What should I feed Max or Bella? – Petfood safety a pet owners’ dilemma

David Primrose

Let me start with a question, “What is the similarity between the following: –

  • a Golden Eagle,
  • a domestic cow,
  • a cod fish,
  • a Norwegian spruce,
  • a Salmonella bacterium,
  • a German Shepherd dog,
  • an Abyssinian Blue cat
  • and a citizen of New York?”

Leaving aside the possible idea that I might have gone mad, there is a point to this seemingly crazy question.

The answer is that they are all living organisms and as such need a source of nutrients to survive, grow and breed. These needs are met by consuming nutrients or food, in everyday language. There is however diversity in how these plants, animals and bacteria get these nutrients and how food sources are chosen.

Accepting the fact that a food might be rejected due to some perceived problem e.g. off odour, only humans (citizens of New York) have the freedom of choice in food selection. All the others are not capable of making conscious decisions on food selection. In the case of the dog and cat, food selection decisions are made by the pet owner.

Consumer decisions on the selection of goods and services, including foods, is a complex area. Both rational factors e.g. price, nutrition, perception of food safety risk, taste and those of a more irrational nature e.g. packaging graphics, manufactured in home town etc. influence our decision-making process. When deciding what to feed our pets, similar factors also influence our petfood selection process.

As outlined above, as humans we make food selection decisions partly on our perception of food safety risks. For example, pregnant women might make a conscious decision to avoid cheese made from unpasteurised milk due to the risk of Listeria food poisoning. In this example, we have assessed the risk of getting ill with the opportunity of eating something which might be highly palatable. Depending on our attitude towards risk taking, i.e. how risk averse we are, we decide if eating the cheese is a risk worth taking or not.

The key point is that all foods for humans, animals and pets present food safety risks. Historically, there has often been the perception that foods based on animal products e.g. poultry, eggs etc. presented the greatest food safety risk. However, in recent years there have been significant recalls of products traditionally seen as being “safe” e.g. produce like bagged ready to eat spinach, cantaloupe melons etc. To ensure we don’t suffer from food poisoning we need to ensure the food we eat is safe.

The challenge for all petfood manufacturers is therefore how to ensure consumer trust in the products we feed our pets. This requires a concerted range of activity, involving discipline, regulatory compliance and communication. The pet food supply chain must implement and adhere to procedures and regulatory requirements (“rules”) for controlling food safety. This requires implementation of food safety management systems (FSMS) combined with processes to demonstrate their effectiveness and that we are complying with the “rules”. However, this alone is not enough and education and communication are also critical. Firstly, we need to tell consumers that we operate FSMS to reduce food safety risks to our pets and demonstrate compliance through independent third party inspection (audit) of these. Secondly, the petfood industry also has a key role in educating pet owners about food safety e.g. the risks associated with different product formats (dry, wet and raw) and food safety in the home e.g. safe storage of petfood and hand washing.

On a regular basis, the food safety authorities in the US and EU publish data on food safety recalls. This data shows where foodstuffs have been withdrawn from the market based on food safety risk. Inspection of this data shows that all petfood formats including dry, moist and raw show recalls based on food safety risks. An example of recall data from the US Food & Drug Administration is shown below: –


As clearly shown from this chart, all types of main meal petfood present food safety risks that result in product recalls. Although not shown, pet treats e.g. jerky snacks also present risks that result in product recalls.

The fact that the number of recalls is “low” can give pet owners some comfort, as it demonstrates that commercial petfood is “relatively” safe.

If we look at this data, with trendlines added (dotted lines), we see that in the cases of both dry and wet petfood the trend is towards reduced level of product recalls. This is indicative of the care taken by regulatory authorities and the industry to improve petfood safety.

However, raw petfood shows an increasing trend in terms of product recalls.


This could be due to several factors including the relative immaturity of this sector in terms of developing food safety standards and systems. In this context, it is interesting to note that the “raw” petfood sector is implementing their own industry associations to help develop standards and systems appropriate to this growing sector. Examples of these associations include the “Canadian Association of Raw Petfood Manufacturers” http://www.carpfm.ca/ and a dedicated section within the UK Pet Food Manufacturers Association http://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/5676-pfma-creates-group-for-raw-pet-food-manufacturers

An important concept in life is that of “Freedom of Choice” and applies to all aspects of everyday life, like making educational choices for our children, political allegiance and food selection.

Whilst it is evident that all petfood formats, present food safety risks evidence shows that commercial petfood is relatively safe. It is beyond dispute that “raw” petfood presents even greater challenges due to the lack of a kill step to destroy foodborne bugs like Salmonella that can make both pets and pet owners sick.

As the industry addresses this concern, it is important as pet owners that we understand the facts on food safety risks and make rational, informed decisions on selecting petfood format for our pets.

Humanization is a key factor in the petfood industry. Given that we make risk based decisions on selecting our own foods it is important that we also apply the same considered approach in petfood selection.

When deciding on what to feed Max or Bella, make sure as pet parents you don’t have double standards in making food selection decisions. Our pet’s health relies on our judgement as responsible pet owners.

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