The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently confirmed in an update of its official report (16th May 2014) that more than 1,000 pet dogs have died out of 5,600 that so far have been reported becoming ill due to the consumption of Jerky style dog food and treats imported mainly from China. These alarming statistics are probably just the tip of an iceberg, because the FDA is still collecting and analysing data. While the U.S. has taken action to recall the pet foods identified as a problem, the UK is still playing catch-up - which means thousands of our pet dogs on this side of the pond remain at risk.
The FDA’s Centre for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has been working hard to try to find the cause of these pet fatalities and so far it has conducted more than 1200 tests without successfully identifying the problem. It has even sent representatives to China to work with politicians, scientists and academics to find a solution. But, as yet, the causative factor involved remains a mystery.
Their technicians investigated suspect products for a variety of germs, poisonous substances, drugs and other contaminants and screened samples for Salmonella, yeast, mould and fungus. They have also tested for additives and preservatives including nitrites and sulfites, and for nineteen different food dyes. Included in their testing they looked for lead, zinc, titanium and almost two dozen other metals. They have even used a gas chromatography mass spectrometer in their search for toxic chemicals.
The FDA found a species of Penicillium in one sample and some antibiotics in several others, but not in quantities large enough to cause illness or death. They also found glycerine in some products that were mislabelled as containing none. Despite this mass of tests – the cause of such severe and in some cases fatal reactions in dogs remains unidentified.
"This is one of the most elusive and mysterious outbreaks we've encountered," says CVM Director Bernadette Dunham, DVM, Ph.D. "Our beloved four-legged companions deserve our best effort, and we are giving it."
The FDA first started receiving reports of dogs becoming ill after eating jerky style products way back in 2007. After repeatedly issuing advisory notes over the years and after several jerky treats were removed from general sale in January 2013 (due to six different drugs being found contaminating them), they noticed that in February this year the volume of incidents seemed to have slowed down – but it has confirmed that new reports of dogs becoming ill are still being received, which indicates the problem has neither gone away or been solved.
The American report identified that some dogs exhibited decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhoea (sometimes with blood or mucus), increased water consumption, and/or increased urination within hours of eating jerky pet products. The products included treats sold as jerky tenders or strips made of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes and/or dried fruit. In the worst cases, dogs suffered severe kidney disorders and gastrointestinal bleeding. Others experienced collapse, convulsions or skin problems.
In what is thought to be the first mass investigation of its kind, the FDA is trying to contact all licensed veterinarians and dog owners in the U.S. inviting them to supply information about any pet dog that presents with symptoms of illness after eating the style of dog treat under suspicion. In pertinent cases, vets will be asked to provide blood, urine and tissue samples from their patients for further analysis.
Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Mars, and Colgate-Palmolive are thought to control 80% of the world's pet-food market. It is perhaps no surprise that one of the big four, pet food supplier, Nestlé Purina, was amongst the first to announce the voluntary withdrawal of Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch brand dog and cat food/treats earlier this year, after trace amounts of antibiotic were found in their products. Dogswell withdrew their Happy Hips Chicken Breast and Duck Jerky from the market for the same reason - as did Milo’s Kitchen, which is owned by the Del Monte Corporation of San Francisco, who voluntarily withdrew their Chicken Jerky and Chicken Grillers home-style dog treats. IMS Trading Corp also announced it was voluntarily withdrawing its Cadet Brand Chicken Jerky Treat products from the market until safety could be confirmed. The FDA has since stated it is ‘highly unlikely’ the antibiotic residue is the cause of the reported fatalities and dogs becoming ill, because this element has been used in the farming of poultry intended for pet food and treats for many years without concern. It has to be said, there are those that believe the FDA have been over-zealous in denying any potential link, without having sufficient scientific data to back-up the claim.
Jerky is best described as lean meat that has been trimmed of fat, cut into strips, and then dried to prevent spoilage. Normally, this drying includes the addition of salt, to prevent bacteria from developing on the meat before sufficient moisture has been removed. However, products described as jerky in the pet food market are not always so simply produced. There are many products being sold as jerky which consist of highly processed, chopped and formed meat, plus some that have no meat content but are nevertheless still under suspicion, rather than the more traditional sliced, whole-muscle meat. These products include chemical preservatives to prevent oxidative spoilage. Many jerky products are very high in sugar and are therefore very sweet and enticing for dogs.
The situation in the United Kingdom is much more complicated – and therefore, much more risky for pet owners and their best friends.
While the supply and manufacturing of products intended for human consumption is highly regulated, scrutinised and controlled by various government departments, the quality and nature of foods and treats intended for pet dogs are not so positively controlled. Most supermarkets I have contacted seem to be under the misunderstanding that as long as the product states it is from the UK (or not from China), then it is being considered safe. This is not true. Jerky style dog treats particularly can be brought in from China by UK suppliers and packaged inside or outside the UK before sale, so while the supplier may be a UK dog food manufacturer or supplier, the product itself or the ingredients that go into making up the product could quite easily have come from China – and from exactly the same source that has killed so many dogs in the U.S.
RESPONSE FROM ALDI
Aldi were one of the first supermarkets to respond to my questions and their consequent investigation has perhaps proved amongst the most reassuring. Like many supermarkets, Aldi have a core range of pet food products that they sell – all of these are manufactured entirely in the UK under the brand ‘Earls’. Aldi have confirmed their ‘Earls’ range ‘are indeed manufactured in the UK, which in this case definitely means made in the UK as opposed to imported and repackaged.’ When I asked about anything originating from China, Aldi confirmed: ‘The only other country we use in dog food for manufacturing (as in made, not repackaged) is in France, and as stated can definitely confirm the ingredients are made there with no importing. Also just to confirm to yourself all our products are labelled in our head office in Atherstone, after they have been made by our UK and French suppliers; there are no Chinese suppliers.’
It concerned me that Aldi, like many other large high street and out-of-town suppliers, occasionally sell products outside their core range, usually as special-buy or sale items, and these may not come under the same kind of control as the core range. Aldi informed me that ‘products outside of the core range would be the ‘special buys’ that sometimes come in at certain times of the year, with the example from our previous correspondence of the chicken fillet jerky products that were released some time ago which were manufactured in China then repackaged in our warehouse in Atherstone, however, please note it would have been some time ago, and before the evidence was released in the FDA report. We cannot confirm what future special buys may be in the pet range but in light of the FDA investigation it is highly unlikely the products will originate from China.’
Had Aldi stated pet products available on their supermarket shelves will not originate from China until the FDA or UK equivalent has given the green light on safety, rather than it is highly unlikely they will stock such items, I would have been much more reassured. While I have no doubt that Aldi have the best interests of our pets in mind when they stock products, it seems either a lack of understanding or/and market pressure is forcing them to invite an element of risk into what our pets are being served for snacks.
RESPONSE FROM SAINSBURY'S
Sainsbury’s Customer Manager, Ashley Ford, informed me that the company does not sell any jerky-style pet products manufactured in China. Ashley went on to say, ‘we always want to source all of our products with integrity. We share the concerns of many of our customers and stakeholders that some operations have poor animal welfare standards. Animal welfare is important first and foremost for the animal, but better management and care for livestock can improve productivity and food quality.’ However, my concern about the ingredients of such products and where they might have come from and about other manufacturers and pet food suppliers that merely repackage products brought in from China, remained an unanswered issue. They explained that with 50,000 different items on their supermarket shelves, they cannot answer a generic question about pet treats they might sell at any particular time without being told the name(s) of specific product(s) under suspicion.
I pressed Sainsbury’s further, and on 1st November Customer Manager David Smith replied with some good news:
‘Having investigated this with our pet product buyers, I'm happy to confirm we no longer stock any jerky style dog products in any of our stores.’
RESPONSE FROM TESCO
Tesco have been perhaps the most pro-active in dealing with this issue, either by design or by happy coincidence. They informed me they do not sell any jerky-style dog products originating from or sourced from China. Moreover, they say their associated dog food and treats are actually entirely processed, manufactured and packaged in either Germany or Austria and have no association or link with China in any way. This fact probably makes Tesco products amongst the safest for our pets at this time in relation to the poisonous jerky outbreak.
RESPONSE FROM WILKINSONS/WILKO
Wilkinsons is a popular high-street discount store that normally has a number of aisles devoted to pet food, treats and toys. They told me: ‘Once we heard of concerns – particularly relating to the glycerine content - we carried out a rigorous re-assessment of our dog chew products including raw materials and manufacturing standards. Our chews are made from human food grade meat which is subjected to continuous batch testing to ensure it is free from contamination and entirely safe.’
RESPONSE FROM ASDA
Asda explored the FDA report findings and investigated any potential impact with their buying team. Nisha Keaton of their Customer Service Team told me: ‘I'm pleased to confirm no products from our own brand pet range, including their ingredients, are from China.’ In relation to their own Webbox range, they say: ‘Our products are made by a BRC certified factory whose products have never been involved in the voluntary recall of chicken jerky that took place about a year ago in the USA. The factory we work with is mainly oriented in producing for European customers and uses food grade ingredients. Independent testing is carried out of every production Batch to SGS before any of these batches are shipped to the EU. In addition, random tests are made in the Netherlands after the container has arrived in our Dutch consolidation warehouse centre and before being shipped to our Blackburn warehouse.’
My concern about Asda’s response is much the same as some other supermarkets in the UK. While they may be able to defend the quality of their own branded pet foods and treats, they are unable to confirm the Chinese jerky-free status or quality of other suppliers’ dog food and treats placed on their shelves for sale to pet owners.
RESPONSE FROM WAITROSE
Waitrose took a long time and several email nudges before they replied properly, but eventually they told me: ‘I have received a response from the Food Technologist that looks after dog food. They have advised that no Waitrose branded dog food or dog treats - or the raw materials used to produce them - is sourced directly or indirectly from China. All Waitrose own brand dog food/treat products are sourced direct from factories in Europe. For wet dog food this is from Ireland, for dry dog food this is England and Ireland and for dog treats they are from England and Austria. Please be assured that Waitrose has a policy of visiting sites of manufacture - so we know exactly where and how our products are produced and we have full traceability of raw materials.’ Once again, the same problem … their own brand products are quality assured, but what about other products they are selling?
The German global discount store, Lidl, operates 10,000 supermarkets across Europe. When questioned about the FDA report into Chinese jerky and dog foods, Lidl replied only to explain they were looking into the matter. That was at the beginning of November 2013 – and I am still awaiting their response.
Jollyes Pet Superstores were given the same opportunity to reply when questioned on this subject, but they have thus far not taken up the offer. I might be being somewhat ingenuous (perhaps they are still investigating), but I often believe silence speaks volumes.
RESPONSE FROM THE BRITISH VETERINARY ASSOCIATION
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) was also contacted for a response. Sally Burnell of the BVA explained: ‘The situation has been flagged up to us by PFMA who have been looking into it to see what the UK situation is. We have alerted our members to the information and have been in touch with the Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS) to ensure they were also aware.’ I explained this is not a new threat, but one the FDA in the U.S. announced in the media there in January 2013. I also added that it was in fact me that questioned the PFMA at the end of October, which made the fact they had only now contacted the BVA somewhat coincidental – or was it that no one was quite up-to-speed on the jerky scare here in the UK? Sally replied saying: ‘I can understand that you must have been getting frustrated and worried at the responses (or lack of). At this stage there’s not a huge amount we can do other than make sure our members are informed and ensure that any suspected cases are reported in the correct ways – that is why we are in touch with the VPIS. Hopefully it is a not a problem that we will see here in the UK but we must remain vigilant.’
Having contacted government ministers, MPs and health and hygiene agencies, mostly attempting to find out which department or agency is actually responsible for ensuring foods intended for dogs in the UK are safe, I have been surprised to discover how difficult it is to acquire any official information whatsoever. It strikes me the UK has been caught napping on this problem, while the U.S. seems to have been ‘on the case’ for years.
RESPONSE FROM THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY
The Food Standards Agency is an independent government department responsible for food safety and hygiene across the UK. One would perhaps think this agency would be the one that knew more about the problem and about the FDA’s on-going investigation more than anyone else, yet when questioned about the Chinese jerky scare, Joseph Nicholas, Policy Adviser of the Animal Feed and Animal By-Products Branch for the Food Standards Agency at first seemed completely unaware there was any problem at all.
In his first reply to me of 31 October, he said: ‘I believe that you may be referring to the melamine contamination incident of a few years ago …’ and then continued to give more information about that episode. The melamine contamination of Chinese imported dog food actually came to light in 2007 and was dealt with that year, but it has little if anything to do with the more recent ‘jerky’ linked poisoning of dogs except for the fact that it is again Chinese dog food processing and/or manufacturing that seems to be involved.
When pressed for a more appropriate response, The Food Standards Agency replied stating: ‘We have sought advice on the possible importation of jerky treats from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association -- http://www.pfma.org.uk/ -- the trade association for the UK pet food industry, which covers 90% of the UK market. It has confirmed that to the best of its current knowledge, its members do not import this product from China.’
When pressed for a third time, The Food Standards Agency informed me: ‘I am not sure that I can provide the absolute certainty for which you may be seeking. We do not ourselves collect information on imports from third countries (that is the responsibility of HM Revenue & Customs) nor require feed businesses to notify us of any such imports; nor is there a licensing system for animal feed products (save for a requirement for feed additives to be specifically authorised for their intended use, and controls on prohibited ingredients and the potential presence of undesirable substances). There are controls on the import of certain high-risk products from certain third countries -- see http://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/imports/banned_restricted/ -- but beef jerky products from China do not currently appear on this list. I have previously mentioned the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food under which Member States notify the Commission of problems on their territory, for appropriate action by other Member States in cases of common concern; however, there have been no notifications under this of problems with beef jerky products from China.’
There is a phrase that I keep reading while researching this subject … to the best of our knowledge … which I would tend to interpret as we aren’t entirely sure, but we think this is how it is.
I also find it disconcerting to receive a reply from a government agency that seems to offload its responsibility for dog welfare in the UK to a trade association, whose main interests are likely to be the pursuit of financial gain for its members by increasing the volume and type of products on the market as well as striving to improve the quality and safety of products offered for sale. The Association say they have various objectives, one of which is to ‘stimulate the growth and reputation of the industry by encouraging understanding and good working relationships amongst those associated with pet food.’ Of course, as they only represent a chunk (albeit a large chunk) of the market, this leaves a window of opportunity for rogue suppliers to put poor quality dog food on the shelves of our pet stores in the UK. And that’s before we even consider what might be coming in from EU countries, and those outside the EU – including China.
RESPONSE FROM PAUL MAYNARD MP
I contacted Paul Maynard MP quite early in the investigation, but it took him a long time to acquire replies from government agencies and individuals relating to Chinese Jerk importation and regulation. The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had difficulty working out whether they were responsible for such controls or whether it fell under the provision of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Eventually, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Public Health at the Department of Health, Jane Ellison, was given the task of responding. I would rather like to have been listening in on the telephone conversations when this decision was made ... with much gasping and repeating of 'it's not my responsibility' possibly being made by several individuals.
Jane Ellison made two points very clear in her letter. First, dog food comes under the legislative umbrella of animal feed legislation, which includes wild game shot for human consumption and non-food-producing animals such as pets, zoo and circus animals and creatures living freely in the wild. Such legislation comes under the scrutiny and control (through harmonization) of the European Union, which leaves the United Kingdom government somewhat in the passenger seat rather than driving the safety vehicle itself, as it were.
Second, she says that as there have been no notifications about Chinese jerky imports and associated pet dog illness received via the EU's Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food, the European Commission has not circulated any information about it to Member States and has not been required to take any precautionary actions relating to it. This smacks of blustering and a certain level of incompetence, in my opinion, because if the EU is not procuring information from Member States (by asking vets in those countries to report associated illness following the consumption of Chinese jerky treats), how would they know whether a problem exists or not? If you don't look for it, you are very unlikely to find it.
RESPONSE FROM MORRISONS
Morrisons replied following their own investigation and Customer Services Manager, James Thompson, told me: ‘I can confirm that none of our own brand pet food is manufactured using meat derivatives from China. I can also confirm that we do not stock products which featured prominently in the FDA report, including Vitalife, Dogswell, Waggin Train, Beefeaters, Cadet, Kingdom Pets, Canyon Creek. We have also contacted the UK Pet Food Manufacturers Association. The PFMA have responded stating they have not received reports of similar problems in the UK. They have also had contact with the Food Standards Agency on the issue who confirm they too have not received any reports of similar problems in the UK. As a responsible retailer we will continue to liaise with such organisations.’
I explained to Morrisons the main problem seems to be that neither the PFMA nor the Food Standards Agency are collecting data, because they are not asking for it from vets and pet owners in the UK, so how would they know. Until such time as the UK follows the U.S. approach, which means asking the right questions, the link between dogs becoming ill and/or dying through eating Chinese imported jerky will not be disclosed. The question is … there may be 1,000 dogs that have become ill or that have died today known to vet practices up and down the country, and how many of those 1,000 dogs recently ate jerky from China?
LATEST NEWS FROM THE FDA
The most up-to-date news on this subject is that the FDA are closely examining the glycerine level used in the production of jerky for dog and cat foods and treats. Jatropha is a hearty shrub that can be grown in semi-tropical and tropical areas throughout the world and is a rich source of glycerine. Unfortunately, jatropha may contain unwelcome toxic by-products like phorbol esters and these may be finding their way into Chinese produced jerky, particularly as the Chinese treats in question pretty much all have glycerine mentioned in their ingredient list. These compounds exhibit acute and chronic toxicity to humans and animals alike. What’s worse, the actual toxic substances can be found in the glycerine and protein by-products. According to an FDA manufacturer notification, this appears to be a reasonable possibility and it is certainly following this line of inquiry with vigor.
In the time from the release of the official report in 2013, there have been an additional 1,800 cases reported to the FDA. In gathering the data and analyzing it, the FDA has said 60% of cases report gastrointestinal disease, 30% kidney or urinary disease, and 10% neurological, dermatological and immunology problems. About 15% of the kidney and urinary cases tested positive for Fanconi syndrome, a rare kidney disease that has been associated with their investigations.
In the most recent testing process, the drug Amantadine was found in some of the chicken jerky treat samples. These samples came from imported Chinese jerky sold during or prior to 2013. Amantadine is an antiviral drug approved for treating humans, although it has been used on dogs for pain control. It was banned by the FDA for use in poultry in 2006. The FDA do not believe Amantadine contributed to the type of illnesses reported in the Chinese Jerky Treat investigations, but accepts it should not be in the treats at all and has reported this fact to the relevant manufacturers in China. The FDA has confirmed it will, in the future, be sample testing both domestic and imported jerky treats for Amantadine and other anti-viral drug contamination in the future.
While the UK seems to be adopting a self-regulatory approach to the safety of dog food made available through supermarkets, pet shops and other high-street stores, the U.S. has gone down what I believe to be a more regulated – and therefore indisputably a more safety conscious – route. My argument is that self-regulation is unlikely to provide sufficient incentive for pet food manufacturers to behave responsibly … and the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to coin the somewhat ironic phrase. We only need to consider where self-regulation has taken us with other service-providers in the UK in recent years to understand the implications of relying on this approach.
Without any recognized single body taking the helm to fight on behalf of our pet dogs and for responsible dog owners in the UK, the potential for our best friends to become ill and possibly die in increasing numbers as a direct result of eating a jerky-style treat originating from China is and will continue to be ever more likely. Responsible owners might want to do what I have already done … examine their ‘doggy cupboard’ and safely dispose of any jerky-style foods or treats, because even if the packaging does not mention China as the source, the ingredients or the jerky itself might have been bought in from China and repackaged somewhere outside of China. I would also stop buying any jerky-style foods or treats until such time as either the FDA in the U.S. or the UK government announce the problem has been identified and the manufacturing process and source of contamination has been thoroughly and effectively dealt with.
Dogs cannot help themselves and instead must rely on us to care for their well-being, which means as owners we must be ever more diligent on their behalf.
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TonyBooth (author) from United Kingdom on May 14, 2017:
When I last spoke with them, like most of the supermarket chains, Aldi cannot confirm that their pet range of dog treat products are not sourced with ingredients from China. This means there remains an element of risk. It would be prudent to approach Aldi direct about any particular product you may wish to buy.
A Potter on May 13, 2017:
Does this mean that Aldi Earls chicken jerky is safe for a dog to eat? Thank you. It feels like nothing is safe for a dog have...
TonyBooth (author) from United Kingdom on November 27, 2013:
Smacko's aren't great, but okay in small quantity. They are loaded with sugars (bad for teeth) and yeast, the latter of which is why some dogs develop an allergic reaction. They also have very little meat, about 4% usually, which is of course the element a dog SHOULD have in more abundance. Always check the ingredients is all I would suggest.
Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on November 27, 2013:
Wow our dog loves these treats, but I try not to buy from other countries. The last ones we bought were made from Kangaroo meat. Although I will not give it to him in one piece as it is like the pigs ears, they tend to stick in their throat as they are not good to chew.
Normally we buy smacko's
Thanks for a very interesting read.
TonyBooth (author) from United Kingdom on November 13, 2013:
I had a response today from the British Vet Association (BVA), who seemed a little annoyed that I had published this article without giving them time to reply fully, as the jerky issue had been flagged to them by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA). I explained it was actually me that approached the PFMA weeks ago and at the same time as approaching the BVA, so if I hadn't told them they probably wouldn't have flagged it to the BVA. It seems the BVA were upset over me giving the wider public the impression that the BVA weren't up-to-speed on this issue ... when in fact ... they aren't!
TonyBooth (author) from United Kingdom on November 03, 2013:
Thank you. It's an ongoing story and I will update this piece if and when I get responses from the Vet Association and other stores and the government here in the UK. I am also keeping in touch with FDA releases on the event too and will update news as I receive it.
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 03, 2013:
Very interesting presentation and I particularly liked the section about Aldi and their non-descript response. Sounds like legal weasel words rather than a positive proactive stand on future buying policies. You've identified the only course of action we can take to ensure the safety of our pets until this issue is resolved.