An article released today in the journal Pediatrics (Behravesh et al, 2010) provides more information about a salmonellosis outbreak linked to pet food. The outbreak itself is old news – I commented about it almost two years ago. What is new is the detailed epidemiological analysis of the outbreak, and there is some interesting information in the paper that is worth reporting. Here are the highlights:

Almost 50% of people who were infected were kids two years of age or younger.

  • That’s not too surprising considering kids less than five years of age are a high-risk group for getting sick after being exposed to Salmonella.

Households with sick people were almost 7 times as likely to have recently purchased the affected food.

  • This provides good evidence of the link between the contaminated food and disease.

The Salmonella strain that was found in people was also found in bags of pet food at the manufacturing plant, samples from the manufacturing plant environment, and fecal samples from dogs that had eaten the food.

  • This is pretty convincing evidence that the food was the source. Because they were able to type the Salmonella strain in people and it was an uncommon strain, and they then found the same uncommon strain in food, animals and people, it paints a pretty clear picture of what happened.

Illnesses occurred over a 3 year period.

  • This is pretty concerning. This was more than a little lapse at a plant that led to contamination of a single batch of food or a short term event. This was a major failure in quality control that was undetected for a long period of time, resulting in at least 79 human infections in 21 US states.

A cluster of infections caused by the strain involved here, S. Schwarzengrund, was identified early in the outbreak. However, a link with pet food was not considered until the following year.

  • That’s unfortunate but maybe not surprising. There are a lot of other more likely sources of infection that were probably focused on initially. "What kind of pet food do you feed your dog?" was unlikely to be a routine question asked of people with infections. Identification of outbreaks caused by uncommon events is difficult and typically takes more time.

People that fed their dog in the kitchen were 4 times as likely to have an infection.

  • Feeding a pet in the kitchen presumably increased the chance of cross-contamination with human food or contamination of the food preparation environment.

The cause of contamination was never identified. The authors of the paper suspected that contamination occurred after extrusion (the process during which the kibble is formed), which makes the most sense. The extrusion process results in high enough temperatures to kill bacteria like Salmonella. Possible causes of contamination include contaminated equipment used after extrusion, cross-contamination of pre- and post-extrusion food and contamination of substances (e.g. flavour enhancers) sprayed on kibble after extrusion. The fact that Salmonella was found in the room where materials were sprayed on the kibble supports this further.

In general, dry pet food is quite low-risk in terms of Salmonella contamination, but just like with other non-raw-animal products such as lettuce, tomatoes and sprouts, contamination can occur and human infections can result. The best way to reduce the risk is to use good general hygiene practices, particularly washing hands after handling food, keeping pet food and pet food bowls out of kitchens and limiting contact of young children and other high-risk individuals with pet foods.