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.

8 responses to “Getting real about food safety squabbles

  1. This reminds me very much of what is going on in the raw milk crackdown around the country (my family consumes pasture-fed raw dairy). Whether it is pet food or people food, there are too many “powers-that-be” that want to reduce and eliminate our access to non-industrial food. Sometimes simple profit is the motive, but I fear that too often it is the idea that they are doing it “for our own good”. That worries me. You know what they say about good intentions and where it leads to … :-).

    I find it very interesting (and annoying, frustrating, maddening) that the govt & industry people who claim that food (for people or pets) that comes from outside the typical industrial processed food chain is somehow more dangerous because it isn’t industrial and tested. Heck, it’s the industrial food that is causing the vast majority of all food-borne illness problems, not small pasture based farms that sell raw dairy or families that feed their pets raw meat. And those illnesses caused by industrial foods that are sold far and wide, are no longer restricted to a few folks who ate at the local church pot-luck, or a local cafe, or even a few counties, no, these illnesses affect much higher numbers of people scattered all over the country (& beyond, in the case of exported food items), making food-poisoning data tracking slow, laborious, and late, very late. Most of the food in recent recalls had already been consumed.

    I have far more concern about contracting food-poisoning eating in the restaurant supplied by a semi from US Foods than I do from making my weekly batch of mayonnaise with raw eggs from a local hobby farm.

    I wonder when the American public will wake from their stupor and see what is happening, but truly, I’m not very hopeful. The average American is too easily placated by industry and government promises of additional testing, new technologies, higher penalties, and stricter enforcement, because they don’t see how the whole industrial food system is so flawed that industrial solutions only scratch the surface.

    Speaking of scratching the surface, I find it interesting that people show more outrage about crappy industrial pet food that is poisoning their pets, then they do about similarly bad industrial food for people.
    They still shovel processed cereals, grains, and lab-created food products (I can’t call it food) into themselves and their kids, but can’t see the connection to the chronic diseases that skyrocketed in the last century and continue into this century. Basically, it’s the same stuff as the pet food, with a different label and marketing spin (it’s a little too much like the movie Soylent Green).

    Ok, I’ll wind my rant down, but I think it’s important to understand, this issue isn’t just about pet food, it’s about all food. The irony is that it might be dangerous pet food issues that make people take notice of the dangerous situations with people food.

  2. My cat just had diarrhea after I bought her some new treats (brand name omitted). This article is very informative and helpful

  3. Hi Anne
    Thanks so much for your recipe; my recently adopted (ex stray) 8-month-old male kitteh just loves it – he didn’t even need transitioning. He looks much like your Duke – both very cute. He was as sick as a parrot when I got him from the shelter with URI herpesvirus and awful diarrhoea (I thought he was going to die the first few days) but he came right pretty fast and doubled his weight in a matter of weeks (not fat, just growing).
    I was already primed to feed raw cat food because 10 years of research into human nutrition means I don’t eat processed junk, so why should I feed it to my cat? I never liked the idea of feeding dry food to cats, but was horrified to learn what went into the kibble. Never mind melamine, or dead, drug-raddled companion pets – the highly oxidised PUFAs they add are enough to make me want to vomit.
    Anna, at least some people are waking up to the fact that processed food is a nutritional nightmare and is at the root of so many modern afflictions.
    The only difficulty I have had with feeding him this way is that he still wants to “graze”. Because he is VERY vocal he can literally give me earache. I’m just going to have to bite the bullet, insert the earplugs and ignore him.
    The great thing is a couple of my friends with cats are convinced by my arguments and are now transitioning their cats to raw as well. A kitteh on raw is a kitteh saved!

  4. I’m kinda curious as to why more emphasis has not been paid to how commercial pet food is made. In order to make my point I’ll attempt to make what appears to be a very bad analogy: Lets say we have two pizzas and one is commercial grade frozen, the other is gourmet hand made fresh, both are cooked, and the fancy one is burnt. The question is which pizza is more nutritious?

  5. Aaah gotta love how this kitty canned food has had red and blue color added to it /sarcasm/

    I’m sure my kitty appreciates the pretty colors.

  6. Just want to say thanks for all the information on your site about how to feed a raw diet. I have been feeding my cat raw food using your recipe for a couple of years now and he is doing well on it. His dandruff cleared up too!

    I have put a link to your site on my cat health blog and am spreading the word whenever I can.

    I still see vet info that says “never feed your cat raw food” or recommends dry food. What do they learn at veterinary school I wonder?

  7. Just had to add this – its an example of how stupid people can be when it comes to animals. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

    “Feed animals anything you want,” say the experts, “and it makes no difference to their meat, milk, or eggs.” Because of this mindset, our animals are being fed just about anything that enhances the bottom line, including chicken feathers, sawdust, chicken manure, stale pizza dough, potato chips, and candy bars.

    Here’s a glaring example. A 1996 study explored the desirability of feeding stale chewing gum to cattle.

    (1) Amazingly, the gum was still in its aluminium foil wrappers. Wonder of wonders, the experts concluded that bubblegum diet was a net benefit—at least for the producers. I quote: “Results of both experiments suggest that [gum and packaging material] may be fed to safely replace up to 30% of corn-alfalfa hay diets for growing steers with advantages in improving dry matter intake and digestibility.” In other words, feed a steer a diet that is 30 percent bubblegum and aluminium foil wrappers, and it will be a more efficient eater. With a nod to public safety, the researchers did check to see how much aluminium was deposited in the various organs of the cattle. Not to worry. The aluminium content was “within normal expected ranges.” As always, there was no mention of the nutritional content of the resulting meat.

    When I first read the bubblegum studies, I assumed that no one would actually feed bubblegum to their animals, despite the “positive outcome” of the research.. Then a professor of animal science drove me by a Beechnut gum factory in upstate New York where dairy farmers bought truckloads of bubble gum to feed to their cows.”

    Of course we then get to eat these poor creatures.

    This came from this site (not mine)

  8. Pet food ingredients in commercial foods and the safety of our food supply system are intrinsically connected. First we saw the pet food recalls (which are still continuing by the way) and then a flood of recalls indicating that melamine is in virtually EVERYTHING.

    I have always taken care to eat a healthy diet and for the past 2 years my kitties have been on raw too. I talk to my local farmers and know who they are and how they manage their small family run operations. They know I’m coming to them for chickens to make cat food; and surprise, well they feed their ferals the same thing, toss out the scraps to the cats that roam around their barn, looking for prey.

    We have all become far too disconnected from our food sources. I think the pet food recalls had a positive impact in that it served to wake people up to the negative aspects of processed food and the globalization of our food supply system. We can change this — eating local, organic and avoiding processed foods for ourselves and our kitties.

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