Monthly Archives: May 2008

Getting real about food safety squabbles

Big thanks to Rebekah, a website visitor, for the tip on a story from earlier this week about that big outbreak of salmonella that grabbed so much attention in 2006 and 2007.

Before I get to that, recall that for years, many of us opting for home-prepared raw meat diets for our cats and dogs listened to stern admonitions about the risks of raw feeding from a spectrum ranging from well-meaning veterinarians to less honorably-motivated marketers of many commercial pet foods. Given the presumably well-known risk to humans from eating raw meat, that’s a pretty easy sell: everyone knows that humans ingesting raw meat are taking a chance, especially given the grisly conditions at factory farms.

I recall vividly that in 2000, during an exchange with a leading figure at a major veterinary school about the value of feeding a raw diet to cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, an exasperating debate erupted between us about food safety. He indicated that no veterinary school could, in good conscience, implicitly or explicitly endorse raw feeding not only because of the risks posed to the animals from salmonella but because of the “very real risk to humans” handling the raw meat.

(It was never clear to me how humans handling raw meat intended for a cat’s consumption were at any higher risk than humans handling raw meat prior to cooking it for their own consumption. Not to be snarky, but I never suggested humans eat the raw food they were preparing for their cats, but okay.)

Implicit in this admonishment, I realized as I dove headfirst into the world of raw feeding, was the notion that commercial pet foods were somehow ‘safer.’ Free of dangerous pathogens. More sterile. Layer on top of that the strawman arguments about how homemade food has the ‘potential’ to be unbalanced (well, d’uh), and the be-really-wary-of-raw gang seemed to have their rationale all sewn up. “Stick with tested commercial formulas backed by years of quality research and it’s healthier for the animals and safer for humans.”

  • The massive pet food recall of 2007 quickly began to unravel the threads stitching up that rationale: There’s no need to belabor the details of that horrific episode here, except to remind readers that the Big Lie that big-name pet food companies exercise careful control over the ingredients that go into their products became harder to escape.

So what now?

The results of a just-released investigation by the US Centers for Disease Control, conducted jointly with the FDA, on the 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak in the US that sickened 70 people across the US, identified the source of these human infections.

Where did it come from?

Dry dog food.

Many have been quick to warn warn about the risk of feeding fresh meats that are stored in freezers but don’t think twice about selling bags of (potentially contaminated) dry food with no admonition about the real dangers associated with deadly bacterial overgrowth on those products. This latest CDC revelation notwithstanding, remember that the bacterial count on dry food can be very high and the danger of toxic levels of aflatoxin contaminating dry food is always present. Many dry pet foods are drenched in fatty flavor enhancers that provide an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria and fungus. And those bags of food are generally stored at room temperature and go unconsumed for weeks or months.

I’ll repeat what I’ve said on my website: No food you feed your cat is entirely without risk. Respect those risks and take steps to minimize them. It’s not that hard: use fresh meat from the highest quality source you can find, don’t leave it sitting out for ages, and don’t eat it yourself. Leave the raw meat eating to the obligate carnivores. Oh, and wash your hands for pete’s sake.

Whatever you do, don’t buy into the notion for a second that dry food is clean, pathogen-free, and therefore safer for you and your cat. Especially now.