Recalls of Pet Food and Treats in U.S. are (Mostly) Voluntary

Until recently, the FDA hasn't had the legal teeth to force recalls

Published: March 18, 2013
By Phyllis DeGioia, editor Veterinary Partner and ANIMALicious

large-black-dog-tongue-hanging-outYou may be used to seeing pet food recall notices released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And you may have assumed that the FDA issued those recalls. However, that's not how it works. 

Pet food is recalled when it contains icky stuff, most typically Salmonella (potentially fatal), sometimes E. coli (potentially fatal), and sometimes large volumes of insidiously nasty stuff like melamine (very definitely potentially fatal).  That industrial agent sickened or killed over 20,000 pets. People can also get sick by touching tainted pet food or treats. Sometimes pet food is recalled for mold or bits of glass, plastic, or antibiotic residue. 

Even though the FDA is in charge of the safety of our food, our pets' food, and our supplements, until recently the FDA hasn't had the legal teeth to force recalls.

All that changed on January 4, 2011, when the FDA took a huge step in the "armed to the teeth" direction. The new law, whose chompers are akin to those of a 200-pound, intact Neopolitan mastiff named Guido, is called the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)  of 2011. (Guido would be the perfect mascot for FSMA - is anyone at FDA listening to this brilliant suggestion?) Most of the act is being phased in over a few years, but the FDA has been able to order recalls since the day the law came into effect. FSMA could convince recalcitrant companies to issue recalls because the public relations nightmare only gets worse when you refuse to acknowledge your screw-up and the FDA has to call you out in public. That kind of behavior - which the public will view as "yeah, we knew we had Salmonella in those treats but it would cost us too much money to recall them" - can cause a business deep financial stress, an ocean floor level of stress.

According to FSMA, the FDA can't just surprise a company with a recall - they have to first ask the company to issue one and they can only do it themselves if the company refuses to issue one voluntarily.

The manufacturer of the tainted item has historically been the one to issue the recall, which is why we see FDA notices stating "X Issues Voluntary Recall of this Food" rather than "X Recalls this Food." Companies choose to do it for the value of retaining customers, by not making pets sick or dead, and to not turn away customers by being elusive. Tainted food is a public relations disaster, and more so if customers find out the company knew about it and didn't pull it off the shelves.

The voluntary recall system didn’t always work well, which is why the new teeth were put into place.

Recently, one manufacturer apparently wouldn't recall a batch of dog treats in Denver that was identified by the FDA as having Salmonella. The number of affected products was not huge: just one city was affected, but it was a big deal to the dogs and dog owners in that city. It would have been Kasel’s fourth recall in five months – all for Salmonella - and it seems they were feeling a wee bit sluggish about getting out of bed to do this. 

Guido bared his teeth at Kasel, but he didn’t bite. The FDA sent out a public warning:

"FDA: Don’t feed certain Nature’s Deli Chicken Jerky Dog treats
Product may be contaminated with Salmonella

The notice explained that the FDA is "warning pet owners and caretakers not to feed their pets Nature’s Deli Chicken Jerky Dog Treats" that were sold at Costco stores in the Denver area.

According to Food Safety News, for the first time in history, the FDA threatened to issue a mandatory recall. The FDA sent Kasel a "last chance" letter before doing so. Kasel issued their voluntary recall for the Denver-area treats.

A couple of days later, Kasel recalled all their pet treats manufactured from April  20 through September 19, 2012; during that time positive results for Salmonella were collected. This timeframe could expand when additional test results are completed.

Bravo for Guido and the FDA, because otherwise dog owners in Denver wouldn't have known that there were treats on the shelves containing Salmonella. And bravo for Costco for yanking it off the shelves without waiting for a recall.

What should you do if you think a treat or food has sickened your pet? Save any label(s) because that is how investigators track the involved batches. Either you or your veterinarian can report the trouble to the FDA.  

If you want to stay abreast of pet food/treat recalls, check out the VIN Recall Center. You can subscribe to an RSS feed to receive updates whenever a new pet food or drug recall occurs.  Another option is the FDA's recall list.

So let's hear it for Guido and his big teeth. He likes things a certain way, and even if he moves a bit slowly because of his size, he gets things done. Let’s hope that from now on, once a recall is issued that no pets get sick from that product, and that recalls are issued in a timely manner.  Guido’s strong chompers will help protect our pets' food as well as ours.

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