By Dr. Becker
A few months ago I reported that certain politicians were turning up the heat on the FDA for the agency’s handling of the long running, tragic situation with potentially toxic chicken jerky treats imported from China.
One of the elected officials I mentioned was Representative Jerry McNerney of California, who wrote the FDA encouraging action to prevent harmful pet treats from reaching consumers.
Rep. McNerney also wrote a letter to the Chinese government about the chicken jerky treats, and according to ABC7 News, asked the government to "consider halting production of these chicken jerky treats until the FDA can determine whether or not the products contain tainted material."
The People's Republic of China Responds
McNerney received a response from the Chinese government in which it criticized the FDA for putting an advisory alert on its website about the treats even though the exact cause of pet illness and death has not been determined. The Chinese government wrote, “From the perspective of the Chinese side, there might be something wrong with the FDA's investigation guidance."
Incredibly, according to ABC7 News, the letter also advised against influencing public opinion against treats imported from China and directed the U.S. "to clear the name of Chinese pet food and eliminate the negative impact thereof on Chinese pet food trade and bilateral relationship."
The Chinese government informed Rep. McNerney that it will not halt production of the chicken jerky treats and urges the FDA to find out the truth as soon as possible.
Fortunately, as I reported a few weeks ago, the imported pet treats suspected of causing illness and death in pets have been voluntarily pulled from store shelves by U.S. manufacturers. The treats were removed after discovery of potential antibiotic contamination -- a situation purportedly unrelated to the thousands of reports of pet illness and death the FDA has received since 2007 related to jerky pet treats.
With still no answers on potentially toxic imported chicken jerky pet treats, is the U.S. preparing to lift the ban on Chinese imports of poultry for human consumption?
Currently, China is prohibited from exporting poultry for human consumption to the U.S. due to past issues with food safety, bird flu outbreaks, and other problems. However, dvm360 reports that according to a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman, “FSIS is currently working with the Chinese government to develop a timeline to inspect poultry-processing plants in that country.” Apparently inspections could take place early this year as a step toward lifting the ban and allowing China to again import poultry to the U.S.
Given the still unresolved problems dating back to 2007 with Chinese poultry products imported for the U.S. pet food market, a move to lift the ban on Chinese poultry for human consumption seems premature and ill advised.
According to dvm360, as of mid-December 2012, the FDA had received 2,674 reports of illness involving 3,243 dogs, including 501 deaths, and nine cats, including one death. The FDA has yet to identify a contaminant and therefore will not issue a recall. An unrelated state agency, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), was able to find trace amounts of prohibited antibiotics in the same brands of imported chicken jerky pet treats implicated in the FDA reports, which led to the voluntary recall.
It seems what is driving the planned Chinese poultry-processing plant inspections is a desire to improve trade relations between the U.S. and China. China wants the ban lifted on export of poultry products to the U.S.; the U.S. wants China’s 2003 ban on American beef lifted.
I hope everyone reading here today will take extra care in selecting food and treats for your pet... and yourself. Despite the voluntary recall of suspect chicken jerky pet treats by U.S. manufacturers, I’m not convinced we’ve heard the last of the problem.
Here again are my recommendations for avoiding toxic pet treats...
Don't Overfeed Treats to Your Pet. Dog or cat treats – even very healthy ones – should not constitute more than 15 percent of your pet's daily food intake, and preferably less than 10 percent. And it's best to limit them to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement - things of that nature. Treats should be offered primarily as rewards during house training, obedience training or other similar activities, and not because the rest of the family is sitting down with a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie.
Also keep in mind that cat and dog treats are not a complete form of nutrition for your pet, and should never be substituted for balanced, species-appropriate meals. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet. Overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in a dog or cat with nutritional deficiencies.
Treats Should Be Sourced in the U.S. and Made in the U.S. Legally, pet food manufacturers can make the "made in the U.S.A." claim as long as the product was assembled in this country – even if the ingredients are imported. So when you're shopping for safe treats, it's not enough that a product claims to be made in the U.S. You want to be sure all the ingredients originated here as well.
The U.S. certainly produces its own share of tainted products, but as a general rule, the contaminating agent is quickly identified and these days, immediate action is taken to remove the product from store shelves.
The chicken jerky dog treats and other treats suspected of causing illness and death in so many pets have ingredients imported from China. Despite the efforts of the FDA and independent laboratories to isolate the contaminant, nothing has been identified, and five years after the first reports of sick and dying pets, the treats are still being produced by major pet food companies and sold by major retailers. So I would certainly strongly recommend avoiding any product containing ingredients sourced from China.
That said, I have found several excellent quality treats from New Zealand and Canada.
The important point is to know and trust your treat company's commitment to purity and quality control.
Treats Should Be High-Quality. A high-quality pet treat will not contain grains or unnecessary fillers, rendered animal by products, added sugar (sometimes hidden in ingredients like molasses and honey), chemicals, artificial preservatives, or ingredients known to be highly allergenic to pets.
These criteria rule out the vast majority of commercial pet treats on the market.
As is the case with commercially available pet foods, high-quality pet treats aren't likely to be found in big-box stores, large pet store chains, your local supermarket, or your vet's office. Your best bet shopping locally is to visit small, independent pet stores with knowledgeable staff who can answer customer questions and are competent to recommend products that make sense for individual pets.
Most excellent quality, human-grade pet food producers – typically smaller companies – also make a few types of treats. So if you're already feeding your dog or cat a high-quality commercial pet food you trust, see if the manufacturer also makes treats.
Another option is to shop online, especially if you've done your research and know exactly what you're looking for.
Offer Fresh Human Foods as Treats. I recommend avoiding all grain-based treats. Your dog or cat has no biological requirements for the carbs in these treats, and in addition, they are pro-inflammatory.
Consider instead living "human" foods. Berries are a great treat because they're small and loaded with antioxidants. You can also offer small amounts – no more than 1/8 inch square for a cat or small dog and a 1/4 inch square for bigger dogs – of other fruits (melons and apples are good fruits to start with) as well as cheese.
Many cats enjoy bits of zucchini or cantaloupe. You can also try offering some dark, green leafy veggies as treats for your kitty. It might even keep her away from your houseplants!
Excellent training treats for dogs include frozen peas and raw almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts (but NEVER macadamia nuts).
Prepare Homemade Treats for your Pet. If your dog happens to be wild for dehydrated chicken strips (chicken jerky), you can make your own quite easily.
Just buy some boneless chicken breasts, clean them, and slice into long, thin strips – the thinner the better. Place the strips on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet and bake them for at least three hours at 180 degrees. The low temp dries the chicken out slowly and the strips wind up nice and chewy.
Let the strips cool, and then store them in plastic bags or another airtight container. You can also freeze them.
If you buy commercial canned food for your dog or cat, you can 'repurpose' a can for use as a supply of healthy treats.
Open a can of your pet's favorite brand, preferably something with a strong aroma, and spoon out little treat sized amounts onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Put the baking sheet into the freezer until the bite sized bits of food are frozen. Then move them to an airtight container and back into the freezer they go until you're ready to treat your pet to a treat! (Most dogs will enjoy the treats frozen, but you'll need to thaw them to a chewy consistency for kitties.)
For recipes to make pet treats at home using beef, liver and turkey, check out my article titled Nutritious, Delicious Pet Treats You Can Make in a Flash.