Why We Still Have Faith in Raw Food 

By Susan Moss

In light of the FDA’s nationwide testing of raw pet food and the resulting recalls, we’d like to weigh in on the safety of these products in general, and their effect on the health of our companion animals and the people who love them. This issue will gain more urgency when the test results of the 2000 samples that have already been collected this summer are released in the next several weeks.

Still the Healthiest Option

We are dedicated to improving the lives of cats and dogs, and stocking the healthiest, safest and highest quality pet foods that can be made. We believe that food is the foundation of all wellness, and in our 30 years of experience, raw food has earned its place as the most health-giving and transformative method of feeding. That doesn’t mean that other types of food are not healthy, but that well formulated and well prepared raw food can improve health faster and make more of a difference than any other kind. Raw fed animals just seem to have a glow that conventionally fed animals are missing.

The State of US Raw Meat Processing

The levels of four pathogens, salmonella, e.coli, listeria and campylobacter, in US meat and poultry processing plants may surprise you — they’re everywhere! The non-profit Consumer Reports, which annually tests raw chicken purchased in grocery stores, has published results ranging from a low of 46% to over 90% contamination*, including organic chicken. The USDA, however, does not have the authority to recall any of the contaminated products intended for human consumption unless (a) there’s a reported outbreak of illness,  or (b) if they find dangerous strains that have been previously declared “adulterants”, like e. coli 0157 H7 or the recent salmonella heidelberg. Other bacteria in the fecal matter of slaughtered animals (the source of virtually all contamination in meat) are viewed as fairly benign and not worthy of a recall since meats and poultry for human use are typically cooked, killing all bacteria present whether friend or foe. Chicken has the highest rate of contamination, followed by turkey and then by other meats.

Harmful bacteria is not only found in meat. Approximately 40% of food-borne illnesses can be traced to fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts contaminated by farm soil, and while there have been numerous outbreaks, illnesses and recalls, the FDA has never stated that cantaloupes, strawberries or spinach are too risky to eat, and they have not proposed a zero tolerance policy for those crops.

Pet Raw Safer than Human Raw

Raw food for dogs and cats has been popular for at least a decade with little credible evidence of harm to animals or people. But in recent years, the FDA has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for any pathogens at all in raw pet food with the rationale that it is meant to be consumed in its raw state, and consequently no bacteria is permitted. The presence of even a single bacterium (one-tenth the size of a human cell) will trigger an automatic recall, even in the absence of any harm. This has required manufacturers to learn how to make food that is considerably cleaner and more pristine than the meat supply it comes from. Some use a costly “kill step” like HPP (high pressure pasteurization) to reduce pathogens without denaturing the ingredients. Others buy only whole meats from known sources that they thoroughly wash (contamination is usually on the surface) and do the grinding themselves on sterilized equipment. Most use UV light emitters to suppress bacterial growth inside their facilities, and all have elaborate ‘test and hold’ protocols to intercept contamination before it ever leaves the plant. As result, the bacteria levels in raw pet food products in 2015 are very low, under 2% for some brands.

The Threat to People vs. Pets

Could raw pet food make your pet sick? Consider cat and dogs who not long ago hunted and ate entire prey animals, guts and all. They still secrete very strong stomach acids capable of killing bacteria (as well as dissolving the bones of their prey), so it’s not surprising that they rarely become sick. Dogs in particular are attracted to smelly rotten stuff teeming with bacteria like goose poop or dead fish down by the lake. They also eat cat poop, lick their butts and other dogs’ butts. Cats lick their paws after walking in the litter box or in the grass. Salmonella is commonly harbored in the guts of birds and reptiles, and in many cats and dogs as well, all of whom shed salmonella in their feces, even some cats and dogs who’ve never eaten raw food. Our pets are being exposed to many pathogens on a regular basis and have built up natural immunities to them.

Could raw pet food make you sick? The FDA is concerned about pet owners handling contaminated food and accidentally transferring bacteria from hands to mouth and ingesting it. While that makes sense because most germs are spread that way, why wouldn’t the raw chicken used to make dinner, for example, present the same hazard before it’s cooked? After all, I touch that raw chicken with my hands as much or more than I do the raw food I put in my pet’s bowl. Yet it’s only the pet food that is held to a zero tolerance standard, not the chicken that will eventually be cooked.

Harm can be mitigated in either scenario by safe handling methods including careful hand washing and using a disinfectant to clean all surfaces, utensils and bowls that have come into contact with any raw food or its juices. Even so, there are some immune-compromised individuals who probably shouldn’t be exposed at all, and these households may want to avoid raw food altogether, whether pet raw or human raw. Another way to mitigate harm would be to steer clear of chicken or turkey and select meats that have a lower incidence of contamination.

Bacteria and the Microbiome

Researchers have discovered that all humans and animals host native communities of trillions of tiny microbes, living on skin and inside bodily orifices, but mostly inhabiting the lower GI tract. Until recently, scientists thought that the many different strains and species making up the intestinal flora had no function, but new information is emerging that reveals their vital role in the body’s immune response. The arrival of “bad” bacteria, whether from a contaminated strawberry or a piece of raw meat, challenges the immune system to neutralize it and in doing so, trains it to recognize that same bacteria and respond more forcefully in the future. The absence of all bacteria is not desirable nor even possible; it would create a sterile environment that destructive pathogens could inhabit without others crowding them out and competitively inhibiting their growth. In point of fact, there are no “bad” bacteria, just those that are out of balance with their neighbors in the microbiome, and even those can sometimes be found living harmoniously as part of a diverse community. 

A Balanced Approach on Raw Food

Although nothing is completely without risk, especially conventional pet food, which has sickened and killed many unfortunate dogs and cats, we believe that the benefits of feeding raw food far outweigh the risks. While monitoring and regulation results in safer products, expensive recalls based on unreasonable and unfairly applied standards may raise the cost of raw pet food production or even drive it out of the marketplace completely, resulting in a loss for consumers and companions alike. We would like the FDA continue to monitor the quality of our foods but cease to overstate the dangers that cause pet parents needless worry. Pet food safety is an important concern for everyone, and in the final analysis, consumers will decide for themselves what is best for the animals in their care.

*This year the USDA announced a plant verification program for US meat processors that hopes to achieve a goal of less than 25% contamination.