Sep. 14, 2012 at 4:44 PM ET
At least 360 dogs and one cat reportedly have died in the U.S. after eating chicken jerky pet treats made in China, even as claims of illnesses tied to the products have topped 2,200, federal veterinary health officials said.
Food and Drug Administration officials this week issued the first summary of reports of pet deaths linked to the jerky treats in the past 18 months, along with the strongest suggestion to date that owners might want to avoid the products all together.
“The FDA is reminding pet owners that jerky pet treats are not necessary for pets to have a fully balanced diet, so eliminating them will not harm pets,” agency officials said in an online report.
At the same time, the FDA said it will begin testing treats to see whether irradiation of the products may have contributed to reports of treat-related problems ranging from diarrhea and vomiting to kidney failure, Fanconi syndrome and death.
In 2009, the Australian government halted irradiation used to sterilize cat food after reports of paralysis and other problems appeared to be linked to the process. Ninety cats were sickened, of which 30 died, according to press reports at the time.
U.S. regulations allow pet food, including pet treats, to be irradiated up to a maximum of 50 kiloGrays to provide microbial disinfection or elimination of other pathogens. By contrast, most foods for human consumption are limited to far lower levels, 1 kiloGray maximum for fresh foods and 3 kiloGrays for fresh shell eggs to eliminate salmonella, for instance. The upper limit is 30 kiloGrays for spices or dry dehydrated seasonings -- except for frozen packaged meats for astronauts, which may be irradiated at levels up to 44 kiloGrays.
It’s not clear whether or how irradiation may contribute to illnesses in pets. The process is widely regarded as safe and even necessary by food safety experts such as Christina Bruhn, a researcher in food science and technology at the University of California at Davis.
Keith Schopp, a spokesman for Nestle Purina PetCare Co., confirmed that his firm's Waggin' Train brand products are irradiated.
"This is similar to what is used in sterilizing spices, apples, tomatoes and meat for human food," he said in an email to NBC News. "The extra precaution is taken to assure pet owners the treats they buy are safe and healthy."
FDA officials indicated they would ask NASA -- which has expertise in the effects of irradiated food -- for help in their analysis.
Investigating irradiation's effects on pet treats will be the latest avenue for an agency stumped by rising reports of deaths and illnesses in pets. The treats are part of an estimated nearly 86 million pounds of pet food imported to the U.S. from China each year.
In China, people mostly prefer the dark meat of chicken, leaving a large amount of light meat products available for export. Much of that has been funneled into pet treats, including pet jerky treats that are considered the fastest growing segment of the pet food market, the FDA indicated.
Since 2007, the FDA has received growing numbers of reports of illnesses and deaths in pets fed the jerky treats. Repeated tests at FDA laboratories, at the agency’s Veterinary Response Laboratory Network, and by other animal health diagnostic labs across the country have failed to detect any microbiological, chemical or other contaminants in high enough levels to cause the symptoms in the pets.
“To date, none of the testing results have revealed an association between a causative agent and the reported illnesses,” the FDA said.
Most of the complaints concern treats made of chicken, including chicken tenders and strips, but the FDA also has cautioned consumers about treats made of duck and sweet potato and products where chicken or duck jerky is wrapped around dried fruits, sweet potatoes or yams.
The situation has frustrated pet owners who blame the deaths and illnesses of their animals on tainted treats. Several lawsuits have been filed against the firms that sell the treats and the companies that make them, including Nestle Purina, which makes the popular Waggin’ Train and Canyon Ranch jerky treat products, and Del Monte Corp., which makes popular Milo's Kitchen Home-style Dog Treats.
Last month, Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, along with pet food safety advocates Mollie Morrissette and Susan Thixton, delivered a letter to the FDA and a petition signed by 18,000 consumers urging the agency to take stronger action, including recalling the treats.
"I could not believe FDA was being pushed around by the Chinese," said Tony Corbo, the Food & Water Watch lobbyist for safe food. "That infuriated me. This is the impotent FDA."
The pet treat manufacturers have repeatedly said their products remain safe to feed as directed. The FDA has said it cannot recall products based on consumer complaints alone.
The agency sent inspectors to five plants that make pet treats in China in April, but Chinese officials refused to allow the investigators to take samples of the treats for analysis in a U.S. lab. Instead, Chinese officials insisted they be tested only in China.
The FDA released inspection results for four of the plants, but not for the fifth. In their latest update, FDA officials said one firm had falsified receiving records for glycerin, which is a primary ingredient in nearly all jerky treat products. After that inspection, the Chinese authority, the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, or AQSIQ, told FDA it had seized products and suspended their export until the problem was corrected.
FDA officials declined to tell NBC News the name of the firm, the levels of glycerin detected or the volume of pet treats seized and banned from export. An agency spokeswoman said that information would be available only through a public records request.
For his part, Corbo said he plans to attend the last Pups in the Park event of the season at the Washington Nationals vs. Milwaukee Brewers baseball game on Sept. 22. He'll hand out leaflets warning pet owners about the dangers of jerky treats because he believes FDA isn't doing the job.
"If the FDA wants to join me, they're welcome to," Corbo said.