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Pet food safety: The veterinarian's role (Proceedings)


The petfood contamination and recall incident in 2007 was a learning experience, for the government, the petfood industry, pet owners and veterinarians.

The petfood contamination and recall incident in 2007 was a learning experience, for the government, the petfood industry, pet owners and veterinarians. In general, commercial petfoods have enjoyed a safe history of use over the years. While recalls for petfood products have been implemented in the past, they were typically associated with one manufacturer's products and involved a quickly identified contaminant (e.g., Salmonella, mycotoxins). Simply put, nothing has ever approached the magnitude of that experienced in 2007 before, and all parties were poorly prepared for the onslaught. Steps are being taken to mitigate the potential for reoccurrence or its repercussions. As one of the sentinels in detecting outbreaks of illness in pets, veterinarians will play a vital role.


As a result of Congressional hearings last spring, new legislation is being considered to address issues such as import safety, recall authority and related matters. One new law, the Food & Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 (FDAAA) has passed Congress and was signed by the President in September 2007. While only a small portion of the Act addresses petfoods specifically, what is in the Act that pertains to petfoods will have dramatic impact.

Under the new law, FDA is given a directive to improve its capabilities when dealing with a petfood contamination incident. For one, within the next year it must establish an early warning and surveillance system, similar to or in coordination with systems already in place by the Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of Agriculture, to detect possible outbreaks of petfood-related disease. It must also work with the National Companion Animal Surveillance Program and other networks as appropriate to inform veterinarians of any recall, and post information about any petfood recalls on an easily accessible, searchable, and understood web site. In addition, there will be a requirement within the next year to establish a "reportable food registry," where manufacturers must report to FDA within 24 hours of discovery of any problem with a food that may cause serious health consequences.

Although not directly related to the facts in the contamination incident, the Congressional hearings also brought question to existing ingredient, processing and labeling standards for petfoods. In fact, FDA has already taken steps in regard to some of those aspects through its Animal Feed Safety System established in 2003. Regardless, within the next two years, FDA must meet with stakeholders (including veterinarians) in order to promulgate new regulations in these matters.

The veterinarian's role

When a petfood-borne disease is suspected, it is often the veterinarian's role to help confirm or rule out the probability. One commonly forgotten truth is that every animal eats "something" at some time before it gets sick. Therefore, food is often wrongly blamed as the source of the problem. Due diligence must be done to rule out other potential causes of illness, e.g., drugs, pesticides, other household toxins, other animals. Still, contamination does occasionally occur, so it is prudent to keep the petfood in mind when determining the cause of an animal's illness. In any event, keeping records of dietary history for all patients may help expose a pattern if multiple animals show similar signs over a short period of time. Thus, as much detail as possible about the food (e.g., brand, product and variety names, manufacturer, type of food, any lot, production or date codes, where and when it was purchased) should be recorded. If the suspected food and/or its packaging aren't immediately available, the owner should be asked to convey those details by phone as soon as possible.

Beyond normal diagnostic procedures, including physical examination of the animal and laboratory analysis of appropriate biologic specimens, examination of the suspected food is also prudent. Petfood companies report that even slight changes in odor, color or texture unrelated to any safety concern is frequently the cause for alarm by concerned pet owners. Still, obvious changes, such as mold growth or off-odors should be noted. The fact is, most microbial or chemical contaminants are likely not going to be detectable on a gross level, so lack of overt defects in the food should not preclude further analysis.

Many veterinary diagnostic laboratories, perhaps particularly those associated with veterinary colleges, can perform the necessary analyses on food samples to help in diagnosis of a food-related illness. Other authors have provided excellent details on proper sampling and submission methods (Miller and Cullor, 2000). These can be particularly important if there is possibility of legal recourse. Other than that, as much information as possible with respect to clinical signs, laboratory findings, and specifics about the timeframe of events (e.g., time between consumption and onset of illness) may be helpful in determining the likely contaminant and type of analyses to perform. A scribbled "check for poison" on a submission sheet is rarely helpful in detecting the presence of a contaminant.

Most petfood companies have "800" lines that can be used to report problems. To date, FDA does not have an adverse event reporting system in place for petfoods as it does for animal drugs. That may change with implementation of the mandates dictated by FDAAA. In the interim, reporting your findings to the nearest FDA field or district office (usually in the blue-colored section of the local telephone directory) may be advisable. The state feed control official (see AAFCO web site for contacts in each state) should also be informed of the situation.

Selected references and sources of information

Miller EP, Cullor JS. Food Safety. In: Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P (eds). Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th Edition Topeka, KS: Mark Morris Institute, 2000; pp. 183-198.



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