After six years, more than 3,600 pet illnesses, and nearly 600 pet deaths, pet jerky treats are still sickening dogs and cats, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not know what is at the root of the problem.
Most of the deaths and illnesses have been reported in dogs, but cats have been sickened and have died, as well, according to The New York Times Well blog. Dr. Richard E. Goldstein, the chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center in New York, told the Times that he first began noticing the problem in late 2006-early 2007. “We’re still seeing patients now, and a lot of vets don’t know about it,” he said.
Most—60 percent—of the cases have involved gastrointestinal illness; 30 percent involve kidney illnesses; and the remainder involve convulsions, tremors, and skin problems, according to Well. In many cases, animals suffer from Fanconi syndrome, a relatively rare canine kidney disease, according to Well. The illnesses, which have not been definitively defined as poisonings, affect dogs of all sizes and breeds, as well as cats.
Chicken is the most common ingredient in the products, but some contain duck, sweet potato, yams, and dried fruit. Many are made in China and, last April, FDA officials inspected a number of Chinese factories looking at manufacturing processes, equipment, sanitation, and product testing. Nothing yet has been found in their investigations that can be tied to the illnesses and deaths, according to Well.
In one factory, falsified papers concerning glycerin were discovered; however, that has not been tied to the poisonings and glycerin is not believed to be dangerous in small quantities. Authorities in China seized those products, suspending the firm’s exports to the United States, Well reported.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has also been investigating the matter and officials discovered low levels of antibiotic residues in some products and requested several brands be recalled, including Nestlé’s Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch chicken jerky treats. Nestlé removed the treats from New York stores and issued a release stating that antibiotic residue poses no risk. The FDA agreed, but there was a steep drop in complaints; however, that might be attributed to a drop in available products, according to Well.
According to NBC News, the FDA has tested hundreds of treats. A recall cannot be forced without reason, said Martine Hartogensis, a deputy director at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine; veterinary labs and the FDA have been unable to identify a specific cause. “To date, testing for contaminants in jerky treats has not revealed a cause for the illnesses,” Hartogensis told NBC News.
“It’s extremely frustrating for everybody involved,” said Lisa Murphy, an assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, one of about one dozen labs assisting the FDA across the country, according to NBC News. “A lot of really smart people with a lot of expertise are looking at this. I can tell you a lot of things that this is probably not, but to the general public, that’s not a very satisfying answer.”
Hundreds of treats have been tested for dozens of substances, including bacteria, heavy metals, rat poison, melamine, and mold. The effects of irradiation have been studied as has glycerin. Veterinary hospitals have also been asked to look into a potential genetic issues in the sickened pets they have seen and nothing has turned up, according to NBC News. One problem is that the treats are tough and difficult to break down for analysis; however, “To me, there’s a causal connection there and they should have taken action a long time ago,” Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, told NBC News.
Last year, officials at five plants in China that manufacture jerky treats would not allow FDA inspectors to collect product samples. “I think you could probably make the case that not allowing sampling was not allowing inspection,” Dan McChesney, director of the FDA’s surveillance arm of CVM, told NBC News. “At the time, we thought that was probably not the best way to continue to research and identify the issues.” Corbo criticizes the decision, as well, saying, “When it comes to poisoning, whether it’s an animal or a human, the FDA should use every tool in their arsenal.”
Records just obtained by NBC News indicate that, on October 15th, Nestle Purina PetCare Corp. imported three 21,510-pound shipments of Waggin’ Train chicken jerky treats in the first in eight months of the year. Meanwhile, by the end of the week, online records were changed to remove the brand name and list the products with generic descriptions. When asked, Bill Salzman, a Nestlé Purina spokesman, refused to comment on if the firm had resolved the unapproved antibiotic issue and if nationwide jerky treat sales would resume. “We are not currently selling jerky treats in the U.S,” he wrote in an email. “Thanks for your question, but we don’t comment on our future business strategies,” he added.