News late last week that China-made dog treats have been linked to the deaths of 360 dogs - and 1 cat - and sickened another 2,000 over the past five years should prompt pet owners to do one thing: read the labels of the products they buy.
The Food and Drug Administration in a report says the majority of complaints since 2007 involve imported chicken jerky (treats, tenders, and strips), but others include duck, sweet potato, and treats where chicken or duck jerky is wrapped around dried fruits, sweet potatoes, or yams.
The vast majority of dog treats and toys sold by the largest pet retailers are made in China. I flipped over a pumpkin-shaped rawhide in PetSmart yesterday and, yep, there's the sticker: Made in China.
The amount of China-made pet treats imported to North America has skyrocketed in the last decade from zero to 86 million pounds in 2011. News reports say it has to do with the fact the Chinese eat mainly the dark meat of chicken, leaving a glut of white meat that is made into pet treats.
The FDA, in a report, said it is investigating the reports of illnesses but no definitive cause has been determined.
"The ongoing global investigation is complex, multifaceted and includes a wide variety of experts at the FDA including toxicologists, epidemiologists, veterinary researchers, forensic chemists, microbiologists, field investigators and senior agency officials," the report says.
The FDA has also asked NASA to explore the possibility that the illnesses can be attributed to irradiation, a process used to elminate pathogens to control spoilage. The space agency has conducted extensive studies on the effects of irradiated food.
This is not the first mass outbreak of illness among pets in North American linked to food handling in China. Remember melamine contamination? In 2007 revelations that hundreds of pet deaths were linked to a mild toxin, melamine, used in the processing of pet food in China, led to the largest recall of pet food in North America and a class action law suit.
There are alternatives. Many specialty pet stores offer American-made jerky and chew treats like deer antlers (naturally-shed we hope), bully sticks (made from bull penises) and sows ears, among them.
One source of mine, who is launching a U.S.-made pet treat line, told skeptical retailers at a convention recently that pet owners would happily pay a little more to ensure their pets are safe. After all, he asked them, "Do you want customers coming in and accusing you of selling products that killed their dog?"
Some pet owners are already asking that question - in court. Several lawsuits have been filed against the companies that sell the treats and the companies that make them, including Nestle Purina, which makes the popular Waggin’ Train and Canyon Ranch jerky treat products, and Del Monte Corp., which makes popular Milo's Kitchen Home-style Dog Treats, reports NBC news.
In its report, the FDA says jerky treats are not necessary for a balanced diet and urges anyone feeding treats to limit their pet's intake and watch them closely for problem signs that may occur within hours to days of feeding the products. Signs include decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, sometimes with blood; increased water consumption and/or increased urination.
An online petition is urging the FDA and manufacturers of chicken jerky treats imported from China to "immediately halt all sales until the treats can be safely sourced and proven to no longer be dangerous to our companions."