14 April 2013

Cats: Food Recalls

This was written in response to three different recalls of canned and dry cat food.

I know there has been several recalls of food lately because of low thiamine and salmonella contamination. I have a degree in statistics and I have worked in food safety for the USDA, plus I done a lot of research on food for cats, so I'll throw out a few thoughts on these recalls.

Please, what I write does not mean I advocate ignoring recalls, especially if you have cans of the food being recalled. This is only meant to hopefully calm some fears and shed light on the process.

1.) All recalls are not the same. The two latest -- one for thiamine and one for salmonella -- are worlds apart. Thiamine is a B vitamin. While it is true that long-term lack of thiamine can lead to some nerve issues, this would be long as in 3-4 months or more and would be none or little thiamine. In all likelihood,  the food would still have some thiamine in it from the meat and other ingredients. It probably would be less than ideal, but some would be present. While it would be nice to have each meal perfectly balanced for nutrients, the reality in the wild is meals are not balanced -- it's the long-term averages that matter, not what was eaten for breakfast.

The salmonella, on the other hand, is a huge red-flag for companies and the public.

2.) Not all salmonella is the same. There are hundreds of strains of salmonella -- some benign and living in your intestines right now, some very dangerous. The testing procedure identifies "salmonella" and not the strain. So, how dangerous the strain is is unknown.

A side note on salmonella and cats, since a cat's digestive tract is shorter and the stomach acid is stronger, cats have less problems with bacteria in the food than humans do.

3.) The way they test food is not accurate. As you probably would guess, they do not test each can. They usually do not test each 'batch' even. They pull less than 0.1% of the product from a few days of production and then randomly sample that. If the sample comes back clean, the pallet of pulled food is okay-ed. If the sample comes back with a problem, they then check more cans from the batch and from 1-2 days around that date.

In the meantime, the product has been sent out to stores. The testing takes 1-4 weeks in good times, more with cutbacks (like now). Pet food is a lower priority than human food, so delays of months is not uncommon.

If other cans are found with problems, the manufacturer is advised and based on the type of problem and the extent, the recall is issued by the company. (If very serious and/or the company refuses, then it's a government recall.) How much to recall is a guess. If two cans from the same lot are tested, one positive and one negative, most companies will recall it. But there is no hard proof that more than the one or even a hand-full of cans were contaminated.

4.) Most recalls by companies are for legal reasons and not health concerns. Take the thiamine recall -- if the low levels were public knowledge and someone had a cat that may coincidentally developed nerve problems, the owner might blame the company and then sue them. Ditto with the salmonella, since the mention of salmonella in food causes many people to panic out of proportion to the risk. Better to recall and claim they care, than face hundreds of lawsuits and bad publicity.

So, what to do? That comes down to the comfort level we each have.  I have a fairly high tolerance for risk when it comes to these recalls, so unless I have the particular batch in question, I ignore it.  Since I feed 2 different brands of food, neither involved in the recalls, I ignored all these.  

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