With back to back raw meat pet food recalls these days, pet parents are beginning to worry: Just how safe is raw pet food anyway?
No other subject than raw pet food is more divisive and more misunderstood.
Pro-raw pet fooders rabidly defend their position, convinced that the government and Big Pet Food are conspiring to ruin raw meat pet food companies.
With every new raw pet food recall, it may push pet parents who have been on the raw feeding fence to shy away from raw pet food for fear it might make their pet or someone in their family sick.
But most pet parents are uncertain, assuming that the risks of raw pet food are exaggerated and that it’s probably safe.
But is it?
RAW PET FOOD v. COOKED PET FOOD
In a new study, scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, tested raw meat pet food for zoonotic bacterial and parasitic pathogens and they found that E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella were all present. The scientists found that 86% of the raw pet foods tested positive for a potentially lethal pathogen: E. coli 0157, a strain of intestinal bacteria which is commonly found in cow poop. The scientists also found two types of parasites: Sarcocystis and Toxoplasma gondii.
Although the scientists analyzed only thirty-five raw pet foods available in Europe, it makes you wonder – is raw pet food safe?
In case you’re thinking, “Well, pet food made in America has to be better,” the authors warn that raw meat pet foods in the United States are “without a doubt” similar to those tested in their study.
In an earlier study, by the same team of scientists at Utrecht University, found a significant association between pathogenic bacteria shedding in cat poop and feeding raw cat food. The bacteria were isolated in under 6 percent of the cats fed non-raw pet foods compared with the nearly 90 percent of cats fed raw cat food.
Another study found a significant association between shedding of pathogenic bacteria in cats that were fed raw pet food. The study showed the risk of feeding raw pet food to cats for both the animals as well as their owners handling raw pet food. Despite such evidence, little is known about risk factors for bacterial shedding in pets.
Earlier analyses of raw pet food in the United States also found similar levels of contamination in raw pet food. In a two-year study, the Centers for Veterinary Medicine screened over 1,000 samples of pet food – raw and cooked – for pathogenic bacteria. The study analyzed 240 dry pet foods and 196 raw pet foods, and of the dry kibble type pet foods, only one sample tested positive for Salmonella while of the 196 raw pet food samples analyzed, 15 were positive for Salmonella and 32 were positive for L. monocytogenes.
If you think the FDA only looks at raw pet foods, think again.
In a meta data study that examined class I and class II pet food recalls between 1996 and 2008, there were 22 recalls documented by the FDA involving adulteration, and – every single one of them – involved a kibble type pet food and not raw pet food.
THERE’S WHAT IN MEAT?
The poor outcome of any raw pet food study should be understood in the context that the U.S. meat and poultry supply is filthy. There’s a “simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill,” wrote Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal in 2001, “There is shit in the meat.”
Not much has changed since then.
“It’s not whether or not people are going to eat shit — they are. It’s just how much,” one meat inspector said about the USDA Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points Inspection Models Project (HIMP), according to documents released by the Government Accountability Project.
Now Trump’s USDA is pushing for an overhaul, based on the HIMP model, that could significantly speed up the already frantic pace of processing meat means it is inevitable that contaminated meat and poultry will slip through the net.
In an explosive expose just published by the Guardian, called Dirty Meat, revealed revolting conditions in meat plants in the U.S., “Meat destined for the human food chain found riddled with fecal matter and abscesses filled with pus.” Diseased poultry meat that had been condemned was, “found in containers used to hold edible food products,” and pig carcasses piled up on a factory floor, “leading to contamination with grease, blood, and other filth.”
When investigators at Consumer Reports tested over 450 pounds of beef, examining it for bacteria that signified fecal contamination, they found that every pound was contaminated with bacteria that “signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or non-toxin-producing E. coli).”
The USDA defends such criticism in the report Chicken from Farm to Table saying, “The presence of E.coli, although an indicator organism for fecal matter, does not mean the product is, in fact, contaminated by feces,” because, the carcass might have been contaminated by an “environmental contaminate, like dust.”
While it is true that bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment, the USDA’s explanation that “dust” is to blame, is unlikely when you consider that chicken languish in a fecal soup before they end on your plate or in your pet’s bowl.
The most recent National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring Systems retail meat report said that 90 percent of pork chops, ground beef and ground turkey – and 95 percent of chicken breasts – were contaminated with fecal bacteria.
In a study published in 2013, that looked at foodborne disease outbreaks between 1998-2008, concluded that “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity.”
Each year, the CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food. And those are just the cases we know about because, for every case of illness reported to the CDC, another twenty-nine are not. That’s a heck of a lot of people that could get sick and die from eating unsafe food, including raw commodities such as unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat or eggs, raw fruits, and vegetables. What’s scary is that 40 percent of bacterial foodborne illnesses in humans comes from meat and poultry commodities. And it’s not just raw meat and poultry that pose a high risk, but raw dairy also has its risks. The CDC reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness than pasteurized dairy products.
AESTHETICS MY FOOT
But what you probably don’t know is that the quality of meat that’s allowed to be in pet food can be entirely different than the meat you buy for your family. Some industry members maintain that the only difference between the standards for human and animal food are aesthetic ones. But when the FDA condones using rendered animal feed ingredients, “despite the use of tissues from diseased animals or animals that have died otherwise than by slaughter,” you have to wonder, is the meat in pet food just the creepy parts of animals that most people don’t want to eat?
Given the two divergent possibilities, there are no assurances that the meat used in your pet food is the same quality of meat that is inspected and approved by the USDA for human consumption.
Because of the inherent nature of the pet food industry and the less stringent requirements – compared with products approved for human consumption – there is a high probability that the meat used in pet food is highly contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
If inedible tissues, which often include carcasses of condemned animals (animals found to be dead, dying, disabled, or diseased at the time of slaughter), are allowed to be used pet food I have to wonder how can raw pet food be considered safe?
DATA SCARCITY + MAJOR KNOWLEDGE GAPS
One of the most significant problems we have is that the actual number of pets affected by adulterated pet food is not known because there is no adverse reporting system for pet foods.
According to a study which reviewed more than 300 articles from biomedical literature on zoonotic disease concluded that there just isn’t just a heck of a lot we do know about disease risks attributable to pets. That’s because: “Existing pet-contact recommendations are based on relatively limited data, human disease outbreaks and general concepts in infectious disease prevention.”
In another study that looked at the risk of pet-associated zoonotic infections, the authors explained that existing pet-contact recommendations, “are based on relatively limited data, human disease outbreaks and general concepts in infectious disease prevention. Whether such recommendations are appropriate for the level of risk is unknown.”
Scientists who studied zoonotic diseases in pets made clear that because of “a lack of data on pathogen prevalence in the relevant pet population and on the incidence of human infections attributable to pets” they are impossible to difficult to quantify due to a “multitude of knowledge gaps.”
As far as the spread of diseases from animals to people, the CDC says it is “rare,” they give the ambiguous conclusion that “pets do sometimes carry germs that can make people sick.” But when it comes to pet food safety, the CDC is unequivocal, making clear that: “Raw food diets can make you and your pet sick.”
Even though there are significant knowledge gaps, we do know that pets shed pathogenic bacteria but, what we don’t know is how this can affect the health of humans.
TRACKING DISEASE IN ANIMALS
But there’s another problem with identifying risk, a central issue that none of the studies address with any authority: How often do contaminated pet food products cause disease in pets?
Scientists don’t know the answer. In fact, no one does. That’s because there is no cohesive method for tracking foodborne illness in animals.
The FDA describes the challenges of tracking animal illness outbreaks, lamenting, that when foodborne illness occurs in humans, the FDA works with CDC in tracking foodborne illness. “Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for pets, which means that it is practically impossible to accurately evaluate the scope of an outbreak in pets.”
The agency has another insurmountable problem, the lack of post-mortem information on pets. They explain, “When a pet dies, it is much less likely that a pathologist will have the opportunity to examine the body. Unfortunately, by the time FDA receives reports of deaths in pets, the pet has often already been cremated or buried, “eliminating the chance for scientists to gather more information about potential causes for illness.”
Without an organized surveillance system that counts the number or types of zoonotic diseases that occur in pets, we are ignorant of the scope of disease in pets.
CROSS CONTAMINATION, THE WEAKEST LINK
According to the report, Emerging Pathogens in Meat and Poultry stated that “pathogens that cause these infections are typically zoonotic (meaning they can be transmitted between animals and humans) and can be introduced at any point along the food chain.”
While no one will argue that you can become infected by improperly handling raw meat or poultry, whether the source of meat is for animal or human consumption, raw meat carries inherent risks. So, no matter what type of meat you bring into your home – whether it’s to feed your family or your pet – you should always follow strict food safety handling instructions.
Whether you’re a pro-raw-fooder or a raw-food-hater, I think there’s something both sides can agree on – there’s something seriously wrong with the meat industry. And by extension, raw pet food carries with it many of the meat industry’s failures.
If there is one overarching message I want to leave you with and that is that all meat carries some risk, and remember that every time you tuck into that juicy burger or plop a blob of raw ground meat into your pet’s bowl you’re rolling the food safety dice.
FOOD SAFETY RESOURCES
If you think that you or a family member has a foodborne illness, contact your healthcare provider at once.
If you think a food is the source of a problem, save a sample and report suspected foodborne illness to FDA by contact a Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your area.
Call or visit the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition or call them at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.
For more information on food safety and prevention of food-borne illnesses, you can contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Foodborne Illness Line at 1-888-232-3228 or visit the CDC’s food safety page for more information.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU A PROBLEM
If you believe your pet has become ill from consuming a pet food, please provide the FDA with valuable information by reporting it electronically through their Safety Reporting Portal or call your local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator.
If you and your veterinarian think a pet food or treat is the source of a problem – save it – because your state agricultural or veterinary diagnostic lab may want to do testing. If you need more help, find out how to report a pet food complaint to the FDA.
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