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Vets, pet owners demand to know: Why can't FDA solve jerky treat mystery?

Zoe, a 3 year old mixed breed owned Ron Barnhard in Parkland, FL, was recently was diagnosed with Fanconi syndrome. Fanconi, a very rare illness in do...
Zoe, a 3 year old mixed breed owned Ron Barnhard in Parkland, FL, was recently was diagnosed with Fanconi syndrome. Fanconi, a very rare illness in dogs that FDA and vets say is likely linked to consumption of jerky pet treats made in China. Photo by Josh RitchieJosh Ritchie / Getty Images for NBC News

When Zoe, a 3-year-old pit bull mix, showed up sick last week at a Coral Springs, Fla., animal hospital, veterinarian Sofia Morales said there was no mystery about what was wrong with the dog.

The first clue was that Zoe had all the signs of Fanconi syndrome, a rare and often fatal illness that arises from kidney problems. The second was that she’d been eating jerky pet treats made in China, which have been linked to the disorder.

“Fanconi is so rare, that when you see it, your mind goes, ‘boom,’ the treats,” said Morales, who has treated three dogs with the problem in the past year, far more than one vet should expect. 

“I have never seen so much Fanconi in my life. The only common denominator among these dogs is jerky treats," she said. 

Morales is among thousands of frustrated animal experts and pet owners nationwide who say that if problems with Chinese-made jerky treats are obvious to them, they should be obvious to the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees pet treats, too.

“I tell every dog owner I meet: Do not feed these treats,” she said.

She and others are wondering why, after five years of testing, reports of nearly 600 animals dead and more than 3,600 sickened after eating the treats, according to a recent FDA update, the agency still hasn’t solved the puzzle that has spurred multiple warnings — but no industry-wide recall — since 2007.

“The FDA pulls drugs as soon as there’s a reported increase in reactions,” she said. “I’m not sure why they can’t pull something that’s more benign.”

But FDA officials and veterinary experts who’ve been tracking the problem say it’s just not that easy. The FDA can’t force product recalls without a reason, said Martine Hartogensis, a deputy director at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. And so far, the FDA and a network of veterinary labs have failed to find a specific problem.

“To date, testing for contaminants in jerky treats has not revealed a cause for the illnesses,” Hartogensis told NBC News.

It’s not for lack of trying, said Lisa Murphy, an assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, one of nearly a dozen labs nationwide assisting the FDA. Since 2007, but especially in the past two years, the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network, Vet-LIRN, has been riveted on the issue, she said.

“It’s extremely frustrating for everybody involved,” Murphy said. “A lot of really smart people with a lot of expertise are looking at this. I can tell you a lot of things that this is probably not, but to the general public, that’s not a very satisfying answer.”

Experts have tested hundreds of treats for dozens of substances, from bacteria and heavy metals to rat poison, melamine and mold. They’ve looked into the effects of irradiation, and into whether the glycerin used to the make the treats is dangerous. They’ve asked veterinary hospitals to investigate whether there’s a genetic glitch in the pets that get sick.

So far, nothing.

Part of the problem is that millions of pets in the U.S. eat jerky treats every year, but only a fraction of those that consume the products actually get sick, Murphy said. That’s in contrast to melamine-tainted pet food in 2007, which sickened a high proportion of animals that ate it. When pets are affected by jerky treats, the symptoms — gastrointestinal problems, kidney issues — can be vague and explained by other ailments.

And part of the problem is the treats themselves, Hartogensis said. Whether they’re made of chicken, duck or sweet potatoes, the nuggets, jerky and tenders are hard and stiff and difficult to break down in solvents for chemical analysis.

Another issue is that there are few validated tests sensitive enough to detect some contaminants. In January, New York state agriculture officials used tests that found trace amounts of unapproved antibiotics in the treats, a discovery that forced the biggest makers of jerky treats, Nestle Purina Pet Care Corp. and Del Monte Corp., to issue voluntary recalls that pulled the bulk of the products off store shelves nationwide.

Reports of illnesses and deaths in pets plummeted, but, 10 months later, FDA officials still say the agency hasn’t validated its own tests to detect antibiotic adulterants — a move that could keep more treats away from pets.

“It takes a while to develop the method and to demonstrate that you can repeat it,” Hartogensis said. Because FDA tests are used as the basis for regulatory or enforcement actions, they have to meet higher standards before they’re put in place, agency officials added.

But to some food safety advocates for pet and human health — and to many pet owners who just want the problem fixed — such explanations ring hollow.

“To me, there’s a causal connection there and they should have taken action a long time ago,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Food & Water Watch who has been following the issue.

The FDA had the chance to ban jerky pet treats from the U.S. market last year, when officials at five Chinese plants that make jerky treats wouldn’t let American inspectors collect samples of the products. U.S. regulations allow the agency to refuse entry to products if they’re not allowed to inspect them.

“I think you could probably make the case that not allowing sampling was not allowing inspection,” Dan McChesney, director of the FDA’s surveillance arm of CVM, told NBC News in a recent interview. “At the time, we thought that was probably not the best way to continue to research and identify the issues.”

Wrong decision, said Corbo, who points to the sharp drop in reports of pet illnesses and deaths after the recalls got treats off the market.

“When it comes to poisoning, whether it’s an animal or a human, the FDA should use every tool in their arsenal,” Corbo said.

That’s an opinion shared by Zoe’s owner, Ron Barnhard, 65, of Parkland, Fla., who is semi-retired after heart surgery and relies on his dog for comfort and companionship.

He says that he’s outraged at the costs — both financial and emotional — of treating Zoe for a life-threatening condition that the FDA may have prevented if treats weren’t on the market.

“I had heard about it, but I didn’t consider what I was feeding her as jerky,” he said, referring to Zoe’s favorite chicken breast tenders. “I love this dog.”

The FDA’s Hartogensis said officials know that pet owners are upset. Nearly 1,500 reports of new illnesses were logged at the FDA’s pet safety portal in the week since the agency announced its latest update.

“There are folks all across the agency that are working on this,” she said. “I think it’s a pretty high priority. There’s a core group in CVM working not to leave any stone unturned.”

But if U.S. import records are any indication, FDA officials may need to work harder. Records obtained Monday by NBC News showed that Nestle Purina PetCare Corp. imported three 21,510-pound shipments of Waggin’ Train chicken jerky treats on Oct. 15, the first in eight months. By Friday, the online records had been altered to reflect not the brand name but generic descriptions of dog treats and chews.

Bill Salzman, a Nestle Purina spokesman, wouldn’t comment on whether the company has solved the issue of unapproved antibiotics and intends to resume nationwide sales of jerky treats soon.

“We are not currently selling jerky treats in the U.S,” he wrote in an email, adding: “Thanks for your question, but we don’t comment on our future business strategies.”

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.