Recalls: the good the bad and the ugly

Every so often, a pet food recall occurs that sends shockwaves through the pet food industry and pet owners alike. Owners panic, call their vets and may even choose to feed unconventional diets because of the fear surrounding recalls – some pet food “rating” websites even use these recalls to rank pet foods, however as you’ll soon see, the number of recalls a company has had is not really a good way to assess a food or a manufacturer. You need the whole story. There many types of recalls, and not all are bad – it’s important to get all the facts before we discount a pet food or brand, based purely on their recall history.

So what is a recall?

There are a few different types of recalls; these can be at the companies request, at the FDA’s request or by an FDA order.

Company request aka voluntary recall:

If an issue is detected during the company’s own routine safety tests which might be something like it doesn’t reach the nutrient levels described on the package or the target levels of certain key nutritional factors, contamination was detected or there was an issue with packaging, this could mean the company may elect to recall that entire line or a batch. These products might never even reach the shelves and consumers may never even know about these recalls, unless the product has reached the shelf for purchase. This type of recall can only happen if the company conducts routine testing on their products which not all companies do, nor are companies required to conduct testing. If a company issues a recall or a ‘voluntary recall’ this is of least concern and shows that the company is following its own quality control procedures – this is a good thing. An example of this would be the Hill’s Vitamin D recall, that was a voluntary recall which was later expanded to more product lines.

FDA Request:

If a company does not routinely test their products, or a pet becomes ill from eating the food and the company does not voluntarily recall the product, the FDA can issue a request where they strongly encourage a recall. This is of moderate concern, if pets have become ill and the company has not (or will not) issue their own recall, this is usually due to lack of routine testing or denial of there being a problem. The FDA will typically get involved when there are reports of illness and can assist in the company’s own investigation and a review of the company’s quality control processes.

FDA Order:

The most severe form of a recall is when people and/or their pets become significantly ill from purchasing and feeding the product or the issue hasn’t been noticed before reaching shelves. Although very uncommon, the FDA can ORDER the company to recall the product if they have not voluntarily recalled it themselves. Again, this is rare but can occur if there’s many types of the same food (but different brands) involved in the issue, or the company (or companies) do not routinely test their diets to detect or investigate the issue.

Look into the company’s safety protocols and processes, not just recalls

What are the reasons for recalls?

Too much or too little nutrients – for example, too much vitamin D or not enough thiamine (vitamin B1). After formulating, the diet may not meet the nutritional guidelines or key nutritional factors set out and may cause deficiencies or excesses in pets if fed.

Bacterial contamination – most common in raw diets or treats such as pig ears and bully sticks. The most recent example of this was a 2020 recall on a number of raw pet foods being contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria.

Contaminants – chemicals that should not be present in the food such as melamine (2007) or pentobarbital (2017) or are in toxic levels in the food.

Foreign material – pieces of plastic or metal that broke off equipment or otherwise ended up with various ingredients.

What’s considered a “good” or “bad” recall?

If a company issues their own recalls, or has a history of recalls that are voluntary only, this means they are conducting routine testing and are stopping sub-par products reaching the shelves or harming pets. This is a good recall, and mark of a responsible company. Alot can also be determined by how a company handles recalls and if they have ‘black marks’ or FDA warning letters against their name; just because a company has no recalls does not indicate they are superior, it can actually indicate the opposite. It could be that they don’t conduct testing at all, so have no idea if their product is contaminated or that they are covering up that they have had warning letters by quickly acting on them and avoiding recalls – so they may appear free from recalls but have actually had numerous warnings. Always keep in mind that ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ products are not safer and are in fact the most commonly recalled products on the market particularly as they often come from companies that do not routinely test, or only check raw materials. If raw ingredients are tested before formulation, this gives a false sense of security as it does not tell us what the final formulation is and if it’s safe after processing because as we discussed above, foreign contaminates can get into the product during the manufacturing process or the nutrient levels may not be what’s on the packaging. It is also risky in that the final product can go out to shelves without meeting minimum or maximum target nutrients potentially causing illness or harm to pets. As mentioned above, the worst form of a recall is an FDA order, and the inclusion of contaminants that should never be in pet food such as pentobarbital or melamine.

The take home message is no recalls does not mean no issues: just because you aren’t looking for problems, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Some companies use the fact they’ve had no recalls as a marketing tactic when in fact, if you dive deeper you likely will find they don’t have rigorous testing and quality control to actually make this claim hold any real importance.

Never base your decision to feed a food just on number of recalls it’s had

What should I look out for when choosing a brand/manufacturer?

• How the company handles any recalls: Do they have a set system in place for recalling products? Do they have a history of voluntary recalls? Did they co-operate with the FDA or did they deny issues?

• Look into the company’s manufacturing and quality control processes: many companies if they conduct testing, will explain their processes or be willing to answer questions about what they test and how often.

• Transparency on how they assess safety of a product: Do they conduct feeding trials? Do they have a fixed recipe? Are their diets researched for safety? Do they have published studies (in animals) to support their claims? Do they test raw ingredients aswell as final products of their diets?

• If there was a recall, what was the nature of the recall? Some recalls are considered “worse” than others. For example, a pentobarbital contamination is concerning as good manufacturers should be testing for this, auditing their suppliers and carefully testing/sourcing their ingredients from trustworthy suppliers

• Companies that own and oversee their own manufacturing plants (not outsourced or manufactured off site) are alot safer in that they can ensure there is uniformity in testing, hygeine and processes across their plants. Typically bigger companies will have more stricter controls in place and the money to afford their own plants. Big companies also have alot more to lose and are more accountable than a small company if they are involved in a recall, so they are usually meticulous when it comes to ensuring safety, to avoid the damage to their reputation.

• More questions? Call the company directly! Many companies will have an email or hotline to call and ask more information on their diets or general info on their company’s processes. They should be able to alay your fears if they truely value safety, and if they don’t, or you aren’t comfortable with their answers, look into another company.

Worried about your pet’s food? Ask your vet

Who do I tell if I’m worried about my pet’s food?

First and foremost if you suspect an issue with your pet’s food, mention your concerns to your vet. They can guide you to make a complaint if they believe your pet’s food is making them sick, or can make a report on your behalf including your pet’s veterinary history and any additional diagnostics to support the claim. If you are based in Australia (like me), your vet can make a report through the AVA’s PetFAST system which investigates pet food complaints. If you are in the US or a feeding a diet that is distributed worldwide or in the US, you can view current recall notices on the FDA website, or make your own complaint through them with your vet’s assistance. You can also view any current or previous recalls on the FDA website here.

So I hope that has cleared some things up for you. Recalls are not outright bad, always dive a little deeper and get all the facts before writing off a company based on the number of recalls they’ve had.

Have you ever experienced a pet food recall? Has your pet ever fallen ill from a food or treat? Did you or your vet make a report? Let us know in the comments below!

If you found this blog helpful, please consider buying me a coffee to support my work and ongoing efforts to educate veterinary professionals and pet parents on animal nutrition.

References

Heinze, CR. (2017). The Reality of Pet Food Recalls. Tufts Petfoodology [blog] Available at: https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2017/05/pet-food-recalls/

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