lurking, waiting to contaminate something  – mainly my food.

Being a food safety nut has only magnified my fear of that place, but when I have to handle raw meat, I need two things: surgical gloves and Valium.

Believe me, if you knew what I know you would too.

So, imagine my horror when I found out there is one more thing to worry about in the meat safety department.

Tedious, but necessary, tips

Food safety advocates are such a pain; they have this annoying habit of telling you things you’ll wish to God you had never heard about. But, sometimes that information, as tedious as it is, can sometimes mean the difference between making safe pet treats and making everyone, including the family dog, very sick.

Before embarking on making your own jerky for your fur family you need to know that illness due to Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 from homemade jerky can be a serious problem.

Dangerous dehydrators

The danger in dehydrating meat and poultry without cooking it to a safe temperature is that the dehydrator will not heat the meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F — temperatures at which bacteria are destroyed.

Scary!

But do not fear my frazzled friend, there is a way to make jerky at home safely:

Method no. 1

The first method suggests cooking the meat at a safe temperature before the dehydrating process, because, they say by the time the dried meat temperature finally begins to rise, the bacteria have become more heat-resistant and are more likely to survive.

Yikes!

If these surviving bacteria are pathogenic, they can cause foodborne illness to those consuming the jerky.

After heating the meat to an internal temperature of 160°F or 165°F, you must maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130°F to 140°F during the drying process. The process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils; and it must remove enough water that microorganisms are unable to grow.

Method no. 2 (better)

The second method suggests dehydrating the meat first at 145°F  to 155°F for at least 4 hours followed by heating in a pre-heated 275°F oven for 10 minutes. Drying meat at a temperature below 145°F will produce a product that looks done before it is heated enough to destroy pathogens, and before it has lost enough moisture to be shelf-stable.

OMG!

Only a few dehydrators currently on the market will maintain the necessary temperature of 145°F to 155°F. The proponents of the second method say that unfortunately method no. 1 (USDA‐recommended method) produces a dried, crumbly product that would be judged inferior by “Wisconsin standards for chewy, flexible jerky.”

High risk jerky

The USDA assures consumers that should they wish to avoid the kitchen all together, commercially made jerky is perfectly safe because the process is monitored in federally inspected plants by inspectors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

However, this assurance can only be made for jerky products made for human consumption. Big difference.

Pet treats, including jerky type pet treats, are not supervised by USDA inspectors; therefore, their safety cannot be assured. And as the FDA and veterinarians across the U.S. have repeatedly warned: There is something wrong with the commercially available pet jerky treats.

My advice?

So, my advice is: Don’t buy them until the FDA can assure consumers there isn’t a problem with them. Otherwise, you may be putting not only your pet at risk for foodborne illness, but also any member of your family that may be exposed to contaminated pet treats.

For detailed explanation and instructions, read the following guides: USDA’s guide to making jerky and the University of Wisconsin’s guide to making jerky.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

Comments (11) Write a comment

  1. In 2010, author and natural pet food entrepreneur Amy Renz was one of many pet parents who wondered what the truth was behind pet treat labels. Many do not realize that behind the colorful packaging and clever slogans of pet treats, there are dangerous, carcinogenic substances, masked by vague wording like “natural flavors” and “meat.” So what’s the truth behind a pet treat label? In 2010, Renz investigated , finding astonishing and disturbing results.

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  2. I have an Excalibur dehydrator that was purchased years ago for fruit drying. It has a temperature dial that goes from 85 to 145 degrees, plus a timer. The 145 degrees is what’s needed for jerky. They are pricey, but well worth the investment. If you Google them, you will see the newer fancy ones with glass front door, and stainless steel trays, which I think are unnecessary, and cost much more. There is a choice between 4, 5 and 8 trays; more trays being more expensive. The 8 tray model is good for lots of fruits, like apricots. The good news is that they are MADE IN THE USA, Sacramento, CA.

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    • I have an Excalibur also, bought it for me for Xmas a few yrs back when it was on sale. I have one of the smaller ones but it’s fine for what I do: I make dehydrated apples & yams for my Lab & I did try to make chicken jerky (see earlier post). Amazing how many dogs like dehydrated fruit. I buy the banana chips because I didn’t have any luck doing it myself……..:-)

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  3. Thank you, Mollie, for yet another wonderful, helpful article! You ALWAYS have our backs!!!

    A couple of thoughts…

    There are several American Indian tribes who produce jerky products that, to my knowledge, are not irradiated. My personal fave is “Jerky for Life – Black Pepper & Garlic Flavor,” made by the Umpqua Indians and produced in Oregon. (I do not know where they source their beef from, but I would be stunned if it was from China!) It contains no sugar, gluten or preservatives such as sodium nitrite. A commercial jerky with no nitrite or nitrate is quite hard to find! They say it is made with kids and diabetics in mind.

    It’s been a long time since I had any and don’t remember how much black pepper is on it, so it may be too spicy for dogs. But of all the many jerkys I’ve tried, it is by far the most basic, plainest kind I’ve run across. You can Google their website. If you buy (or make) any jerky, be sure to always keep it refrigerated. My GI doctor was very adamant about this.

    Also, my dad used to make semi-jerky by cutting relatively thin strips of (flank or bottom round, I believe) steak, flavor with a tad of sea salt and garlic powder, then cook thoroughly using the broiler of the oven till it was chewy and slightly crunchy on the outside. Man, it was good! This would not be near as chewy and long-lasting as true jerky, but dogs (and I suspect many cats, too!) would surely love it as a treat. You could vary the flavorings according to their likes or health needs, such as adding pineapple juice for sweetness and digestive (think bromelain) aid, juice from a grated apple, a bit of tumeric or ginger powder for an anti-inflammatory effect, etc. Have fun with it!

    Garlic is somewhat controversial. Some holistic vets tout its use and some suggest refraining from it. My holistic vet gave me a recipe for homemade beef collagen soup (for my cats with arthritis) and it calls for optional flavorings including garlic.

    Jo

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  4. FDA says commercially made jerky is safe? Maybe I read that wrong? I make my own. heating it in the oven after I take it from the dehydrator seems to do it. My dogs never get sick. I will never buy commercial, I don’t care what the FDA says. They get organic humanely raised chicken. I will never feed my dogs anything I wouldn’t eat myself. Learned that lesson the hard way.

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    • No, the USDA said jerky is safe only if it was made in an federally inspected facility (i.e. – a USDA inspected meat processing facility). Pet food is almost never manufactured under those conditions. The FDA – not the USDA – have control over the regulation of pet food and treats (primarily). The exception would be if a pet food mfg elected to have their food certified by the USDA (which almost no one goes to the trouble of doing). If you go to the USDA link in the article the USDA explains jerky treat safety (buying and making).

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  5. I tried cooking the chicken first & then popping it into the dehydrator……..looked awful but my Lab loved it (of course, she loves anything as long as it’s partially edible!). Then I discovered a place in northern CA that makes a healthy jerky……..expensive but worth it. I also heard there’s a place on the east coast that makes jerky w/nothing from China. I won’t buy it off the shelves because it’s either made in China (no way) or made in the USA but irradiated (again, no way)………if it’s a healthy product, no need to irradiate. Yuk.

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      • Kona’s Chips………I’ve been ordering from them (when I can afford it) for a long time, when they were a tiny company doing everything by hand. They’ve grown considerably but still make a very healthy jerky. I believe their website is www,konaschips.com

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        • Thanks Hannie! That sounds like it might be a good source for commercially made jerky. I don’t know. I do know that the local bison ranch, the J&S Bar Ranch, here in Northern California makes their own jerky, but it is a tad costly. You have to remember that since the moisture is removed it is in fact a large quantity of meat to begin with. I have visited there on several occasions, spoken to the owner and inspected their facilities. They are a first class operation, the place is so clean you could (almost) eat off the floors. And the bison have hundreds of acres all to their own. It’s a beautiful sight to see. I cannot recommend any product unless I have personally vetted the company, it’s owners and their operation.

          Reply

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