The expert says…
Veterinarians play a key role in detecting and reporting pet food–borne illness. Compared with other sources of poisoning in dogs and cats, foods rank well below drugs, insecticides, plants, rodenticides, and cleaning products in terms of frequency of occurrence.1 However, pet food adulteration (eg, contamination, nutrient deficiency, or other cause of a health problem) does occur.
The most notable example is the unprecedented recall of pet foods contaminated with melamine and related compounds under many different brand and company names in 2007. Although the actual number of products affected constituted less than 1% of the products on the market, the incident revealed significant deficiencies in the safety reporting process.
Government & Industry Responsibilities
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over all pet foods in interstate commerce. Most states also regulate pet foods distributed within their respective borders.
After hearings held by the U.S. Congress on the melamine contamination incident, the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA) was signed into law in 2007. Only a small portion of the Act pertains to pet foods per se, but it has had a dramatic impact on both the government and industry.2
Much of the law puts the burden on the FDA to improve its functions covering pet food safety. At the time of the melamine contamination, the FDA did have an adverse event reporting system for animal drugs, but no formal system in place for pet foods. The law mandates:
- Implementation of an early warning and detection program
- Improved coordination with the states
- Better communication with industry and the public
A key requirement under the FDAAA was to establish a Reportable Food Registry, which became active in 2009.3 With some exceptions, within 24 hours of discovery, pet food companies now must electronically report any incident of adulteration when there is reasonable probability of serious adverse consequences to human or animal health. The Reportable Food Registry system is designed to receive reports only from industry and regulatory officials, not veterinarians or the public at large. However, there are other means by which consumers and other parties may report pet food problems to the FDA.
The Veterinarian’s Role
Timely reporting of suspected pet food–borne illness by veterinarians may help curtail a larger outbreak.
It is not uncommon for pet owners to implicate pet food as the cause of an acute onset of illness. However, because signs of a pet food–borne illness are usually nonspecific, it is prudent to diligently rule out other potential causes of sudden illness. Adverse effects stemming from food adulteration must remain on the differential diagnosis list until that possibility is ruled out or the definitive cause is determined.
Before filing a complaint, a veterinarian who suspects a case of pet food–borne illness needs to collect as much information related to the food in question as feasible (Table 1). In fact, a record of the dietary history of a sick animal is always prudent and may become important if a pattern emerges or a recall is later announced. Pertinent information includes details about the food and its labeling, as well as clinical observations of the animal.
Laboratory Analysis of Food
Collection of food samples for laboratory analysis is often indicated. Proper handling of the sample as legal evidence is important for diagnostic and forensic purposes and may be critical if a subsequent lawsuit or regulatory action is possible.1 Clinical findings should be thoroughly described to the testing facility, along with the likely contaminants or nutrient deficiencies in order to direct the types of analyses conducted.