The perils of pet food

A new book digs into food safety woes in pet food. And The Washington Post takes a look at America’s staggering life-expectancy crisis.

A golden lab jumping in mid-air against a yellow backdrop. The dog is jumping toward a treat that is also mid-air.s

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– A new book digs into food safety woes in pet food

– WaPo looks at America’s staggering life-expectancy crisis


The perils of pet food

This newsletter usually focuses on food for humans, but today we’re digging into something a little different: pet food.

In the nearly 15 years I’ve spent covering food, from the farm bill to school lunch, I’ve pretty much ignored pet food. Though it’s not really a different system – the food chains for humans and animals (both pets and livestock) are inextricably linked – it’s often treated as an afterthought.

But it probably shouldn’t be: Pets aren’t just mainstream – they have a massive pawprint. Nearly 40 percent of American households have a dog and roughly a quarter have a cat. American households are home to more than 135 million cats and dogs, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates. That’s a ton of mouths to feed. 

(Editorial note: I currently have an orange cat named Bode, and I grew up with a dog named Elvis and a cat named Fat Louie. Big pet fan over here!)

Phyllis Entis, a prolific food safety writer and researcher who I’ve long followed and admired, recently came out with a new book on the pet food space with a detailed historical rundown of several food safety scandals, from melamine and aflatoxin to salmonella and pentobarbital. “TOXIC: From Factory to Food Bowl, Pet Food Is a Risky Business” is a primer on everything that can – and has – gone wrong in pet food – and it chronicles shortcomings in government oversight, too. 

I recently chatted with Phyllis about her book while her cute dog, Shalom, napped behind her. Here’s a snippet of our conversation, edited for length and clarity: 

Helena: It struck me reading TOXIC that there are a lot of parallels with pet food and human food safety challenges, both in terms of spotty oversight and how reactive the system can be. We tend to find problems when people, or in this case animals, get sick. How are the two systems the same and how are they different?

Phyllis: One of the key differences is on the surveillance side. As the [FDA’s] Center for Veterinary Medicine keeps saying whenever there’s an investigation into pet food: There is no CDC for animals or for pet food. 

That seems like a pretty big hole. A lot of pets could get sick before anyone connected those dots. At least for people, illnesses like salmonella or E.coli are reported into a system where they can be potentially connected by CDC.

I think there should be something better going on in terms of surveillance. 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. FDA is totally dependent on voluntary reporting from consumers and veterinarians. It’s totally reactive.

The only time CDC would even mention animal illness is if there’s an outbreak investigation into human illnesses that came from animal food, which is what happened with the Diamond pet food salmonella outbreak in 2012.

In the book, you reference surveillance that FDA did several years ago on the prevalence of salmonella in pet food. It didn’t seem like they found very much contamination overall.

They didn’t find it in the dry kibble. They found it in raw pet food.

I certainly hear about kids getting sick from touching or eating pet food. I try to have my toddler wash his hands after he touches pet food or treats. I just assume there’s some level of contamination there, but do we know if the rates of contamination have gotten any better over time? Is pet food getting safer?

We don’t know. We know that contamination still happens. Every once in a while, salmonella is found as part of an inspection. It still goes on, whether it goes on as egregiously as it did with the Diamond Pet Food (2012) and Mars Petcare (2008) outbreaks … it doesn’t seem to be as drastic as it was back then. I don’t know what the current status is because there just aren’t enough resources for random, routine level surveillance. It’s just not a priority, as best I can tell. The money is not there. 

The tendency is for agencies to prioritize their resources to what they consider to be the higher risk situation. And I can understand this because I worked on the regulatory side. The first seven years of my career were with what was the Health Protection Branch, which was Canada’s FDA before Canada went to something very sensible: A unified food safety agency! In pet food, the higher risk situations are pathogens in raw pet food and things like aflatoxins in kibble. It’s hard to get a handle on this stuff because no one is doing the routine looking. 

That’s hard to hear as a consumer and as a pet parent. 

That’s why I don’t buy any pet food.

Yeah … I wanted to ask you about that. You note in the book you make your own food for your dog, but most people aren’t going to do that! They don’t have the time. 

It’s also more expensive than buying a bag of kibble. Not everybody has the budget to be able to spend on their pets to that degree.

Do you have advice for pet owners who want to be mindful of food safety or quality control for the food they buy? Are there certain labels you look for? Third party certifications?

I think it’s more a case of identifying a manufacturer that does a good job. I would personally avoid kibble, period. To use Marion Nestle’s take on it – and I agree with it – what could be more ultra-processed than kibble? 

If I were looking to use a commercial food, I would identify a company that prioritizes food safety. I don’t have an issue with raw pet food, if it’s done right, such as with high-pressure processing (HPP), which inactivates most pathogens without cooking the food. I’m not in the business of doing endorsements, but one company I’ve been impressed with is Stella & Chewy’s. They were the first outfit to get into HPP for pet food. They used to test each batch of food and post the test results on their website. They no longer post them on the website, but if you go to their site and give them the lot code, they will give you the test results. That’s the kind of attitude I would love to see more of. There are a couple of other companies that do that now. 

If you’re interested in learning more about pet food safety, get a copy of TOXIC.


A look at America’s staggering life-expectancy crisis

The Washington Post this week published a deeply reported and powerfully illustrated piece on why Americans are dying younger and younger – spotlighting a massive failure that doesn’t get much attention.

“After decades of progress, life expectancy — long regarded as a singular benchmark of a nation’s success — peaked in 2014 at 78.9 years, then drifted downward even before the coronavirus pandemic,” write Joel Achenbach, Dan Keating, Laurie McGinley, Akilah Johnson and Jahi Chikwendiu. (Five bylines on a piece like this just shows you WaPo put serious resources into the project.) “Among wealthy nations, the United States in recent decades went from the middle of the pack to being an outlier,” they add: “And it continues to fall further and further behind.”

Chronic illness deaths don’t make headlines: “While opioids and gun violence have rightly seized the public’s attention, stealing hundreds of thousands of lives, chronic diseases are the greatest threat, killing far more people between 35 and 64 every year, The Post’s analysis of mortality data found,” the piece continues. “Heart disease and cancer remained, even at the height of the pandemic, the leading causes of death for people 35 to 64. And many other conditions — private tragedies that unfold in tens of millions of U.S. households — have become more common, including diabetes and liver disease. These chronic ailments are the primary reason American life expectancy has been poor compared with other nations.”

The story package is worth your time. It’s pretty stunning. Read it.

This sidebar on kids being increasingly diagnosed with fatty liver disease by Ariana Eunjung Cha is also a must-read: 

“Before the turn of the century, there were only a handful of documented cases of pediatric fatty liver disease in the medical literature. Today, millions are affected, and researchers in the journal Clinical Liver Disease estimate that 5 to 10 percent of all U.S. children have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — making it about as common as asthma.”


What I’m reading

America’s food giants confront the Ozempic era (Wall Street Journal). “Big food companies and investors are watching as Ozempic and other similar weight-loss drugs flow to millions of people, upending America’s diet industry and raising new questions about how consumers will eat,” writes Jesse Newman. “Executives at food manufacturers from Campbell Soup to Conagra Brands said they are fielding questions from investors about the drugs’ potential impact, as internal teams start to assess consumer behavior and brainstorm ways to respond. The drugs, which suppress patients’ appetites, have exploded in popularity in the U.S., straining manufacturing capacity. Morgan Stanley has projected that 24 million people, or nearly 7% of the U.S. population, will be taking such medications in 2035.”

Nutrition: The national security threat no one is talking about (The Hill). “Our nation is facing an impending crisis and the federal government has the power to change this trajectory,” write Mark Cucuzzella and Jeff Volek. “Given the rising rates of obesity in society and the military, there is an urgent need to explore alternative scientifically credible nutrition approaches. It is time for the federal government to acknowledge that most Americans are not healthy and update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reflect the current scientific literature that points to lower carbohydrates as an effective option for individuals with diet-related diseases, including obesity.”

Strategies for improving public understanding of FDA-regulated products (Reagan-Udall Foundation). “This report’s overarching finding is that clear, consistent communication, both directly to consumers and via media channels, is critical to the FDA’s mission to protect and promote public health. Consumers won’t understand or trust policy—and the scientific evidence it is based on—if it is not well communicated to them or if they never hear about it at all. Strong communications reinforce sound policy and science; insufficient communications undermine it.” The report makes several recommendations for improving FDA’s communication with the public, health care professionals and the media. Note: I spoke with the researchers for this report.


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