Bad advice, plagiarism...just another day for a pet food website

Some people like to send me links to internet sites to see if they can get a rise out of me. There are a few usual suspects (both senders of information and places I get sent to) but a new one for me was

For some reason, this site has a series of FAQ's completely unrelated to pet food. Some are rather bizarre, such as "My dog keeps getting pneumonia, and we just found out her internal organs are on the wrong side. Help? "

Many of the answers are fine. That's because they're plagiarized... verbatim text taken from reputable sites (mainly AAHA's Healthy Pet site) without attribution. Besides the whole violation of intellectual property aspect, it's at least good that the advice is sound.

Some of the other answers they provide (likely the ones that aren't plagiarized) are considerably less sound.

The one that got sent to me was "Is it okay for my dog to lick my son's face?"

This is actually a common question and a reasonable one. There's no perfect answer to it, but there are definitely some imperfect answers, such as this one:

(It starts out okay...)

Yes, it probably is.

  • I'd agree with that statement.

(Then goes downhill quickly...)

The only disease that dogs and humans can pass back and forth through saliva is beta strep throat, which is relatively rare.

And if your son has a weakened immune system, you may want to be careful about exposing him to the normal bacteria that's present in the saliva of healthy dogs.

  • Good advice. (However, if their statement that strep is the only thing that can come from dogs was actually true, this one wouldn't make any sense.)

My response to this common question is that I don't particularly like being licked by my dog. It's a personal thing and not a germaphobic response. It's unlikely to harm me as an adult with a (hopefully) functional immune system. I don't hover around my kid to make sure they don't get licked, but I don't encourage it either.

Licks to young kids (especially around the face), licks that have contact with skin lesions or mucous membranes (e.g. mouth, nose) or licks to people with compromised immune systems (including people that do not have a functioning spleen) are higher risk. Strep throat isn't a concern, but many other things are. There's a cost-benefit. If it's an important part of someone's bond with his/her animal, that's fine. Individuals just need to understand the risks, and be aware of when the risks are higher. Part of that is getting good advice, which can be a challenge on the internet.

Diamond pet food lawsuit

It's not the first, and it's a safe bet it's not the last, but a lawsuit has been filed against Diamond Pet Foods in response to a case of salmonellosis in a New Jersey infant. The lawsuit claims (probably correctly) that the infant acquired Salmonella from contaminated dog food that was in the household. The infant was hospitalized for three days but recovered. The lawsuit, one of at least eight that have been filed, claims negligence and fraudulent representation, and is seeking over $75000 in compensation.

In reality, it's hard to consider a company liable simply for Salmonella contamination. Various practices can be used to reduce the risk and to detect contamination when it occurs, but these will never be 100% effective. Standard hygiene practices that are recommended to reduce the risk of exposing people (especially high risk people) to any pathogens that might be found in pet food must therefore always be used. It's hard to say what degree of responsibility needs to be placed on consumers versus companies, since companies need to do their best and people need to use common sense.

From my completely non-legal standpoint, the issues of negligence and liability come in when:

  • A company has inadequate facilities that do not conform to standard requirements to reduce the risk of contamination (e.g. duct tape and cardboard in food processing equipment, as per the FDA report).
  • A company has an inadequate quality control program.
  • A company knows there's a problem and doesn't take prompt and appropriate action to correct it.

Based on what information has been released (including the relatively damning FDA report that cited lack of microbial analysis of certain ingredients, lack of hand hygiene facilities and the use of duct tape, cardboard and other non-cleanable materials in the plant) combined with some questionable communications strategies, it certainly seems like a case can be made here.

Diamond Pet Food outbreak continues. Diamond Pet Food Communications..not so much.

The large recall and salmonellosis outbreak associated with a variety of foods produced by Diamond Pet Foods continues to expand, in terms of species involved, the number of cases, the number of recalled products and geographic scope. The only thing that's not expanding in information from the company.

Reports (of varying strength) of Salmonella cases in dogs have been cropping up, but it's not just a US problem or a problem only involving people and dogs anymore. Two cats from a Montreal animal shelter have apparently died. At least two people in Canada have also been infected, one each from Quebec and Nova Scotia.

As with many outbreaks, the depth of information is variable when it comes to potential cases and it's hard to say if everything that's reported in the press is real. Just because an animal has been eating recalled food and gets sick, that doesn't mean that the food caused the disease. Testing is required to make the diagnosis of salmonellosis and confirm the involvement of the outbreak strain. However, enough reports are coming in to be fairly convincing that this is a very large, wide reaching outbreak involving people, dogs and cats, and multiple countries.

Communication is critical when managing an outbreak. It can let companies show they are doing everything that's necessary (and more), demonstrate their commitment to correcting the problem, show how they are helping people with affected animals, and provide confidence that once the problem was identified, it was (or will be) rectified and the product can be considered safe. Some companies shine during outbreaks. Some don't.

Here, communications don't seem to be ideal.

  • Another product was added to the recall list, without too much publicity.
  • We know recalled food is in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico (with sick people and animals in at least Canada and the US), but has contaminated food gone any further? Importantly, has information about the potential risk gone anywhere the food might have gone, since the FDA's mandate ends at the US border. eFoodAlert reports some concerning information in that regard. The Taste of the Wild website lists over 50 countries where the food is available and a correspondent for the site apparently bought a recalled product in Ireland. What is actually being done to correct problems that lead to the outbreak is also unclear.
  • I also haven't seen any press releases from the company addressing the numerous FDA violations that were identified in the outbreak investigation.

Outbreaks happen. Sometimes they're not preventable. Sometimes mistakes happen. That's an unfortunate aspect of life. However, how a company deals with those issues, both in terms of correcting the problem and restoring consumer confidence, is critical, and seems to be lacking here.

A good adage when it comes to outbreak communications is "never announce a problem without announcing a solution." That doesn't mean hide outbreak information (something that is done too often). Rather, it means don't just say that you have a problem. Be clear about your problem and at the same time be clear about what you are doing to fix it. Hopefully, Diamond Pet Foods has an aggressive ongoing response to correct these problems, and that's what consumers need to know about. In the absence of any clear information, we're left wondering whether they are doing anything at all.

Diamond Pet Foods Salmonella outbreak

After starting off like a simple recall of potentially Salmonella-contaminated dry pet food, the Diamond Pet Food problem has now expanded into a multistate outbreak of salmonellosis in humans linked to exposure to the contaminated pet food. At last count, there were 14 affected people from 9 US states, including 5 who required hospitalization. These numbers could increase since so far they only include people who got sick up to April 1 (because it takes time for Salmonella to be grown in the lab, sent to CDC for testing and the result investigated, later cases may not have been reported yet).

This outbreak involves Salmonella Infantis, a strain that is uncommonly identified in people. Finding an increased number of infections caused by an unusual strain makes it easier to identify an outbreak, as was presumably the case here. This strain has also been isolated from various types of pet food that were produced at the Diamond Pet Foods' South Carolina plant. Despite the name, this strain of Salmonella is not more likely to infect infants, and people ranging from less than 1 year to 82 years of age have been infected.

Details about the types of contact people had with the pet food are limited. 70% of infected people reported having contact with a dog the week before getting sick. How the other 30% could have been exposed is unclear. Sometimes peoples' recall is poor, especially if they had transient contact with a pet. Individuals could have been exposed from environmental contamination when visiting a household where contaminated pet food was fed, without having direct contact with a pet. It's also possible some cases are not directly related to the outbreak and co-incidentally were exposed to the same strain from some other source.

Since we see periodic outbreaks associated with dry pet food, does that mean that other types of pet food are safer? Not really. Canned food is ultimately the safest because of the heat processing, but it's not practical for all animals.

Typically, after a report like this, I get a barrage of emails from people saying "See... we don't have large outbreaks from raw food diets so they are safer." Unfortunately, that's not the case. High pressure pasteurization (HPP) of raw food, a process that uses pressure with minimal heat to kill bacteria, is an effective method for reducing contamination of such products with harmful pathogens like Salmonella, and HPP is now being used by a couple of companies. These raw diets should be quite safe from a Salmonella standpoint. Otherwise, the risk of Salmonella contamination of raw pet foods is still very high, and if anything, the dry food outbreaks show how people can be infected from contaminated pet food.

Why don't we see large outbreaks associated with raw food? Outbreaks get detected because certain patterns or unusual findings are identified. Raw pet food associated outbreaks probably occur but are not as readily identifiable since raw meat contamination is common but involves variable Salmonella types that regularly change. In a situation like that, you can potentially have lots of people getting Salmonella from raw food, but if there is limited commonality in strains and products, it doesn't get picked up as an outbreak. That's particularly true when the  strains that are involved are the common ones found in food, since they would often be dismissed on the premise that the person likely got it from some unknown food source. Without large numbers of cases in an area or a cluster of unusual strains, the investigation wouldn't likely get very far and nothing would be reported.

How do reduce the risk of getting Salmonella from pet food (or your pet)?

  • Don't feed pets in the kitchen. This practice has been associated with an increased risk of disease in a previous outbreak of salmonellosis in children.
  • Wash your hands after handling pet food.
  • Don't let young children have contact with pet food.
  • Use common sense when handling pet feces.

More information about both Salmonella and issues pertaining to raw diets (including how to reduce the risk) can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources - Pets page.