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Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Cadmium Found In Popular Pet Foods

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- There are plenty of regulations intended to keep human food safe, but there are new concerns about pet foods.

There have been thousands of pets with illnesses or deaths linked to pet foods in recent years. In many cases, the pet owners don't know what in the foods made their pets sick.

The FDA has received over 9,000 pet food complaints since 2010 ranging from diarrhea to death.

Clean Label Lab Tests

Now, lab tests commissioned by the Clean Label Project are shedding light on what they say are shocking levels of contaminants lurking in some pet foods.

Jackie Bowen of the Clean Label project said, "Seeing lead levels that were 55 times those observed in the Flint, Michigan drinking water" was among the most surprising findings of the tests.

The Clean Label Project worked with Ellipse Analytics to test 900 of the bestselling pet foods and treats for over 130 contaminates and toxins. Lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium were just a few of the contaminants the lab says it found in a variety of pet foods.

Instead of nutrition, Bowen says they focused solely on contaminates which the lab says it found in products from nearly every brand tested. Though levels varied dramatically from product to product within each brand.

Veterinarian Concerns 

Veterinarian Dr. Jill Chase notes that the healthy claims on pet food packages don't necessarily mean the food is better for your pet.

"Foods are branded, organic, they're this, they're that, but the reality is that most of the foods just have to comply with basic FDA standards and they haven't been researched,"Chase said.

Interestingly, among the products tested Clean Label says it found the fewest contaminants in products with chicken and turkey as the primary protein.

Dr. Chase says in general, she recommends clients pick foods with just one protein because it is easier to identify allergies and fewer ingredients leave less room for contamination.

She does stress that animals can be more tolerant than humans to many contaminants, however she says it's important to know what is in your pet food.

"You should always be concerned when you hear the food you are feeding your beloved pet is high in these values because lead, for example, is sort of a silent killer. You don't know about it until you start seeing symptoms," she explained.

What Lab Tests Found

Guidance following the Flint, Michigan water crisis says pets should not drink water if "the lead level exceeds 150ppb."

Ellipse Analytics says one Wellness Grain-Free Cat Food product tested positive for 15 times that level of lead, at 5,000 ppb. However, they note other products from the same company had no lead at all.

"Contaminants vary because there are different ingredients," explained Bowen who said contaminates varied dramatically from product to product within nearly every brand tested.

Bowen also notes that the FDA  -- which regulates pet food safety -- doesn't monitor claims like "Biologically Appropriate" or "Human Grade."

"If they're making a human grade claim, it should meet human grade standards," Bowen said.

Orijen brand pet food states that it's biologically appropriate on the label and it's website claims they use human grade ingredients. However, the lab says it found lead in at least one Orijen dog food product, at levels three times the FDA guidance for lead in certain human foods.

They say the Orijen food tested positive for 300 ppb lead. The FDA advisory levels for dried fruit and candy limits lead to 100 ppb for human consumption.

Tests found that the Rachel Ray Brand, which also makes human grade ingredient claims, had a product with 15 times the EPA's mercury limits for human drinking water, at 30 ppb of mercury. The EPA Safe Drinking Water Act sets limits for humans at 2 ppb.

However, it is important to note that these substances can be naturally occurring, may also be found in human foods and each human grade brand also had products with much better results.

How Much Is Too Much?

So, exactly how much is too much lead, arsenic, mercury or cadmium for pets? The FDA has no set limits.

"In the absence of any federal regulation, for pet food, we had to rely on something that could really help consumers understand the levels that we were seeing," Bowen said.

She explained that the Clean Label Project used the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act as a benchmark.

In response, the FDA said, "Relying on the acceptable levels of a substance in drinking water for humans is not a sound approach to determining acceptable levels of that substance in food for dogs and cats. There are multiple reasons this approach is problematic." 

The agency noted the size difference, life span and physiology of pets, and that humans drink more water.

"If we can't compare human food to pet food then there needs to be some regulations. Give us some," Bowen said.

The FDA has reported 15 pet food recalls so far this year, although none were related to the contaminants referenced above. While there are no set limits on contaminants like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, the agency says "any level of those substances… must be safe for the animal."

Companies Respond To Results

While some companies tell KPIX they don't test for these contaminants because there are no set limits, the manufacturers of Orijen and Rachel Ray pet foods, say they do test their products and stand behind them. Though they did not provided test results that dispute the lab's findings.

Wellness brand pet food did not respond to a request for comment.

The pet food industry notes that the raw data and statistical methods used by the lab were not publicly released. The Pet Food Institute states, "It is impossible to assess the credibility or significance of recent claims made."

However, the industry admits it did not request that information from the lab. Ellipse Analytics did share its data with us and we shared a sub-set with the pet food companies we contacted. KPIX has not yet commissioned our own independent testing to confirm their results.

The Clean Label Project is now calling for more disclosure and limits on these contaminants, something many pet parents would like to see.

"I think they should make, whoever made them, eat them themselves," one pet owner said.


Pet Food Rankings

While the Clean Label Project did not publish the raw data  for each dog food tested, it did rate and rank each of the products.

KPIX chose not to reference specific product rankings in our report. Instead, we focused on the raw data we were provided. None of the pet food manufacturers we contacted, including those referenced above, provided any internal data or independent third party testing that contradicted the lab's findings.

When questioned about why it did not publicly release the ranking algorithm and raw data, the Clean Label project explained, "Consumers want the information packaged in a way that saves them time. Publishing 130,000 data points fails that objective." The non profit says that it developed its ranking system in conjunction with data scientists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, chemists and consumer survey data stating:

"Lead, Arsenic, Cadmium, and Mercury are weighted most heavily within our star rating, followed next by contaminants like antibiotics and pesticides, followed by the rest. We more heavily weight the toxic metals because of literature outlining the potential for adverse health effect risks."

The methodology portion of the website elaborates on this.

Critics of the rankings note that some rankings changed following their initial release. In response, the Clean Label Project explained that in its initial launch of the pet food study, it included a nutrition component in the ranking. However, they later removed the nutritional component to focus solely on contaminants. "For us at the Clean Label Project, it's "first do no harm," said Bowen. She explained that removing the nutritional component changed the ranking for some products.

Statements from the pet food industry and the manufacturers of the products referenced in our report are copied below.

The Clean Label Project is launching a fee-based certification program, where it will randomly test foods from participating brands for a variety of contaminants. Those that pass will receive a seal - similar to Good Housekeeping.

Pet Food Responses

Pet Food Institute Statement on the Clean Label Project
The members of the Pet Food Institute (PFI), who make 98% of all U.S. pet food and treats, are committed to helping dogs and cats live long and healthy lives by providing safe and nutritious food. Consistent with statements provided by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), in the absence of publicly available raw data, as well as the analytical and statistical methods used and relevance to peer-reviewed research, it is impossible to assess the credibility or significance of recent claims made by the Clean Label Project regarding the presence of certain compounds in pet food.
Safety is the number one priority for PFI members and they support continuous improvement in this regard. They screen for an array of compounds during the manufacturing process consistent with Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs), risk-based hazard analyses and strict food safety plans. These steps help ensure that compounds whose presence is unavoidable are present in de minimus amounts.

Ainsworth Pet Nutrition Response (Manufacturer of Rachel Ray Pet foods)
At Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, we rigorously test and inspect – both internally and through independent third parties -  our ingredients and finished products for quality, meeting or exceeding all government food safety standards.  We disagree with the Clean Label Project's claims and stand whole heartedly behind the quality of our products.
We can ensure our customers that the health of their pets is always our highest priority.  In fact, we at Ainsworth feed our products to our own beloved pets.
For more than 80 years, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition has been solely committed to providing pet parents with safe, high-quality foods for their dogs and cats.

Champion Petfoods Response (Manufacturer of Orijen Pet food)
At Champion Petfoods we strive to be trusted by pet lovers everywhere. We've been making our own foods with fresh, regional ingredients in our own kitchens for 25 years and are confident we offer the highest nutritional quality and food safety for dogs, cats and the people who care for them.
Like many in our industry we were surprised by the heavy metals standards which Clean Label decided were appropriate to measure dog and cat foods against.
It is important to note that in the USA heavy metal standards for dogs and cats are defined by the National Research Council and based on 25 years of scientific review.
1. Do you have any internal data or independent third party testing data that you can share with us that would contradict these findings?
To share our independent laboratory results and provide peace of mind to our pet lovers we have drafted a White Paper. This paper has been verified
for accuracy by an independent veterinary toxicologist and will be available in the Library section of our website.
Monitoring heavy metals is an important control point for our Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) which defines our procedures for
critical control points in food preparation. All of our foods are tested by a third-party accredited laboratory using the Official Methods of Analysis by
the Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC). Our results for heavy metals are always well below National Research Council (NRC) guidelines.
Clean Label Project did not conduct any safety assessment of their heavy metal or environmental contaminants results against the National Research
Council (NRC) standards for companion animals. A comparison to the correct NRC standards would be more valuable to both pet lovers and the
2. Do you believe the levels listed above are acceptable in pet food?
We believe in and subscribe to the National Research Council standards which are based on 25 years of scientific review.
3. How frequently does your company commission independent testing of your products for environmental or industrial contaminants or toxins?
During ingredient development we perform testing for anything that may be a concern. The ongoing frequency of testing is based on risk assessment of each ingredient and the food, ensuring that our foods are safe.
Each of our ingredients have strict specifications and testing requirements that are appropriate to the type of ingredient. For example, we have
mycotoxin specifications for our beans and lentils but not for meats. Our foods have also been tested for environmental contaminants such as
pesticides, with the results showing no pesticides being detected.
4. Do you test every product and who performs the testing?
We test every food through a third-party accredited laboratory using the Official Methods of Analysis by the Association of Analytical Communities
(AOAC). Heavy metal testing includes arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.
Our results for heavy metals are always well below National Research Council (NRC) guidelines.
5. Do you intend to make any changes, including but not limited to conducting increased testing of your products, in light of these findings?
We are confident in our food quality and standards and will continue to uphold our values. As a trusted brand and industry leader we believe in and
subscribe to scientific peer reviewed research including the NRC guidelines.
6. Will you make your testing data public?
Please see in the attached White Paper.


NOTE: The online version of this story was updated to include additional responses and information regarding the study that was not included in the initial broadcast report.

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