Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Raw food diets: Risk factor Salmonella

I am really concerned about salmonella. Am I over reacting? Is raw meat safe? Are raw meat diets dangerous to feed because of the possible contaminants of Salmonella and E-coli? These are the questions I am getting every day from pet owners who have to some degree decided to do the right and best possible thing: Feed their pets raw food. Yet they still somewhat are hesitant because of the concerns raised in their questions. The following e-mail made me decide to finally dedicate a comment on this blog to the issue on hand. My prospective customer wrote: “I need some advice. Our vet gave my wife a lecture on feeding our Yorkshire and Mini Poodle fresh chicken backs from Whole Foods. He says that it isn’t good for them (he winced when my wife told him). He is especially concerned about salmonella for the humans. Do you know if he has any basis for his concern?”
So what is the real deal here? I guess it depends on whom you ask. And what exactly the underlying interests of that person are. Obviously, the dry food selling people say it is a problem. The canned food manufacturers follow suit. Quite contrary of course, the raw food selling ones say, no, it’s not. Then you got the group of the pro’s, like for example the veterinarians. Unfortunately, most veterinary schools provide grossly inadequate education on basic canine and feline nutrition. Ask any vet and if being honest he/she will admit to that. I recall Dr. R.L. Wysong telling in one of his books that at veterinary school he only had a couple hours of nutritional education. Despite such insufficient knowledge, for example, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) publishes on its site an article titled “Raw Food Diets - Popular pet diet may pose significant health risks for you and your pet” stating “… a study published in the November/December 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association found that these (raw) diets may cause a potentially fatal Salmonella infection. "While raw food diets are becoming increasingly popular among pet owners, there is a growing body of information showing that these diets pose a health risk not only for the pets that consume them but to their owners as well," says Link Welborn, DVM, AAHA past president. “ And concludes: “…Due to these risks, AAHA recommends that pet owners not feed their pets a raw-meat based diet and encourages owners to ask their veterinarian for advice regarding a nutritionally balanced diet that is appropriate for their pet's age and lifestyle.”

Good vet grown idea: Get the good old science diet to ensure a steady flow of income through profits on pet food and pets needing veterinary attention.

Dr. Anthony Carr, DVM wrote in the January 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News in his article “Raw diets linked to Salmonella”: “Veterinarians have a responsibility to provide pet owners with information about zoonotic disease that gives a realistic appraisal of any risks pets could present to the household’s human inhabitants and how to minimize this risk. …” He concludes: “Direct and indirect transmission of salmonella in association with pets has been commonly documented. Though rawhides, pig ears and even dry food…” (Listen, dry food manufacturers, so much for your scare tactic against raw) “…can be sources of salmonella, it seems to me that raw meat diets represent the greatest threat. Commercial raw meat diets are often contaminated with salmonella, something that is not surprising given the prevalence of salmonella, especially in poultry … To me the risk is unacceptable and I counsel all clients to avoid raw food diets.”I guess a vast majority of his peers is following in his foot steps. I hear it every day. Just one quick question, Dr. Carr: When making such statements like “Commercial raw meat diets are often contaminated”, next time please do us all a favor: Show documented proof.

You see what I was saying? The good thing about me writing this comment is that I am on both sides. I examine any kind and type of pet foods. We sell at the store dry, canned and raw (the real raw too, not just the freeze dried or latest alternatives of dehydrated ones) and I think I can indeed be objective about it.

Before I continue, what really is causing salmonellosis, as a salmonella infection is called? Here’s some background info:
According to our governments USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service “"Salmonella" bacteria are the most frequently reported cause of food borne illness. In order to reduce salmonellosis, a comprehensive farm-to-table approach to food safety is necessary. Farmers, industry, food inspectors, retailers, food service workers, and consumers are each critical links in the food safety chain.
Salmonella is a gram-negative, rod-shaped bacilli that can cause diarrheal illness in humans. They are microscopic living creatures that pass from the feces of people or animals to other people or other animals. The Salmonella family includes over 2,300 serotypes of bacteria which are one-celled organisms too small to be seen without a microscope. Two types, Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium are the most common in the United States and account for half of all human infections. Strains that cause no symptoms in animals can make people sick, and vice versa. If present in food, it does not usually affect the taste, smell, or appearance of the food. The bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of infected animals and humans. Salmonella bacteria have been known to cause illness for over 100 years. They were discovered by an American scientist, Dr. Daniel E. Salmon.
Salmonellosis is an infection caused by the bacteria Salmonella. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), salmonellosis causes an estimated 1.4 million cases of foodborne illness and more than 500 deaths annually in the United States. The Surveillance Report from the Food Diseases Active Surveillance (FoodNet) for 2004, identified Salmonella as the most common bacterial infection reported. (42% Salmonella).
What are the symptoms of salmonellosis? Most people experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 8 to 72 hours after the contaminated food was eaten. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms usually disappear within 4 to 7 days. Many people with salmonellosis recover without treatment and may never see a doctor. However, Salmonella infections can be life-threatening especially for infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults, who are at a higher risk for food borne illness, as are people with weakened immune systems.
Any raw food of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs, seafood, and some fruits and vegetables may carry Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can survive to cause illness if meat, poultry, and egg products are not cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer and fruits and vegetables are not thoroughly washed. The bacteria can also contaminate other foods that come in contact with raw meat and poultry. Safe food handling practices are necessary to prevent bacteria on raw food from causing illness.”

Now, after we got this boring, yet somewhat interesting and educational piece out of the way, let me come back to the original question: What is my take on the concerns? Allow me to answer that with a number of counter questions: If salmonella, as we have learned, is likely to come from any raw meat, does that mean you don’t cook a chicken for yourself anymore? Or through a raw steak or salmon filet on the grill? Do you have a source where those raw meats are certified free of the bacteria? So what is so different with raw pet food? Because it is processed? How many people are buying readily prepared, i.e. similarly processed burgers at the grocery market? After all, a raw pet patty is just like a burger, some of them even look exactly like one. They are made up with ground ingredients, mainly meat. I have yet to hear from a human doctor who orders his patients: Stay away from handling raw meat. What makes the vets think they are so different? Have there been problems in the past with pets eating salmonella contaminated raw food? Yes, no question about it. Search the Internet and you will find a (very few) instances. The AAHA cites in its article quoted above: “Shane L. Stiver, DVM, Kendall S. Frazier, DVM, Michael J. Mauel, PhD, and Eloise L. Styer, PhD, from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine conducted a case study of two cats that developed salmonellosis (Salmonella infection) as a result of a raw meat-based diet. The salmonellosis caused gastrointestinal upset, weight loss and anorexia that resulted in the death of both cats. Salmonella in tissue cultures isolated from one of the cats was identical to cultures from the raw beef used in the cat's home-prepared diet, and the resulting infection was confirmed as the cause of death in both cases. The report is the first to describe the occurrence of salmonellosis in cats as a result of feeding a raw meat-based diet.”

Search for problems with humans eating salmonella contaminated raw food and you will find a whole lot more cases, as a matter of fact we just learned of 1.4 million cases annually. Did these cases make a difference in your eating habits: No. What’s so different when it comes to our pets?
I tend to agree with Dr. Richard Pitcairn, DVM, who says: “People often ask me if I am afraid to feed raw meat to my dogs, since so much of the meat we buy today is not just filthy but deadly. We are advised to cook meat thoroughly to prevent bacterial diseases that are the result of the unsanitary and inhumane way we raise and slaughter livestock. In my experience, good, organic, fresh meat is perfectly safe to feed raw to a healthy dog who is used to it. Does that mean there is no risk? No. But I believe the risk is less than it's generally believed to be.
The many objections we can make about the nutritional quality of animal convenience foods boil down to two basic types: these foods don't contain things we wish they did, and do contain things we wish they didn't....The two basic problems are linked together as an unhappy pair because the presence of various toxins and pollutants actually increases the body's needs for high quality nutrients necessary for combating or eliminating these contaminants. When the overall nutrition is already lower that it should be, we are inviting trouble."”

People, let’s face it: The problem here is really not the actual idea of feeding a raw meat based to our pets. The bottom line is, it all comes down to the issue of how this raw food is being handled. I am pretty sure and would assume (though without guarantee, take as a bad and hopefully very isolated example what was going on in that peanut butter plant now involved in this major recall) that the raw food manufacturers do their very best to ensure a safe food. There is talk of technologies like flash freezing, quick blanching, specialized chilling, to me all indications that serious efforts are being made. Ingredients are carefully selected and these days it is the norm that much of lab testing is being employed. I almost would have said the serious players are all operating with USDA inspected plants. However, related to the peanut butter recall, what I am hearing in the news lately about our government agencies in charge, to me such statements do not mean a whole lot anymore.
Assuming everything is being done right at the manufacturer’s end, hopefully the same care is being followed at the stores from where you buy your food. Now it is all up to you. Follow the safe handling instructions of the manufacturer on their websites and package labels. They deal with the issue extensively. We, for instance, as a store provide for every raw food item we sell extensive safe handling instructions, we even came up with our very own “Raw Food Safe Handling Policy”. As typical for me, it all is based on common sense. Apply that and you will be safe. I see people handling their raw pet food more carefully than they handle their own food. Having said that, I throw the vet’s argument cited in the beginning of this comment, right out the window. Raw food diets made by serious manufacturers were developed under the scrutiny of, and consultation with the most discriminating veterinarians and animal nutritionists. Ask any pet owner feeding raw and you will discover that health benefits from a raw food diet by far outweigh any risk factors.

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