Pet Food Recalls: Explosion of Salmonella Cases in Past 5 Years

Salmonella contamination is on the rise in dry pet foods. In fact, the CDC says you should always assume the worst. Read this report.

Latest Updates:

  • Diamond recall now involves two of its plants — Gaston, S.C., and Meta, Missouri (May 18)
  • News of first known deaths (May 16)
  • MSNBC reports number of sickened people grows to 16 total (May 11)

With the expanding recall of pet foods produced by Diamond Pet Foods, once again salmonella is a major concern. According to a May 16 article in The Gazette of Montreal, two shelter cats died after eating Diamond Pet Food products. These are the first apparent deaths from recalled food. At least 14 people have been sickened, although MSNBC has reported that number at 16.

Brands involved in the recall include various Diamond varieties as well as Kirkland Signature, Taste of the Wild, Canidae, Natural Balance, Solid Gold and a Wellness formula.

On May 18, the Diamond recall expanded yet again — and now includes potential salmonella contamination not only in its Gaston, S.C., plant but in its plant in Meta, Missouri, as well. (See our full list of 2012 recalls.)

It all made me wonder: Is it just my imagination, or are we seeing a major uptick in salmonella cases over the past few years? The answer: I definitely wasn’t imagining things. Keep reading to find out why.

‘No Progress Against Salmonella’

Salmonella contamination is on the rise, in pet food manufacturing as well as in the human food supply. In the past 15 years, concedes Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, “We’ve made virtually no progress against salmonella.”

Testing back in 2003 determined that nearly 4 percent of raw meat and poultry in the United States was contaminated with salmonella. Six years later, the FDA found that 21 percent of chicken breasts in grocery stores had salmonella.

The bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antimicrobial agents, and new strains (there are more than 2,500 in all) are growing more virulent. We now know that certain “super salmonella” can potentially become hyperinfectious (that is, 100 times more virulent than normal), though thankfully this is extremely rare.

But What About Pet Food?

I recently spent five hours poring over dog and cat food recall data from the period of 2000 to 2012. I wanted to find a way to isolate and track salmonella cases. What I found was a sudden uptick beginning in 2007 and 2008, coinciding with two massive recalls in those years by Mars Petcare Inc.

What’s interesting to me is the sheer number of recalls in the period of 2007 to 2012 blamed on possible salmonella contamination. Such recalls have included pig ear treats, cat food, dog food, and brands ranging all the way from bottom-shelf Ol’ Roy and Purina to higher-end products made by Bravo! and Wellness.

I noticed that canned foods are very rarely recalled because of salmonella. A report from the CDC explains: “Canned pet food is unlikely to be contaminated with such pathogens because the manufacturing process should eliminate bacterial contamination.”

Pets Adviser does not recommend giving pig ear treats to your dog, because the pork is cleaned and flavored but not cooked, which might otherwise kill off the bacteria. If you must buy pig ears, look for individually wrapped items rather than those sold in bulk bins.

Cases Are on the Rise

The chart above represents, roughly, the impact of pet recalls due to salmonella over the past decade.

Getting an accurate picture is difficult because manufacturers report their recall figures in various ways. For example, one company may report that “a single lot” or ” a limited number” was recalled; another company may say 500 bags were pulled from shelves; yet another may say 10,000 pounds. Also, pet deaths and illnesses are poorly tracked because there is no centralized reporting system as there is with people.

How Does Salmonella Get Into Pet Food?

Salmonella, viewed from a microscope

The source of salmonella contamination can be stated in one word: poop.

Whether it’s the poop of a cow, mice or pigeons, feces are a natural carrier of salmonella because the bacteria can live in the gut of these animals. Let’s say there’s some infected cow dung that gets into the water supply on a farm. The farmer irrigates the field with that water, and suddenly — before you can say “Uh-oh” — the whole crop is contaminated with salmonella. In the case of pet foods, the more probable direct cause is that storage bins, equipment or workers’ hands are contaminated by a tainted ingredient.

Protect your pet and yourself; please read our tips on safe handling of pet food.

Vigilance at All Times

Here is something you should know. In a 2008 report, the CDC says that, to be on the safe side, pet owners should assume that ALL commercial dry pet food is at risk:

“Consumers and health departments should be aware that all dry pet food, pet treats, and pet supplements might be contaminated with pathogens such as salmonella, and consumers should use precautions with all brands of dry pet food, treats, and supplements.”

Remain vigilant, handle food safely (especially dry pet food) and be on the lookout for new recall announcements.

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