Should You Worry About Salmonella in Raw Pet Food?

Talking About Raw Food, Salmonella and Food Safety with Dr. Katy Patterson

Healthy Dogs |  February 19, 2018

If you’ve ever read one of Mud Bay’s solution sheets, you’re already familiar with the work of our in-house veterinarian, Dr. Katy Patterson. Dr. Katy, as she’s called by most Muddies, helps determine which foods, toys, supplements and other products Mud Bay carries. She also answers all our tough animal nutrition questions and is part of the team who built our new feeding calculator. Like some veterinarians, she recommends raw food to certain pet owners and feeds raw food at home.

We sat down to talk to Dr. Katy about a recent FDA report about salmonella in raw food and found out the food safety tips she recommends for all pet owners.

MB: The first reported case of raw pet food leading to human illness transpired last month. What happened?

KP: The Minnesota Department of Health found a link between a strain of salmonella found in a raw petfood, and two children in Minnesota becoming ill with salmonella. One child needed to be hospitalized. Because the strains were the same, the FDA believes that the salmonella found in the raw pet food in their house was the cause of these children becoming ill.

We don’t know why this happened. There are many ways we could hypothesize that a salmonella infection could have occurred. For example: Were the children allowed to feed the pets, and they didn’t wash their hands after handling the food? Did each pet have a separate food bowl? Were those bowls washed after every meal? Were all the utensils used washed after every meal?

Also, the food was from a mail-order company. No one knows if the food thawed in transit, which could allow the bacteria to flourish.

There are a lot of safe handling guidelines for raw meat, in general, whether it’s raw pet food or people food. We don’t know about the food safety procedures followed at that home, so we don’t know if the right food handling steps could have prevented anyone from getting sick.

MB: Mud Bay carries a variety of raw dog and cat foods. While we can’t guarantee that any raw food is free of salmonella, there are some manufacturing procedures that our raw food partners use to reduce bacteria. What are they?

KP: Many of our raw food manufacturers test for salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other bacteria. They might test for bacteria before the raw ingredients come into their facility, once the ingredients arrive or after processing.

The test-and-hold procedure is a method some food partners use to test the food after processing. Each batch of food they produce is held at their facility until the test results show that the food doesn’t contain any unhealthy bacteria. Once the food manufacturer gets those negative test results, the food can be shipped to stores.

Some of our food partners use what are called kill steps. These processes ensure any bacteria in the food is killed before shipping it to stores. There are several methods that can be used.

One of the most common methods used by Mud Bay’s food partners is high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). It’s a process where the raw food is put in a cannister, and a machine pressurizes the food inside. The pressure is so strong, it fractures the cell walls of any single-cell bacteria. The bacteria then die, but the pressure doesn’t have the same effect on the enzymes, vitamins and minerals that are in that food. While the food is processed, it’s not a type of invasive processing that affects the nutritional value.

Another common kill step is to use a biologic solution that kills the pathogenic bacteria. The food manufacturers apply these solutions to the surface of raw foods, and it only targets the harmful bacteria. It doesn’t alter the nutritional value at all.

A lot of our raw food partners combine several methods to kill any possible bacteria. Some manufacturers may use several kill steps at different parts of the process to reduce the risk of any type of contamination.

MB: What are the basic precautions people should follow when feeding any raw food to their pets?

KP: Basically, what people need to do is treat raw pet food like raw meat they cook at home. You want to thaw it out in the refrigerator. Keep it frozen as long as possible, and only thaw it a few hours before feeding your dog or cat. Wash your hands and utensils with warm, soapy water after handling raw food. And if the food has been at room temperature for longer than 30 to 60 minutes, you need to throw it away.

Also, if your household includes young children, the elderly or any person who has a compromised immune system, raw food may not be the best choice for your life. If your pet has a compromised immune system, you might not want to feed raw food.

However, if you’re very diligent about handling raw food to reduce the risk of any contamination, we think the risk to most people is very small. That means you must wash every surface with warm, soapy water any time it meets raw food. But this risk is no greater than the risk of having any type of raw meat inside of your house for your own consumption.

It’s important to remember that we do recommend washing your hands and utensils after handling any type of dog or cat food. Salmonella has been found in kibble, so this isn’t just a risk for people feeding raw food. Whether you feed kibble, canned or raw food, you should practice good food safety procedures.

Cat gazing at a panting black and white dog

Dr. Katy Patterson is Mud Bay’s in-house veterinarian. She works at our home office in Olympia, Washington, where she always makes time to answer Muddy and customer questions. When she’s not at work, she’s with her family, the menagerie of animals at her farm or eventing with her horse, PK.

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