Why are dogs getting sick from jerky treats, and is anything being done about it?
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about the risks of commercial jerky treats from China. Vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and even death – these are the symptoms many dogs who have eaten these treats are experiencing. In fact, the FDA has received 4,800 complaints of illness associated with animals eating jerky treats – these complaints involved 5,600 dogs, 24 cats, and three humans, and resulted in over 1,000 canine deaths. In response to these deaths, major pet stores announced they would stop selling dog and cat treats made in China. So what’s going on?
How are jerky treats made?
The majority of complaints filed with the FDA involve commercial chicken jerky (treats, tenders, and strips). These treats are made from thin strips of chicken, gelatin and hardening agents. Most of the processed chicken that goes into these treats comes from China. Currently, no unprocessed chicken from China is allowed into the US because the former has poor food safety standards and is known for not properly enforcing food safety laws. However, chickens raised in the US may now be shipped to China for processing; this processed meat is then shipped back to the United States to be sold.
Unfortunately, the safety standards for pet foods and treats aren’t as big a priority as they are for humans. The USDA isn’t as strict about what goes into food and treats for animals. Last year, for example, scientists found sulfur antibiotics in some dog treats. Just like humans, some dogs are sensitive to sulfur, so they can have allergic reactions similar to a peanut allergy in people.
In June of this year, a congressional hearing on pet treats and processed chicken from China was held in Washington. “For the past seven years, there have been an alarming number of pets – dogs and cats – and even humans, who’ve come down with an unidentifiable illness,” Dr. Daniel L. Engeljohn for the USDA said at the hearing. He added, however, that the precise culprit hasn’t been identified…which means that action has yet to be taken.
Dog jerky safety
When asked if dog jerky treats are safe, Susan Thixton, a pet food safety advocate and author of TruthaboutPetFood.com, responds as follows: “I would say they are just not worth the risk. I’m not saying everything from China is bad, but they definitely have quality control issues. So you need to ask yourself, is that treat really worth rolling the dice with? There are other options. If a chicken product says it’s inspected and approved by USDA, then it’s probably safe.”
This still doesn’t guarantee that all the ingredients come from the US. Today’s food and treat ingredients, for both human and animal consumption, come from around 180 different countries.
“We eat food from all over the world,” says Shaun Kennedy, Director of the Food System Institute, who spoke about the confusing tangle of food sourcing at the congressional hearing. “For example, when we drink a glass of milk, the milk may come from Canada but the vitamins in the milk are from somewhere else. It often takes many countries to produce one product.”
To make matters worse, there’s not always transparency when it comes to labeling. For example, some ingredients aren’t required to be listed on a package, whether jerky or not, especially if they constitute a small percentage of the total ingredients.
Preservatives are yet another safety concern. “Fish, both for animal and human consumption, is processed in China,” says Susan, citing an example. “We catch, slaughter and freeze the fish, then send it to China where it’s thawed, deboned and processed, and then refrozen and shipped back to us. This is a long process, and testing has revealed formaldehyde in almost all fish as a way to preserve it.”
Today’s food and treat ingredients, for both human and animal consumption, come from around 180 different countries.
Where do we go from here?
Safety issues surrounding jerky (and other treats) are being brought out into the open more lately, due to the tireless efforts of dog lovers, veterinarians, scientists, advocates and bloggers who are all voicing their concerns. Both the FDA and USDA are growing more aware of the need to act, and that consumers need adequate information on food products such as dog treats.
“All efforts are being used to find a definitive cause for the illness and deaths related to pet treats,” said Tracey Forfa of the FDA at the congressional hearing “We’re ready to act quickly, to take steps to inform pet owners and remove products once we find a cause.” Let’s hope they are true to their word.
It goes without saying that you’re smart to avoid all commercial dog (and cat) treats, including jerky. Look for premium products made by companies that go the extra mile to ensure their ingredients are domestically sourced. If you have concerns about the safety of any dog treat, contact the manufacturer and ask them about the original food source country, and which country processed the food.
Susan adds that dried sweet potato makes a good alternative to jerky. “I like to think of dog treats as bonuses – something nutritious that will be a bonus to my dog’s diet. Dried sweet potatoes are a good bonus. They’re easy to make, cheap and nutritious. You can make them from thinly sliced sweet potatoes that are dried out in the oven.”
“Or give your dog little bites of human food like beef or vegetables,” says Susan. “They will love these treats, and they are safe.” She also recommends raw beef bones for chewing. “It’s important to always supervise your dog when chewing a bone, though, to be sure they don’t splinter.”