The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has announced an outbreak of E. coli O157 infections in people linked to Carnivora brand raw pet food, and Health Canada has issued a recall of a number of Carnivora products due to potential contamination with E. coli O157. Illnesses have been reported in four individuals in total, from British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. All affected individuals had exposure to Carnivora brand pet foods, and two were hospitalized due to their illness. The concern is that the majority of infections might be overlooked, as commonly occurs in such outbreak. The outbreak once again highlights the importance of querying animal contact and contact with high risk (raw) pet foods when foodborne diseases are investigated. While people were presumably not eating the pet food, there is the potential for cross-contamination of human food when handling raw pet food, as well as potential for exposure to pathogens through things like contact with pet food bowls and pet feces.
The main concern with raw pet food tends to be Salmonella; however, E. coli O157 is another significant concern because of the potential severity of disease. A death was reported in a UK a couple years ago from exposure to E. coli O157 from contaminated pet food.
People who have had contact with the recalled food should be aware of the risk. The odds of a problem are low in most cases and there’s nothing to do if everyone’s healthy. However, it’s critical that healthcare providers be informed of potential exposure to E. coli O157 if someone gets sick (e.g. diarrhea). That’s particularly important for this bug because use of antibiotics (not usually needed for people with diarrhea, though they’re over-prescribed anyway) is a major risk factor for inducing hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal complication of infection with E. coli O157.
While most dogs and cats that eat raw diets are fine, and most owners don’t get sick, it’s clear that feeding raw diet or raw animal-based treats (e.g. pig ears) is associated with risks to the pet and any human contacts. I’d rather people not feed raw diets to their pets, particularly when the pet or household members are very young, elderly, pregnant or have compromised immune systems. If none of those risk factors are present and someone wants to feed a raw diet, I’d still rather they didn’t, but there are some things that can reduce the risks, as outlined on the Worms & Germs infosheet on raw diets available on our Resources – Pets page.
Oh, and don’t go to the company’s website for accurate information about risk and risk mitigation. They bury some good prevention recommendations in a pile of often out-of-context dialogue to try to deflect any concerns and the typical raw diet misinformation. Some other raw pet food companies are up front about the risks and prevention measures – I have a lot more confidence in companies like that.