Just say "no" to jerky treats from China

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Since 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA CVM) says it has received reports of 3,600 sickened dogs and 10 cats becoming ill as a result of eating jerky treats made in China, not to mention 580 deaths reportedly caused by the tainted jerky,

Why are pet owners still buying this stuff? And why are potentially dangerous products remaining on store shelves?

Some pet owners tell me the jerky they buy hasn't made their pets sick. In fact, most pets eat the treats with no ill effects. But why are so many pet owners still gambling with their beloved animals' lives for a strip of jerky?

Jerky treats are hardly required eating. Sure, pets like the, but we're not exactly talking discerning palates here. Dogs will happily scarf up goose or cat poop, sometimes even their own feces.

Innumerable safe pet treat options are available at pet stores, online and in supermarkets, not to mention just opening the refrigerator to offer a slice of apple, a few blueberries or mini carrots -- all as healthy for dogs as they are for us.

A part of the problem is that despite increasing press coverage, some people are still unaware of the possible danger, and unknowingly purchase the potentially deadly jerky treats made in China.

Back in 2007, when this problem began, the FDA CVM didn't exactly move swiftly. In 2011, Canadian veterinarians reported problems, and the issue began to grow exponentially in scope in the U.S. The 2011 Food Safety and Modernization Act should have given the FDA CVM additional legal muscle to take definitive action.

However, in 2012, Dr. Dan McChesney, director of the office of Surveillance and Compliance at the FDA CVM, told me that while he conceded that there was "an issue" (regarding jerky treats from China), the U.S. government wasn't legally allowed to stop American companies from distributing the products or forcing a recall without solid scientific justification.

FDA inspectors and even independent experts have tried to figure out exactly what happened, but they haven't been unable to sniff out a full explanation. Inspectors even traveled to China. Unfortunately, according to printed reports, at least some Chinese operators weren't always cooperative. It seems that if examiners were unable to conduct viable inspections, the FDA CVM would have had justification to prevent further importation of the treats or mandate recalls. Neither happened.

Stories of previously healthy pets allegedly dying as a result of eating tainted jerky treats went viral. U.S. companies selling jerky products refused all along to admit a problem, until finally one posted the FDA CVM statement on its website. Lawsuits from grieving pet owners alleged companies knowingly sold potentially dangerous jerky treats made in China.

In January 2013, three major companies issued voluntary recalls (DelMonte's Milo's Chicken Jerky and Chicken Grilles; Waggin' Train Canyon Creek chicken jerky treats by Nestle Purina PetCare Company and Cadet brand chicken jerky treats). However, the company's explained that their rationalization for pulling products was a finding from the New York State Department of Agriculture of trace levels of antibiotics in jerky products.

While the trace amounts of antibiotic isn't a good thing, behind-the-scenes the FDA CVM was never convinced that this is what made dogs sick or caused renal failure, which ultimately killed some pets.

Around the same time, I learned exclusively from Tamra Ward, an FDA CVM spokesperson that "The FDA did identify that one (Chinese) firm falsified receiving documents for glycerin, which is an ingredient in the jerky pet treats. As a result of an inspection (at the plant), the Chinese authority -- the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine -- informed the FDA that it has seized products at that firm and suspended exports of its products until corrective actions were taken by the firm."

Glycerin unlikely has anything to do with whatever is making pets ill, but it seems falsifying of documents gave the FDA CVM a shot at justifying holding up the jerky products at the U.S. border. However, that didn't happen.

Into this year, despite fewer jerky products on store shelves (due to recalls), pets are still getting sick, and reports of deaths continue. Instead of banning these products all together, on Tuesday, Oct. 22, the FDA CVM released its strongest statement to date, which includes definitive action. A consumer fact sheet will be available to veterinarians to alert consumers to the problem.

This sounds good, but in my opinion it's a backwards approach. Most often, people don't visit a veterinarian unless their pet is sick, perhaps from eating tainted treats. What good is a warning at that point? Still, offering this warning is further than the FDA CVM has previously gone. And in their most recent statement, the FDA CVM states: "(Jerky) treats are not essential to a balanced diet," suggesting -- but not coming out and saying, as I have been for two years -- just say "No" to jerky treats from China.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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