Lack of oversight in pet food could pose health risk to humans

22 Nov 2023

The pet food industry needs stricter health and safety standards, particularly as handling raw pet food can spread foodborne illnesses to humans, including Salmonella and Listeria, according to stakeholders.

Pets today are treated like a member of the family, and more people are choosing to adopt a furry friend. According to 2018 data from the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 40% of American households have a dog and about 25% have a cat.

Lack of oversight in pet food could pose health risk to humans
© AdobeStock/FurryFritz

Owners want the best for their animals, which has led to high demand for better quality pet food and supplies from pet stores and mainstream retailers. However, despite major growth in the industry, there have not been as many improvements in the regulation of pet food.

Without stricter guidelines for manufacturing and labeling, allergens or contaminants in pet food can be harmful to both pets and their humans who come into contact with it.

Voluntary reporting leads to safety gaps

In a recent post on the Food Fix blog, food safety writer Phyllis Entis discussed her new book about the history of pet food safety scandals, and what the industry still fails to get right today. Entis said that government agencies do not do enough to prevent incidents in pet food, and that policies are much more reactive than proactive.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration that regulates human food and medications also oversees pet food. There is also no pet equivalent to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Right now, there’s absolutely no mandatory reporting. Even if a veterinarian finds salmonella in an animal and ties it to the food, any reporting is completely voluntary,” Entis said. “FDA is totally dependent on voluntary reporting from consumers and veterinarians.”

“The only time CDC would even mention animal illness is if there's an outbreak investigation into human illnesses that came from animal food,” she continued.

Credit: © AdobeStock/nuzza11© AdobeStock/nuzza11

Some owners are choosing to forego packaged food entirely and prepare their pets’ food at home, but this can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for most pet owners. It also is a lot to learn about feeding their animals proper nutrition and choosing the right diet for their pets’ health.

Pet owners need a refresher on cross contamination

The CDC and FDA do have some warnings on their websites about the link between pet food and human illness, particularly raw food. Citing internal data, the FDA said that raw pet food is more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria than other types of pet food. The agency urges people to clean and disinfect properly when handling raw pet food to avoid infections like salmonella and listeria.

Pet owners may need the reminder. In a 2020 study conducted by Purdue University in the US, researchers found that many pet owners have poor hygiene when it comes to feeding or playing with their cats and dogs, increasing their risk of foodborne illness.

Forty-two percent of survey participants reported that they do not wash their hands after feeding their pets, 70% allow their pets to lick them, and 8% said they occasionally eat pet food and treats themselves.

Pet food can be recalled due to foodborne pathogens just as human food can, but the recalls are less widely reported and followed. The researchers of the study concluded that pet owners “need more education about the safety of pet foods and proper handling of food and pets to prevent contracting an illness.”

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