7-Year-Old Tainted Treat Fiasco Just Gets Worse

Toxic Jerky Treat

Story at-a-glance -

  • In this latest update on the toxic jerky pet treat debacle, we share up-to-date news on a tragic situation that is 7 years old and no closer to resolution than it was in 2007.
  • In May of this year, news headlines announced that in addition to thousands of sick and dead dogs and a couple dozen sick cats, three people had also fallen ill after ingesting jerky pet treats. Two were toddlers.
  • Also in May, the FDA published a CVM (Center for Veterinary Medicine) update giving the latest count of dogs (5,600) and cats (24) affected by the treats. The count includes 1,000 canine deaths. The FDA also revealed they have improved their jerky testing methods, and have since discovered the drug amantadine in some China-made chicken jerky treats. Amantadine is an antiviral drug that was prohibited from use in poultry 8 years ago in the U.S.
  • And in another May development, big box pet supply stores Petco and PetSmart announced they will no longer sell pet treats made in China, effective the end of this year for Petco, and March 2015 for PetSmart. Then in June, Food Sentry, a global food monitoring service, called on the FDA to test Chinese-produced chicken pet treat ingredients for contamination with industrial byproducts.
  • Despite the continued production of jerky-type treats and the marketing efforts of pet treat manufacturers to reassure consumers the products are safe, we recommend pet owners continue to avoid buying any pet food or treats imported from China.

By Dr. Becker

In March, in my last pet treat update, I let you know that at least two brands of treats implicated in so much sickness and death of pets were headed back to store shelves. If you remember, the treats (Nestle Purina's Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch jerky treats, and Del Monte's Milo's Kitchen products) were voluntarily pulled from store shelves across the U.S.

The manufacturers took this action because even though the FDA couldn't find anything wrong with the treats (after six years of trying), the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) found trace amounts of residual illegal poultry antibiotics in several lots. So Nestle Purina and Del Monte (which recently renamed its pet food division "Big Heart Pet Brands") voluntarily pulled the treats in early 2013… and then returned new-and-improved versions to stores months later.

As you can imagine, pet owners, veterinarians, and other animal advocates weren't happy about the move, since the manufacturers weren't exactly forthcoming with information as to what they had done to improve the safety of the treats. One veterinarian who has treated several cases of Fanconi syndrome, a serious kidney disorder linked to the treats, even called for clinical trials to prove the "revamped" products were safe.

So here we are at the end of August, and I thought it might be time for another update. As usual, since the last update I've been collecting news items on the treats as I run across them.

In addition to all the sick dogs and cats, in May we were told that three people also fell ill after eating the treats.

In May, a headline in a pet food industry journal announced that in addition to all the dogs and a few cats, three people had been made ill by the treats, including two toddlers and an adult. As the result of accidental ingestion, one of the kids acquired a Salmonella infection; the other developed GI issues and fever, which are symptoms also seen in dogs that become ill after eating the treats. The adult, who apparently ate the treats intentionally, developed nausea and a headache.

Also in May, the FDA revealed that another 1,800 animals became ill in the 6 months prior, bringing the total to over 5,600 dogs and 24 cats.

Also in May, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) issued an update to its jerky pet treat investigation, which included the following disturbing statistics:1

  • From October 22, 2013 to May 1, 2014, the FDA received another 1,800 case reports of animals that became sick after eating jerky treats. (I'd be interested to know how many case reports since January mention the new-and-improved Nestle Purina and Del Monte ("Big Heart") jerky treats as the culprit.)
  • As of May 1, the agency had received reports involving more than 5,600 dogs and 24 cats, and included over 1,000 dog deaths -- all linked to chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats imported from China.
  • Symptoms included GI/liver disease (60 percent of cases), kidney/urinary disease (30 percent, with about 15 percent also testing positive for Fanconi syndrome), and neurologic, dermatologic, and immunologic symptoms (remaining 10 percent).
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The FDA also announced a tweak in its treat testing methods, resulting in the discovery of residue from yet ANOTHER illegal drug.

Interestingly, in the May update, the FDA also announced it had adopted the same method NYSDAM used that allowed it to pick up low levels of illegal antibiotics in jerky treats in 2012. (This, despite the fact that both the FDA and the treat manufacturers insisted the antibiotic residue was not what had caused sickness and death in so many pets.)

The FDA also reported that its testing of jerky pet treats from China (perhaps using the newly adopted method?) uncovered the presence of amantadine in some chicken variety treats. Amantadine is an antiviral drug used to treat influenza and Parkinson's disease in humans. It was prohibited for use in poultry in the U.S. back in 2006.

Predictably, the FDA doesn't believe the amantadine has anything to do with sick or dead pets, either, and says it has "notified Chinese authorities that the presence of amantadine in these products is an adulterant." Meanwhile, the FDA is now testing for not only amantadine, but also other antivirals in both imported and domestic jerky pet treats.

In an overdue but shrewd move, both Petco and PetSmart announced plans to phase out all dog and cat treats from China.

USA Today reports that in an overdue but welcome move, Petco and PetSmart announced plans to stop selling all dog and cat treats made in China.2 Petco will pull all China-made treats from its shelves by the end of 2014, PetsSmart by March of next year.

According to a spokeswoman for Petco, just five years ago, 90 percent of all jerky treats sold in the U.S. were made in China. Currently, about 50 percent of jerky treats sold by Petco are from China.

In June, Food Sentry CEO called for the FDA to test imported treat ingredients for the presence of industrial byproducts.

In June, Food Sentry, a global food monitoring service, suggested the FDA should be testing jerky treat ingredients along with finished product. Food Sentry pointed out that in the Beijing region of China alone there are over 350,000 chicken farms that supply manufacturers in the area.3

According to CEO Scott Witt, "This is relevant because this highly industrialized area is significantly contaminated with dozens of industrial byproducts."

Witt, who helped build a system for the FDA that calculates the probability of adulteration of imported food, uses leather manufacturing as an example of the potential for contamination. One of the substances used in the tanning process is chromium, which leaves behind residue on the tanned product. Leather scraps left over from the tanning process are often hydrolyzed and sold as high-protein feed.

The chickens that eat the feed can end up with a buildup of hexavalent chromium, a compound that is recognized as a human carcinogen when inhaled. This toxin can then be passed on to pets that eat imported treats or food containing chromium-contaminated chicken parts.

Witt challenges the FDA to "get to the beginning of the product's life and look deeply."

Where do we go from here?

Hopefully, most of you who read here regularly have been judiciously avoiding feeding your pets commercial jerky-type pet treats, especially any that might be partially or wholly imported from China, since shortly after this never-ending nightmare began seven years ago.

Despite sweet-sounding company name changes, claims of new-and-improved treat formulations, roving treat trucks, and similar strategies designed to entice and reassure you, my recommendation is to continue to avoid any commercial pet food or treat that contains even a single ingredient imported from China.

And remember that "Made in the USA" stamped on the label isn't a guarantee. U.S. country of origin labeling laws only require that products made in the U.S. be put together here. There's no requirement of pet food manufacturers to identify where the ingredients in their products come from.

From the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection's Complying with the Made in USA Standard document:

"What is the standard for a product to be called Made in USA without qualification?

For a product to be called Made in USA, or claimed to be of domestic origin without qualifications or limits on the claim, the product must be 'all or virtually all' made in the U.S. The term 'United States,' as referred to in the Enforcement Policy Statement, includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and possessions."

In other words, the ingredients can come from anywhere, as long as the final product is assembled in the U.S.

For more information on keeping your pet safe, please read Recommendations for Avoiding Toxic Pet Treats.

+ Sources and References