How Contaminated Pig Ears Will Change the Way We Think About Pet Food Forever

Staring at an empty bulk bin that once held dried pig ears, it struck me that this is probably a common sight in every pet food store in America. Shelves and bins what once held the treats are now empty since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the dramatic announcement that told stores to stop selling them because they might be contaminated with a pathogenic bacteria: Salmonella.

When health officials began tracing back to the cause of salmonellosis in patients to what might have caused them to get sick, the one thing nearly of the people had in common was that they had either touched a pig ear dog treat or touched a dog that had been fed one. At last count, there were 127 patients in 33 states diagnosed with multi-drug resistant salmonellosis, a third of whom were so ill they had to be hospitalized. And of those people, 24 of the patients were children younger than five years old.


Despite an exhaustive search to identify a single source of the contaminated pig ears, the FDA and the U.S Centers for Disease Control (CDC) took the dramatic step of announcing a nationwide advisory that all pig ear treats, regardless of the brand, should be removed from store shelves immediately and consumers should throw them out.

The agencies issued warnings that to consumers about the risk to them and their pets, telling them that virtually every surface exposed to the pig ears might could be contaminated with the bacteria and instructed them clean and sanitize everything they used to store or serve the treats and every surface and object the treats may have come in contact with.


Unfortunately, though, cleaning doesn’t always do the trick. Decades of research have shown that seemingly thorough cleaning may not suffice to prevent the spread of Salmonella, which can adhere very tightly to commonly used food preparation surfaces, making Salmonella cross-contamination much more difficult to avoid than once thought. Even the World Health Organization has estimated that cross-contamination causes ten times as many Salmonella infections as eating undercooked meat or poultry.

The risk of cross-contamination is particularly worrisome when you consider that 100,000 Salmonella organisms can fit on the head of a pin; it might only take a half a dozen to make you sick.


What if we expand our view of the pig ear problem and consider the likelihood that other dehydrated animal parts, including cow’s ears, pizzles, rawhide, hooves, and bones might also be contaminated with Salmonella? If you consider that these products typically are only dehydrated and not heat-treated, the prospect seems more like a probability than a possibility. In the absence of cooking, pet food companies are expected to employ some method to destroy pathogens before they are brought to market, but often those methods are impractical or ineffective in removing any trace of bacteria.


What we see now is one of the first-real life examples of how a contaminated pet product is capable of causing Salmonella infections in humans in an area covering thirty-three states.

No longer will the argument about cross-contamination be theory and critics of the FDA’s stance on Salmonella in pet food will have a hard time arguing that Salmonella is harmless to the humans that handle contaminated pet food.

To anyone lying in a hospital bed, the view that Salmonella is a benign bacteria and ubiquitous in the environment, the argument that Salmonella is harmless would be absurd.


But yet, as the outbreak of multidrug-resistant Salmonella infections linked to contact with pig ear dog treats rages, raw pet food manufacturers are fighting for the right to sell Salmonella-contaminated pet food; complaining that the FDA’s regulation of Salmonella is onerous and unfair. They characterize Salmonella contamination as an unavoidable fact of nature and that most of the serotypes of Salmonella do not cause illness – at least not in small amounts.

They dispute the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act that deems Salmonella an adulterant and of the FDA’s “zero-tolerance” policy of Salmonella bacteria in pet food. The companies claim that scientific evidence does not support the FDA’s zero-tolerance policy for the pathogen and that the agency’s intolerance of Salmonella contamination violates the U.S. Constitution. They feel that the FDA is unfairly targeting them with standards that are higher than those set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for raw meat and poultry.

But what they don’t realize is that the USDA has long used the circuit court’s decision in Supreme Beef vs. USDA that found that Salmonella was “not an adulterant per se” as the basis for lack of action. The Court reasoned that Salmonella is not an adulterant per se “because normal cooking practices for meat and poultry destroy the Salmonella organism.” However, the USDA recognizes Salmonella as an adulterant only after it is associated with an illness outbreak.


While the pet food companies bicker over the allowance of Salmonella in pet food continues, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control advise anyone who may have come into contact with potentially contaminated products to practice safe hygiene, including:

  • Thoroughly washing hands;
  • Clean and disinfect pet bedding, toys, floors, and any other surfaces that the food or the pet may have had contact with;
  • Keep the treats away from children;
  • And to not allow their dogs to lick them, their family members or surfaces in their home.

They also are instructing them to clean up their dog’s feces in yards or parks where people or other animals may become exposed.

The FDA has made clear that consumers must understand that they – as well as their pets – can be infected with the bacteria and not get sick or show any symptoms, but they may still be able to spread the infection to others.


People who think their pets have become ill after consuming contaminated treats should first contact their veterinarians. Veterinarians who wish to have pets tested for Salmonella may do so through the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN Network) if the pet is from a household with a person infected with Salmonella.


FDA encourages consumers to report complaints about pet food products electronically through the Safety Reporting Portal. This information helps the FDA further protect human and animal health.


Well, it’s quite simple: I think that anything that can poison or kill a person or their pet should be listed as an adulterant in food. Period.

Instead of squabbling over the method with which pathogenic bacteria are regulated, I think pet food manufacturers should focus on their sole responsibility – which is to make sure they don’t make or sell pet food that can make humans or animals sick – instead of arguing over Salmonella.

Ignoring Salmonella in meat makes little, if any, sense. And I applaud the FDA for taking a strong stand against Salmonella, and I find that the USDA’s failure to confront the reality of Salmonella, especially with regards to antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, as inexcusable.


USDA/FSIS law on adulteration:

The FDA law on adulteration:

The CDC on the pig ear problem:

The FDA on the pig ear problem:

Company recalls of the pig ears:


You made it to the end, which must mean you found the article compelling, or just plain facsinating. Either way, would it surpise you if I told you that I do this work – for free – because I love pets. In fact, I am just nuts about them. So, I feel it my mission in life is to protect pets and the people that care for them by writing stories that affect them – without trying to sell anything. Because I feel it would be unethical to have sponsors or advertisers – I rely entirely on my readers – like you – to help me pay for the running of my website. I know it’s asking a lot, but if you could donate – even if it’s just a little bit – it would mean the world to me. Please consider supporting my work on Poisoned Pets today. Pretty please!


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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.