You know, I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit in an exam room with a weeping child, explaining to them over the listless puppy in front of them that I was so sorry, the test came back for Salmonella and the prognosis was grim. Wait, that’s parvo.
Salmonella, while demonized in the media to a bogeyman of epic proportions, is mostly known as an irritating member of the Diarrhea Duo, a pest more than a demon scourge of canines. And yet, with every recall, the anger, the indignation, and the fear rolls in, predictable as a rush on flu vaccines after the first case of the winter.
I get it. Trust me, I get it. The 2007 melamine recall put us all on edge- and rightly so, I might add. That was a terrible event, one I hope never to see happen again in my career.
There are several factors that went into that event that made it extra awful, mainly the scope, the deception on behalf of the suppliers, and the number of deaths assumed to have resulted from the whole debacle. There is no excuse for deliberately adulterated ingredients to make their way into the pet food supply, ever. And now here we are, with yet another Salmonella recall- on a food I’m currently feeding Brody. And am I indignant? Disappointed? Filled with righteous fury?
No, not really. But in order to get that you have to understand the ubiquitous nature of Salmonella.
Salmonella: The scourge of veterinary medicine (except when it isn’t)
Let’s put it this way: if dogs were a preschool, Salmonella would be that runny nose snotty kid always wiping their fingers on everything. It’s just kind of there, it’s not there on purpose, but it just kind of happens, and you manage it the best you can. You can peruse pubmed and the various studies on the topic if you want- in fact, NC State is doing research on the very topic of the prevalence of Salmonella in dogs as we speak- the older papers are all over the place, finding 11% to 66% incidence in dogs. A 2002 Canadian paper on asymptomatic dogs fed the BARF diet found 30% of those dogs tested positive for Salmonella, and, as BARF enthusiasts themselves regularly point out, they are not, as far as anyone can tell, keeling over dead of Salmonellosis in any discernible numbers. This despite the fact that in this study, 80% of their diet did test positive for the bacterium.
So why does the CDC hunt it down like Snape chasing Harry through the halls of Hogwarts? Are they that concerned about the comfort and well being of our canine companions? (hint: no.)
They care because people get Salmonella. The final tally from last year’s Diamond incident was that 49 people were sickened, 10 hospitalized, none dead. The CDC stats, when they have them available, average out to about 35 or so people a year getting documented cases of Salmonella from pet food. 35 out of the 42,000 reported cases a year. That’s 0.08% of the documented cases being due to pet food, for those keeping score. The actual number of Salmonella cases, most of which are never reported (how many of us had one of those “OMG I ate bad Taco Bell” mornings and never reported it?) is estimated to be about 29 times higher. Death rate from acute Salmonellosis? Less than 1%, actually quite a bit lower than even that unless you are very young ,very old, or immunocompromised.
I know you all love infographics. I’m too cheap to hire a graphic designer, but nonetheless I made you all a pie chart because I know everyone loves a good pie chart.
We swim in a sea of Salmonella
We know, we know and this is well documented, that raw meat is a common source of Salmonella. That is why my mother freaked out, loudly and with great horror, if there was any chicken juice on the counter not promptly blown into oblivion with bleach. “SALMONELLA!” she would scream, wielding Lysol like Excalibur against the foe. But as we’ve seen with a recall from The Honest Kitchen earlier this year, it’s not just meat that can be the problem- their recall was actually due to a batch of parsley that tested positive. It’s in the raw ingredients for pet food and the raw ingredients for our own foods. Peanut butter. eggs. chicken. milk.
So what’s the deal? If you want to make a list of the affected brands in the last 5 years, it goes far and wide. Almost everyone has been affected at some point or another. Is it that every single manufacturer, regardless of their commitment to quality control or lack thereof, is just gross and negligent? In certain cases, like the Diamond recall, where there was a well documented failure to maintain adequate facility standards at the manufacturing plant over several months, I would say yes- they screwed up royally.
But in most cases? I would argue that many manufacturers- at least the ones who do it all in house and are transparent enough to invite journalists in – follow very high levels of quality assurance. The testing process in a plant following adequate GMPS is thorough; the production process is extremely effective at getting rid of pathogens during the cooking process. And even with that, even with everything done properly, sometimes Salmonella happens, just like sometimes you get an infection post-op even when your surgeon followed meticulous sterile procedures.
In yesterday’s Natura case, we are talking about one single sample that tested positive.
So now what?
If you’re looking for an excuse to stop feeding commercial food and this seems like a convenient one, go forth with my blessing. Please find someone who knows that they are talking about (I love the nutritionists at BalanceIt) to help guide you.
If you, like the vast majority of the pet owning population including myself, have decided to take your chances with this vile scourge, this baleful bacterium, I give you this long and complicated process to minimize your risks of contracting Salmonella:
1. Wash your hands after touching pet food.
2. Don’t buy your kid a live chick for Easter.
3. Avoid pot pie, mind the beef, don’t eat cookie dough with raw eggs (screw that, I’ll take my chances), don’t be old.
P.S. I thought this goes without saying, but just in case there was some ambiguity: good lord, if your food lot gets recalled, yes, do return it. That’s what recalls are for.
Disclaimer: I’m not a CDC public health expert, nor do I pretend to have the vast reservoirs of knowledge that many food safety pros do. That being said, I’m going out to dinner tonight with my good buddy, veterinarian, MPH and CDC employee Dr. Carrie, so I can pass on any questions to her you might have.