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Raw pet food companies are in FDA's doghouse over salmonella fears

Raw pet food makers are finding themselves under increased U.S. regulatory scrutiny after a long-running outbreak of drug-resistant salmonella tied to raw turkey products also showed up in some pet food offerings. Given growing demand in the U.S. for feeding raw food to pets -- some call it a more "ancestral" diet for their animals -- it's an issue that is impacting more pet owners.  

The Food and Drug Administration last week issued a public notice to consumers warning them to discard certain types of Darwin's Natural Pet Products raw dog food, saying it had tested positive for salmonella and posed a "serious threat to human and animal health." The FDA added that the company had not issued a public notification and "the FDA is not confident that the firm's customer notifications are effective for this ongoing recall."

Darwin's disputes its food poses a risk to pets or humans. It says the raw meat includes the same instructions about washing hands and surfaces after handling the product as does meat sold in grocery stores for human consumption.

Darwin's isn't the only raw pet food supplier implicated in health risks. Several raw pet food suppliers including Raws for Paws and Woody's Pet Food Deli have recalled raw dog and cat food in recent months after government regulators and health officials linked salmonella in the animal products to tainted turkey in consumer products that sickened three people, two of them children. 

Is a raw food diet good for your pet?

Separately, traditional pet food maker Hill's Pet Nutrition recently expanded its massive recall of canned dog food for possibly toxic levels of vitamin D. One attorney involved in a suit against the company claims hundreds if not thousands of dogs had become ill and and some have even died.  

Gary Tashjian, Darwin's president, objects to both the FDA's finding and the potential for the public to conflate various recent dog food recalls. "It's really unfortunate, there's a distinction between issues we have with the FDA and the other recalls," Tashjian said, referring to the recalls of canned food with potentially lethal levels of vitamin D.

With raw pet food, Tashjian contends "there is no issue with food safety with either pets or humans. There is not a problem with formulation. There's been a number of recalled raw food, but none where there's a pattern of pets becoming ill as a result."

A niche product a decade ago, raw pet food can now be found in refrigerated cases at upscale pet shops and in online stores. Darwin's, for example, feeds more than 10,000 dogs and cats every day in 50 states, with its customers getting a selection of free-range meats delivered to their doors. 

Frozen raw pet food sales jumped 16 percent between 2016 to 2017, according to Pet Food Industry magazine, which noted that the demand is sparked by pet owners' interest in "ancestral" diets of high-protein, raw food for their cats and dogs. While there's no argument that raw meat and poultry contain pathogens like salmonella, there's disagreement on acceptable levels, and raw pet food providers argue that animals are not sickened in the same way as humans.

More Hill's dog food recalled over vitamin D toxicity concerns

Refusing to recall raw food

Darwin's refused to issue a recall, instead alerting the roughly 1,200 customers who had received any food from the three products implicated by the FDA's findings, Tashjian said. Based on a response rate of 84 percent, Darwin's determined that the product, which involved several thousand pounds of meat, had already been consumed and that none was left in circulation. 

"Because we are direct to consumers, we are in constant connect with our customers," Tashjian said. "People call and say, 'My dog threw up,' or the like, but we rarely see more than one customer complaint attributable to the same lot of our meals. We look for patterns, and we almost never get three customers [with the same complaint]." 

An even bigger canned pet food scare

Darwin's has been in business 15 years, but what sparked a business boom for it and other raw food providers was 2007's massive recall of canned pet food tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical.

The recall of some 60 million packages happened after tainted pet food imported from China killed at least 16 dogs and cats and sickened thousands of other pets across the U.S. The scenario morphed into a scandal involving congressional hearings about the safety of the U.S. food supply, as well as federal charges against three people and their businesses.

It's also when more and more pet owners started thinking that commercial food on store shelves "might not be the safest thing for" their four-footed family members, Tashjian said. 

FDA: Consumers need to know risk to pets

While the 2007 recalls prompted a "sea change" for the fledgling raw pet food industry, FDA recalls have been the bane of the industry's existence ever since, Tashjian said. But the FDA said consumers need to be better informed if their pets are at risk.

"We issued an alert because theirs is not adequate," an FDA spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch of Darwin's efforts. "We just want to make sure that customers were adequately informed." 

The FDA issued its alert after Darwin's refused to hand over customer information because it would violate its consumer privacy policy, Tashjian said. For its part, the agency said it was following standard procedure, and that any information collected would be confidential.

Pathogen concerns

Tashjian and other raw food providers believe they offer a healthier option for animals that, left to their own devices, would kill prey and eat the meat raw.

The position is not supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association, however. The veterinary group "discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also does not recommend feeding a raw meat diet to pets because it can make animals and people sick. 

"Folks in our in industry tend to be small [businesses], and the last thing we want to do is get into a fight with the FDA," Tashjian said. A turning point came last fall, when the cost of conducting an FDA recall prompted raw cat food company Rad Cat to go out of business, Tashjian said. 

GoFundMe

Rad Cat's founders, who detailed their regulatory troubles on their company's site, have since started a GoFundMe page in the hopes of restarting their business, raising more than $30,000 of a $1.2 million goal. 

The FDA, which regulates products including pet food, maintains a zero-tolerance policy for pathogens such as salmonella, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a lower bar for bacterium that's commonly found in poultry and beef, partly with the understanding that cooking the meat would resolve potential health issues.

"The irony is you could go to a store and buy chicken intended for human consumption and feed it to your dog, no problem, but put a label on, and the FDA would do what they just did," Tashjian said, referring to the FDA action regarding his company. "They have a policy that they are looking to support that we don't believe is supported by science and facts."

"Pet food has to be safe for both the animals and humans," the FDA spokesperson responded.