Why Veterinarians Must Be Fresh-Food Savvy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

raw feeding vets

Story at-a-glance

  • The anti-raw movement is spreading misinformation in some unusual places these days, most recently, the tech website CNET
  • The “dangers of raw food” article at CNET offers more of the same fear-mongering and inaccuracies we’ve come to expect from the anti-raw food lobby
  • The article also ignores the lengths raw pet food producers have gone to ensure their products meet the FDA’s stringent zero tolerance policy for bacteria in raw diets
  • The good news is that several independent studies are underway to prove not only the wide-ranging benefits of fresh food for pets, but also its clear superiority over ultraprocessed kibble and canned diets in sustaining vibrant health in companion animals
  • Knowing how to safely handle raw food — for both human and pet diets — is the key to avoiding bacterial contamination; all commercially available raw pet foods sold in the US must comply with the FDA’s “zero tolerance” policy for potentially pathogenic bacteria

Recently, and oddly, I ran across an article about raw pet food at the online site CNET, headlined “Thinking about feeding your dog raw food? Think again. Raw dog food poses a threat to public health …” etc.1 For those of you who aren’t aware, CNET is a site that identifies itself as “the destination for tech enthusiasts to discover and research technology and consumer electronics.”

Not only is finding an article on pet food at a techie site a head-scratcher, but the advice it offers is sadly more of the usual fear-mongering about the “dangers” of raw diets for dogs and cats.

Why Is Pet Parent Interest in Raw Diets on the Rise?

The article begins:

“Pet owners want the best for their animals, which includes feeding them the best diet possible. In recent years, many pet parents have begun turning to a fresh diet consisting of home-cooked foods — or, sometimes, food that's completely raw. Some claim a raw food diet leads to shinier coats, healthier teeth and better overall health for dogs.”

This is a true statement, but it sure would be nice if journalists who jump on the anti-raw bandwagon were a bit more curious as to why pet parents are turning to fresh foods in their efforts to feed their animals the best diet possible. Could it be they suspect that ultraprocessed diets are creating health problems for their pets?

Why the lack of curiosity on the part of most media to learn why many pet owners are turning away from kibble and canned food?

Raw Meat for Pets vs. Raw Meat for People

Next, the author states that: “Raw food is uncooked food, mostly meat, and can be homemade by pet owners or store bought frozen.”

This is probably just a poor choice of words on her part, but unless the pet owners she’s referring to are ranchers or farmers who raise and slaughter animals on site, the raw food ingredients for pets aren’t “homemade” — they’re sourced from the same place you source the food you and your human family members eat (e.g., the grocery store or butcher shop).

Nutritionally complete raw pet diets can also be purchased frozen at many locally owned, independent pet stores as well as most big box pet stores. In addition, many family-owned pet food companies deliver raw pet foods directly to your door. As with all pet food categories, it’s important to do your homework with fresh food companies as well.

The important point here, which is not-so-coincidentally the point anti-raw folks always overlook, is that USDA-inspected raw meat is raw meat, whether it’s sold for human or pet consumption. It’s comical to me that somehow, the raw ground beef you purchased to make hamburgers for the kids is somehow safer that the raw ground beef you purchased for the dog to eat. They come from the same place!

Yes, you’re going to cook the burgers, but as long you know how to safely store and handle raw meat, there’s no reason to assume your dog’s raw beef dinner is dangerous just because it’s raw. In fact there are now several studies concluding that probable cases of pathogen transmission via homemade diets is very low, and likely dependent on hygiene and food safety measures; so take the same precautions when handling raw meat for your human or furry family members.

Dogs roll in and eat decaying, terrible-smelling things and cats, when given the opportunity, kill and eat mice. The digestive tracts of dogs and cats are specifically designed to handle raw meat as food because they evolved to hunt and eat small prey animals.

Torres concedes this fact by admitting that the reason we don’t see a lot of sick raw fed dogs is “because their immune systems (usually) work well against harmful bacteria.” Her primary concern was possibility for Salmonella exposure.

What veterinarians should be discussing is that salmonella can be found in over a third of all healthy dogs and around 20% of healthy cats regardless of the food they consume. Many pets harbor these bacteria as a part of their normal gastrointestinal (GI) flora and naturally shed salmonella organisms in feces and saliva.

All nontyphoidal salmonella species are ubiquitously present in the environment and reside in the GI tracts of many animals, including pets. The majority of human salmonellosis cases are acquired through ingestion or handling of contaminated dry pet foods and treats — not raw meat. Here's what you need to know about salmonella:

  • Dry food and raw food can certainly harbor salmonella, so awareness and proper home hygiene are important, regardless of the type of pet food you feed
  • Regardless of what food you feed your pet, animals can naturally harbor salmonella that can be a risk to humans, especially if you or a member of your family is immunocompromised

How to Safely Feed Raw

The final threat discussed in the article involves how bacteria from raw pet food gets transmitted to humans. According to Torres, it happens through fecal contamination. "It can be on their paws, and they walk inside," she says. "They get on our couch, they get on our bed, those types of things. That's the challenge with it — you can only clean what you know is there."

Obviously, it doesn’t much matter what a pet eats if the issue is fecal contamination inside your house. If your pet is spreading poop around your home after stepping in it, a thorough cleaning and disinfecting is required regardless of the source of the poop.

In my experience, what pet parents and veterinarians are most concerned about isn’t fecal contamination, but the storage and handling of raw foods. The FDA offers the following tips to prevent infection when feeding raw:2

  1. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) after handling raw pet food, and after touching surfaces or objects that have come in contact with the raw food.
  2. Thoroughly clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that come in contact with raw pet food. First wash with hot soapy water and then follow with a disinfectant. You can also run items through the dishwasher after each use to clean and disinfect them.
  3. Freeze raw meat and poultry products until you are ready to use them, and thaw them in your refrigerator or microwave, not on your countertop or in your sink.
  4. Carefully handle raw and frozen meat and poultry products. Don’t rinse raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. Bacteria in the raw juices can splash and spread to other food and surfaces.
  5. Keep raw food separate from other food.
  6. Immediately cover and refrigerate what your pet doesn’t eat or throw the leftovers out safely.
  7. If you’re using raw ingredients to make your own cooked pet food, be sure to cook all food to a proper internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella, L. monocytogenes, and other harmful foodborne bacteria.
  8. Don’t kiss your pet around its mouth, and don’t let your pet lick your face. This is especially important after your pet has just finished eating any type of pet food.

Nutrition Experts Have an Obligation to Become Fresh Food Literate

I’ve written many times about the lack of fresh food literacy in the veterinary community and the CNET article is yet another example of this problem, especially among veterinary nutritionists. Putting sterile, well-formulated commercial raw diets into the same category of concern as a pet parent guessing at a homemade raw recipe demonstrates profound illiteracy with regard to the fast-growing fresh pet food movement.

It’s time veterinary nutrition specialists begin concisely defining what type of “raw food diets” they are referring to when commenting about the “fresh food movement.” When discussing pet food risks, it’s equally important to include associated risks from other food categories, as well.

In this case, the incidence of recalls from salmonella and other pathogenic bacteria in ultraprocessed pet foods dwarfs raw food recalls, not to mention the millions of pounds of recalled kibble and canned food due to toxic levels of mycotoxins and excessive synthetic nutrients that have sickened and killed thousands of pets the past few years.

Dry food confers antibiotic, multi-drug resistance to dogs. Dry food historically contains very high levels of pesticides and heavy metals. Acknowledging the problems in the pet food industry is a great starting place for change, but we should be inclusive of all the issues.

Veterinarians have an obligation to be able to discern important differences within the multifaceted fresh pet food category when speaking about “raw food,” including differentiating homemade and commercial raw diets, formulated vs. unformulated diets, and sterile raw formulations.

Sadly, most veterinarians have no idea sterile raw food exists because leading organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association are equally illiterate, failing to explain how it is that high pressure pasteurized, sterile raw food, devoid of all bacteria, poses a bacterial risk to humans.

When leading veterinary organizations, industry experts, manufacturers and AAFCO pet food label committees fail to make the effort to understand these important differences so they can begin communicating more precisely about raw food diets, their lists of risks and concerns only serve to further confuse pet owners.

One Law All Veterinarians Should Be Aware Of: FMSA

In the U.S., the Food Safety & Modernization Act (FSMA) mandates that companies that produce raw diets specifically for pets must meet the FDA’s incredibly stringent zero tolerance policy for the presence of pathogenic bacteria, which means that raw meat sold for store-bought raw pet diets may be even safer than raw meat sold for human consumption!

Further, about half of U.S. raw pet foods have been pasteurized, making them sterile: devoid of ALL bacteria (which is why many pet parents feeding sterile pet food are confused when their vet says their raw diet is bacterial risk). But pasteurization is just one of many techniques companies are using to keep fresh foods safe.

Fresh pet food manufacturers use a variety of processes (e.g., high pressure processing, ultraviolet light, ozone, bacteriophages, batch testing, fermentation) to ensure their raw food products are safe, so the next time you hear someone say commercial raw pet diets are "dangerous" or your veterinarian warns against feeding raw foods because they’re harmful, feel free to correct them.

There’s a federal law in place mandating zero tolerance. Keep in mind this law does not apply to the meats you buy at the grocery store.

Bottom line, follow the same safe handling precautions regardless of what you feed your pet, and be assured that responsible raw food companies perform due diligence to control potential pathogenic bacteria in a variety of nontoxic ways to insure each batch of product is safe for consumption.

Handle and store meats at home hygienically regardless of who eats it, and never guess at a homemade pet food recipe, follow a recipe that lists the amounts of provided nutrients in each meal. There are great quality and poor quality products in all pet food categories so do your pet food homework.

 

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