Why do pet food recalls happen?

Why do pet food recalls keep happening, and what’s being done about it?

These days, it seems consumer product recalls are a fact of life. Pet food is no exception. In fact, you may not realize just how common pet food recalls really are. For example, in just the first six months of this year, there were more than two dozen recalls of pet food and treats. Why? Is anything being done about it?

Who’s responsible for what?

To understand how and why recalls occur, it’s helpful to understand how pet food is regulated. While the pet food industry itself is fond of claiming that it is “highly regulated”, much of this so-called regulation relies on self-monitoring. There is no requirement for “pre-market” approval; that is, a pet food or treat can be produced and put on store shelves, or listed with online retailers, without approval or inspection by any governmental agency. However, the government is definitely interested in pet foods and treats once they are actually being sold.

Federally, in the US, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, a branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is responsible for the safety of all animal food and drugs. Each state’s Department of Agriculture also regulates products intended for animal consumption. Once a product is on the market, it can be voluntarily recalled by the manufacturer, either on its own initiative, or at the FDA’s request. However, the FDA cannot force a company to recall a product.

At the state level, the branch that normally regulates agricultural products also regulates pet foods. For example, every pet food sold in a state is required to be registered with that state. The person(s) responsible for products intended for animal consumption (the “feed control official” or FCO) is also the representative to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). AAFCO publishes definitions, model regulations, and guidelines for pet food ingredients, testing, labels and enforcement, but does not itself have any regulatory authority.

The aftermath of melamine

When we think of pet food recalls, we’re still haunted by the tens of thousands of dogs and cats who were sickened or killed by melamine-tainted pet food ingredients from China in 2007. Back then, the US Senate conducted its own investigation into the massive recalls. As a result, the Secretary of the FDA was directed to “establish an early warning and surveillance system to identify adulteration of the pet food supply and outbreaks of illness associated with pet food”. While the entire scope of the legislation – which mandates establishment of a system that includes both reporting and notification – has not yet been fulfilled, two rudimentary reporting networks have been created.

1. “PETNet” is accessible only to a limited number of state and federal government officials.

2. Consumers can now report problems with a pet food or treat directly to the FDA by calling the Consumer Complaint Coordinator in one of its 19 district offices, or online at the main Safety Reporting Portal (safetyreporting.hhs.gov). The FDA may either investigate the problem immediately, or address the complaint during its next inspection of the manufacturing facility. This may sound like reasonably prompt action, but in reality, the FDA may only rarely inspect any particular pet food manufacturing plant. In the 2007 Senate hearings, the FDA admitted that it had only inspected about 30% of US pet food manufacturers in the previous three-and-a-half years.

The current situation

Despite the establishment of these reporting networks, when multiple dry pet foods from a single manufacturing plant were found to be contaminated with salmonella last year, an FDA spokesperson stated: “There is no surveillance network for FDA to rely on to confirm cases of illness or death in pets.” That one incident caused 49 known cases of illness in humans from simply handling the food; it is unknown how many animals were affected.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted in 2011. This will make the regulation of pet food closer to that of food for humans. Although the FDA still has not written the regulations required by the bill (which were due in 2012), it did manage to publish an overview of how it plans to implement them. The short version is that the FDA will become more proactive, emphasizing the prevention of problems rather than simply reacting to them. However, the reality seems to be that the burden of problem prevention will be further shifted toward pet food and treat makers.

Let the buyer beware

This is a case of “you get what you pay for”. Low-cost food contains low-cost ingredients that are more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria or toxins. Most salmonella- and aflatoxin-related recalls have involved major and private label brands produced in mass quantities. You’re better off buying reputable brands of natural, super-premium pet foods. Because of the aflatoxin threat, grain-free products may be a good option.

Feeding a variety of foods is another way to avoid problems. Nutrient deficiencies or excesses, as well as contaminants, can occur in any product. An animal eating just one food will get the full brunt of any problems with that product, but if the food is just one of many, the issue will be “diluted.”

As individuals, we can’t do a lot to eliminate pet food recalls. However, we can protect our own companions by staying informed, feeding them the best quality diets we can afford, ensuring the ingredients are domestically sourced, and rotating foods as often as possible.