Pet Food Safety:

The Final Ingredient in Your Pets Health

By Inna Shekhtman


frozen meat photo


Your pet is part of your family and you want to see them live a longer and healthier life! You buy or make great food that that will help your pet thrive, you ensure they get regular exercise and socialization, and you have a great veterinarian that supports your goals and decisions. Now you have to navigate the world of food safety: How can you ensure that the food that you buy is safe for your animal companion and the rest of your family?  How is safety implemented and regulated in the pet food processing industry? What should I do once I bring food home?  Is real (raw) food for dogs and cats less safe that highly processed food? 

The subject of food safety has received a lot of attention in the media, the industry and the pet community in recent years.  It is encouraging to see new educational initiatives to create more consumer awareness and transparency around the subject of safety in pet food!  However, food safety has also become a marketing tool with buzzwords like “clean”, “human-grade”, “certified” and “premium” that appeal to emotions rather than speak to functionality or effectiveness.  Furthermore, since the emergence of commercial raw pet food, the subject of food safety has also been used to polarize the industry by suggesting that feeding fresh food to pets poses a higher risk than processed food.  

Food safety is not an option; it’s not a political tool or a marketing tool. It’s a necessity and my hope is that as the real food revolution grows, food safety will become a culture in the industry and in our homes!

How do I know if the food that I am buying is safe?

In short, you don’t.  

In Canada, the human food supply is one of the safest in the world. However, when it comes to pet food, the regulatory system of pet food in Canada is mostly based on trust. When a pet food is made in Canada, and sold in Canada, the government simply trusts the pet food manufacturer. There are NO legislated manufacturing practices or standards to follow. There is NO inspection or verification. 

In the US, in theory, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates pet food. In practice, limited resources and the need to prioritize human safety have led the FDA to effectively cede federal oversight to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). A private organization with no regulatory authority, the AAFCO can’t enforce its voluntary guidelines, which emphasize nutritional requirements over sourcing. So while the association establishes such standards as minimum protein levels, it’s not strict regarding where that protein comes from. 

So how do you decide which manufacturers you can trust and which foods are safe? No food safety system or food handling practices can guarantee zero risk. However, companies that are aware of food safety risk and actively work to build a safety culture and processes will go much further in reducing these risks for consumers.  Here are some questions you can ask a manufacturer:

  1. Are all the ingredients used in the products human-grade? Do they come from facilities that are certified and inspected by the CFIA, FDA or other regulatory agency?  Personally, I believe that all ingredients in a pet food should be good enough to be consumable by humans. The world of “pet ingredients” has way too many grey areas to provide any assurance with regards to safety or quality.
  2. Where do the ingredients come from? Are they from Canada, US or overseas? And if ingredients are overseas, how well regulated is the food ingredients in the source country? Try to avoid products that include ingredients from countries with poor food safety records. 
  3. What kind of food safety systems and protocols does the company have in place?   Make sure the company is committed to a culture of food safety and has a clear system in place to manage the risks. 
  4. Are they certified or inspected by any independent body to verify that these systems and protocols are being followed?

Is processed pet food (canned or kibble) safer than raw pet food?canstockphoto9736463_small

One of the concerns raised about the trend of feeding raw unprocessed food to pets is that the bacteria in raw meat can hurt your dog or other members in the household, especially those with weakened immune systems.  Yes, raw meat can contain bacteria and it might hurt your pet if they already have a compromised immune system or other health problem.  Yes, your pet may shed bacteria in their poop and if you grab their poop, you can get sick.  

Should we as consumers be aware of this risk? Absolutely! 

Are these risks unique to raw pet food? No, they are not!  ALL pet food can contain bacteria that can be harmful to pets and humans and all pets can shed bacteria in their feces, regardless of what they are eating! While FDA and other regulatory bodies continue to claim that raw presents a risk of contamination, it understates the risks of the same contaminations in hundreds of thousands of pounds of kibble and treats that occur annually.   For example, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2008 a contaminated dry pet food caused 79 cases of Salmonella in humans across 21 states.  

In my opinion, real food movement for pets (raw pet food) has actually done a service to the pet industry by making the pet food safety conversation front and center for consumers! The bottom line is, whatever you feed your pet: use common sense and good food handling practise (more on this to come in the next section). And please don’t lick your pet’s poop, grab it with your hands, or lick your hands after handling it.

On the other hand, we know that fresh minimally processed foods help us thrive and are better for us than food that is heavily processed.   Fresh food is certainly not risk free and all food, including vegetables, can get contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli, etc. but these risks can be managed and reduced with good food safety systems in industry and in the home.   Our choice of foods should be based on what’s best of the body and not based on fear – and the same goes for our pets. 

In addition, most healthy pets are naturally less affected by bacteria than the human family members – after all they do groom their own rear ends and eat and roll in all kinds of unsightly things (including feces of other animals) without any ill effects.   So focusing on keeping your pet’s digestive system healthy with quality fresh food and probiotics is the best way to support this natural mechanism.

Raw Liver Photo...

Raw Liver Photo…

Basics of Pet food safety at home

Stick to the basic rules of sanitation and food handling for your pet’s food:

  1. Do not buy or keep food past its expiry date.
  2. Inspect the food before severing it to your pet – if it looks or smells different or off, do not use it. 
  3. Wash your hands, your pet’s bowl, and any other surface that came in contact with the food with soap and hot water for 20 seconds after each meal to disinfect. Yes, even if you are feeding kibble you should follow the same food safety procedures as with raw meat to avoid risk of illness! 
  4. Do not leave food sitting in your pets bowl for prolonged periods of time. Discard any uneaten food after 15-20 minutes.  
  5. And of course, wash your hands and other contact surfaces after handling what comes out the other end.

In general, use the same common sense and food handling practices as you would for your own food. If you need a refresher, check out the FDA consumer tips page: 

Raw (meat) pet food safety basics

The risks associated with raw proteins are contamination and spoilage and these do not end at the store! Handling these products with the caution and attention they deserve is our personal responsibility once we bring them home, to assure the safety of our entire family, especially your pets because they thrive on meat diets. 

What causes food spoilage?

There are several naturally occurring catalysts that can cause meat to spoil. 

Bacteria: Meat has naturally occurring microorganisms on its surface including molds and bacteria. The bacteria break down the fats and proteins in the meats, causing it to spoil.  This breakdown begins immediately after slaughter – and while it can be slowed down by lowering the temperature of the meat, it cannot be reversed or halted. In contrast, exposure to light or heat will speed up that process. 

Mold: Another cause for meat spoilage is mold. Mold likes moist, warm places with lots of food sources — meat makes a great home for a mold colony. Mold can spoil meat by spreading over the surface in fuzzy or colorful patches that change the taste and texture of the meat.

Oxidative Rancidity: Improper packing techniques can cause a chemical reaction in the meat called oxidation. The fats in the meat react with oxygen molecules and cause the meat to go rancid, producing discoloration and a rotten, sour smell and taste.

Here are the key components of any good household food safety strategy: fish

  1. Separation

Keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination.

2.  Handling

Wash your hands, preparation surfaces and utensils that come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs with soap and hot water to sanitize. 

3. Storage 

For frozen products, store in the freezer until ready to use. Generally, food will not spoil in the freezer, but it will degrade in quality. For fresh or thawed products, store in the refrigerator for a limited period of time, to avoid spoilage.  The “Danger Zone” for bacteria growth is between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly. 

Vacuum sealing slows down the growth of aerobic, spoilage bacteria and fungi by reducing the food’s contact with atmospheric oxygen. Therefore, food quality, good texture and appearance last longer when the food is vacuum sealed. 

How long can you store meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator?

 4. Thawing

If you are purchasing frozen raw food for your animal companion, you are likely going through the daily ritual of thawing the food before serving.  As soon as raw meat begins to thaw and becomes warmer than 40 °F, bacteria that may have been present before freezing begin to multiply at exponential rates. For this reason you should never use hot water to thaw raw food (not to mention it will get cooked) or leave raw food on the counter at room temperature for more than two hours. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.

There are two methods of safety defrosting your pets raw meal: in the refrigerator and in cold water. 

Refrigerator Thawing

Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved.  Allow for a full day to thaw the meal if it’s a flat-pack – more if the food is in a block.  A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are variables to take into account.

  • Some areas of the appliance may keep food colder than other areas.
  • Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F

Cold Water Thawing

This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small flatter meal package of 1-2 lbs — may thaw in an hour or less.

5. Freezing and re-freezing

Home freezers are designed to keep food frozen, not to freeze food from room temperature. This means that even small portions of fresh food can take days to fully freeze, compromising the quality of the food.  Avoid freezing or re-freezing things in your home freezer. If you must do so, allow as much space around the package as possible for air circulation.  

Before we end, some food for thought … Most foodborne illness is caused by bacteria. For many years, we have been led to believe that our food and environment needs to be sterile to avoid illness.  And for many years we bought this message and waged the war on bacteria with chemical disinfectants and other modes.  More recently, we have begun to appreciate the balance of nature when it comes to bacteria and the importance of nurturing a balance of bacteria in our body end environment rather than focusing on elimination.  There are thousands of bacteria strains in the air, on surfaces and even in our own body. Not all of these bacteria are bad – in fact the majority of them play an essential role in building the immune system and keeping us healthy and safe.   

Food safety is not black and white. There is much that we are still learning about food safety in industry and in the home.  If food safety is to become a culture, it first needs to be a conversation – one that re-examines all our preconceived notions and looks at what makes the most sense for our pets and for our entire family to thrive!