Understanding the risks associated with RAW food
His, Hers and the Truth
Recently, a spade of articles about the “dangers” of raw feeding has been doing it’s rounds on social and digital media. It seems our rabid opponents are at it again, clutching at straws to create fear, uncertainty and doubt. One such study (Freek P J van Bree, 2017) by researchers at Utrecht University states that raw diets (or meals) could be contaminated with bacteria and parasites, that could potentially harm you and your pet.
Firstly, our pet parents, guardians and slaves must understand that the risk in feeding a raw diet is not as simple as being touted by the "anti-raw" movement. ALL foods have some degree of risk, so the question isn't whether risk exists. The question is whether the risk is unacceptable. The reality is that ALL foods carry some type of risk, from the meal out of a 5-star restaurant kitchen, to the hotdog from the roadside stall, to the chicken and eggs you buy from your favourite retail outlet.
In real terms, these studies offer no new evidence or FACTS for us to consider. They all regurgitate the same old topic our sceptics have been using for years – raw meat contains bacteria. Really? How is that possible? Well, or course it does!
Ignoring FACTS does not make them go away or become less relevant, and raw feeders globally have always acknowledged these facts, and understand the risks associated. In fact, we always highlight responsible hygiene as a key pillar of raw fooding (you can view these through our Related Posts).
Potential contamination is always substantial for raw sceptics, and often, most of the research quoted are from North America, even though universal, but not helpful (Daniel P. Schlesinger, 2011). Our pet parents, guardians and slaves must realise that the South African, the UK and EU at large, Australia and New Zeeland legislation is MUCH tighter historically than in the US.
Let’s consider the FACTs first
FACT: Bacteria is part of life (Ackerman & Blaser). FACT: Bacteria were (Georgia, n.d.) among the first life forms to appear on Earth, and are present in most of its habitats. FACT: Bacteria inhabit soil, water, acidic hot springs, radioactive waste, and the deep portions of Earth's crust (James K. Fredrickson, 2004). FACT: Bacteria live in symbiotic and parasitic relationships with plants and animals (Sachs, 2013) – you, me, Max and Ginger! FACT: Most bacteria have not been characterised, and only about half of the bacterial phyla have species that can be grown in the laboratory (Rappé MS, 2003). FACT: There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water (Xavier Raynaud, 2014). FACT: There are approximately 5×10 to the power of 30 bacteria on Earth (Whitman WB, 1998), forming a biomass which exceeds that of all plants and animals (Hogan C. , 2010). FACT: Bacteria are vital in many stages of the nutrient cycle by recycling nutrients such as the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere (WikiPedia, 2018). FACT: There are approximately 39 trillion bacterial cells in the human microbiota as personified by a "reference" 70 kg male 170 cm tall, whereas there are 30 trillion human cells in the body. Get it – we are made up with bacteria (Ron Sender, 2016). FACT: Most of the bacteria in the body are rendered harmless by the protective effects of the immune system, though many are beneficial particularly in the gut flora. FACT: Several species of bacteria are pathogenic and cause infectious diseases, including cholera, syphilis, anthrax, leprosy, and bubonic plague – typically the ONLY areas that “anti-raw propaganda” focus on. FACT: Bacteria is used to enable society, are important in sewage treatment (Hogan C. M., 2010) and the breakdown of oil spills, the production of cheese and yogurt through fermentation, and the recovery of gold, palladium, copper and other metals in the mining sector. FACT: Bacteria is a key building block in the medical industry, as well as in biotechnology (Dijl & Hecker, 2013), and the manufacture of antibiotics and other chemicals.
The most important FACT is that gut flora, gut microbiota or gastrointestinal microbiota is the complex community of microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of humans and other animals, including insects (Canny & McCormick, 2008) – yes, you, me, Max and Ginger! In us (pet parents / humans), the gut microbiota has the largest numbers of bacteria and the greatest number of species compared to other areas of the body (EM, 2013). The relationship between some gut flora and humans is not merely commensal (a non-harmful coexistence), but rather a mutualistic relationship (Todar, 2012). Some human gut microorganisms benefit the host by fermenting dietary fibre into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as acetic acid and butyric acid, which are then absorbed by our bodies. Intestinal bacteria also play a role in synthesizing vitamin B and vitamin K as well as metabolizing bile acids, sterols, and xenobiotics (Diamant, Blaak, & Vos, 2011). The systemic importance of the SCFAs and other compounds they produce are like hormones and the gut flora itself appears to function like an endocrine organ (Clarke, et al., 2014), and dysregulation of the gut flora has been correlated with a host of inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, for example, diabetes (Baothman, Zamzami, Taher, Abubaker, & Abu-Farha, 2016). Each person has a distinct and highly variable composition of gut microbes, although a core set of microorganisms are common to all individuals (Putignani, 2012).
The good guys (comprising ~85% of a balanced microbiome) play a tremendous IMPORTANT role in keeping you healthy, from regulating your immune system and balancing your blood sugar to helping you maintain your weight and influencing your mood (Nagao-Kitamoto, Kitamoto, Kuffa, & Kamada, 2016).
When it comes to digestion, though, gut bacteria, also referred to as probiotics, are your body’s tiny superheroes! Not only do beneficial bacteria work to crowd out harmful microorganisms, like the pathogenic bacteria discussed in most of these articles that could be in your food, but they are key players in the entire digestion process.
Our digestive process starts in our mouths. As the food you chew and swallow makes its way into the intestine (where your gut microbes live), the good guys continue to break it down into smaller components that your body can absorb. Probiotics even produce their own enzymes, enabling you to digest your food more thoroughly. This is why some pet parents who have trouble digesting lactose can better tolerate it when taking probiotics (Varga, Román, & Tóth, 2004). Certain strains of probiotics produce lactase, which digests the lactose before it can cause temporary digestive issues like bloating and gas. In one research trial, lactose intolerant individuals who took Lactobacillus reuteri showed improved symptoms when ingesting dairy products (Vicario, Santos, Violant, Nart, & Giner, 2013).
FACT: Probiotics bacteria improve your overall nutrient absorption, helping you absorb all the valuable vitamins and minerals you need to thrive! (Lin, et al., 2014)
Now, we wanted to understand the context of these articles and research papers. They are, after all, implying that people are being put at risk, maybe even death, because we are fooding our mutts, pups, nobles, masters and muggles on raw diets, instead of feeding them on dry kibble, right?
The simplest way, given the prevalence of social and digital media, is to perform a Google (or Bing) search using the following terms “number of deaths in humans from infected dog food”, or “how many humans have died from feeding raw meat to their dogs” or “how many cases of salmonella poisoning in dogs due to raw dog food” right? Surely if the science is saying that raw fooding our fur kids is dangerous, and that we should stop fooding real food, then there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of cases available online for review? We can also attempt deeper searches by using terms like “number of human deaths linked to raw feeding dogs” or “how many cases of salmonella poisoning in humans linked to raw dog food” … our assumption is simply based on the principle that these search engines will search through the dustiest virtual library nooks and crannies. Be sure to remember that your search mileage will vary from ours …
<blank> ... yes? No cases?
FACT: Raw meat can indeed be contaminated with e. coli 0157, campylobacter, Listeriosis or other pathogens (Pesavento, Calonico, Ducci, Magnanini, & Nostro, 2014). That is unfortunately a fact of live, and does not only apply to raw meat, but also to retail cheese, ready-to-eat salads, ham, etc. Outbreaks of food borne illness make the headlines on a regular basis. Hepatitis in strawberries (FDA, Investigates Outbreak of Hepatitis A Illnesses Linked to Frozen Strawberries, 2016), E. coli in apple juice (An outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection from unpasteurized commercial apple juice, 1999) and lettuce, and Cyclospora in raspberries (What you need to know about the parasite, illness, 2015). As many as 600 million people contract some type of food borne illness each year globally - most cases are not diagnosed or reported, and are probably just thought to be "stomach flu." However, up to ~420 000 people die from food borne illness each year around the world (WHO Food Safety, 2015). Right. Number of cases listed as a result of pet parents, guardians and slaves fooding raw?
Our message – Prevention of Foodborne Illness Begins on the Farm!
As you can see, the views presented in these research articles that draw our attention to the potential dangers of specie appropriate, biologically raw diets is only ONE side of the story. The truth is that ANY FOOD product, including kibble, can also contain disease-causing mould and other pathogens. Studies by (Bueno DJ, 2001), (Gunsen U, 2002), and (Maia PP, 2002) found aflatoxin [ref], a toxic mould, in pet food samples. Aflatoxin contamination of dog kibble resulted in approximately 25 dog deaths in 1998 (AVMA Journals 2006) and vomitoxin [ref] was found in kibble in 1995 (Whole Dog Journal). Since 2006, at least 13 recall announcements involving 135 commercial pet food products have been issued by the CDC in the United States, because of Salmonella contamination (CDC, 2008), (CDC, Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Infantis Infections Linked to Dry Dog Food, 2012) and (CB, 2010). It is also important to remember that the animal-human link is not limited to cats and dogs, as this research highlight the potential for transmission of pathogens from horses to humans (Pelkonen, et al., 2013).
Bacteria and mould are not the only risks involved in choosing a food for your pet. For example, there is some research that says that small particle size of food is a risk factor in bloat, so regarding bloat, feeding large meaty bones would be less risky than feeding any kibble (Theyse LF, 1998). Even the packaging of commercial food can carry some risk, as one study of canned pet foods showed that Bisphenol A [ref], an industrial chemical and suspected endocrine disruptor leached from the cans into the food (Kang JH, 2002).
We need to remember that dogs and cats are more resistant to most of the common raw meat pathogens than are pet parents, guardians and slaves. Consider the fact that many dogs use the kitty litter box as a snack tray without ill effects. Does anyone really want to argue that cat faeces are free of pathogens? Dogs are resistant - NOT immune - from the disease potential of these pathogens, and healthy dogs can harbour them without symptoms. (Beutin L, 1993) found verotoxin producing e. coli in 4.8% of apparently healthy dogs and (Dahlinger J, 1997) cultured various types of bacteria, including some forms of e. coli and salmonella from the lymph nodes of 52% of apparently healthy dogs brought in for elective spays. Most dogs and cats can eat clean raw meat without a problem, even if the same raw meat would make pet parents, guardians and slaves very sick!
Whilst looking at this topic using a more balanced view, we should also realise that raw meat is not alone in having bacterial contamination problems. There are case reports of pathogens found in commercially produced dog food and in dog treats such as rawhide, pig ears, jerky, and chew hooves. (Human, 2000, as well as (Clark C, 2002); (White DG, 2003); (ScienceBlog HHW News, 2000), and archived notices from Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "all pet chew products of this type may pose a risk" (CDC Human Salmonellosis Associated with Animal-Derived Pet Treats --- United States and Canada, 2005) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (Salmonella: Dry Pet Foods and Pet Treats (FAQ)).
Risk to Pet Parents, Guardians and Slaves
Some studies, including the one we are discussing here, of fur kids have shown e. coli O157 and salmonella in the faeces of pet dogs (Nemser, 2014) - but most of these studies were not limited to dogs fed raw diets. Again, to present a balanced view on this topic, it is important to understand that kibble fed dogs and dogs fed rawhides, pig ears, and chew hooves also carry this risk.
However, before getting too fixated on dogs and cats as a source of pathogens for humans, consider that the most notorious cases of food poisoning have been caused by poor hygiene from human sources.
While undercooked and raw meat is sometimes implicated in food poisoning cases, there have been an enormous number of cases of salmonella and e. coli from fruits and vegetables! We just need to take note of the recent press on the Listeriosis [ref] outbreak in South Africa. The seemingly innocuous bean sprout has been linked to many outbreaks of food poisoning, as have melons, salads, and apple cider (PHAC Public Health Notice – Outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce, 2018), (USDA Proposes New Measures to Reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in Poultry Products, 2015) and CDC Notices (CDC Recalls of Frozen Vegetables, Frozen Fruit, and Other Products Related to Investigation of Listeria Illnesses). In other words, while raw meat is a risk, so is almost ANY uncooked food that you eat. There has been one salmonella outbreak linked to almonds. (CDC Outbreak of Salmonella Serotype Enteritidis Infections Associated with Raw Almonds --- United States and Canada, 2003--2004)
This leads us to a common thread and question asked recently by pet parents, guardians and slaves “are people at additional risk of getting pathogens from coming in contact with a dog fed raw meat?” The reality is that there is a severe lack of research that is directly related to this topic (J Scott Weese, 2006)! There are studies of raw-fed dogs (Joffe DJ, 2002) and recent, but these do not carefully compare the raw fed dogs to a similar population fed commercial dog food.
In our research, we have found studies of fur kids that show that food-borne pathogens were present in a large proportion of the dogs tested. Hackett and Lappin (Hackett T, 2003) found infectious agents in the faeces of 26% of healthy Colorado dogs. As far as we can tell, this study was NOT limited to dogs eating raw diets. (Fukata T, 2002) found salmonella antibodies in 15% of apparently healthy dogs.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that we (Raw Food for Pets) take all topics of health risk extremely seriously, as our risk of exposure is 1000% greater than any of our pet parents or their fur kids. We work with the food every day of our lives, have two adorable mutts as kids, so it is extremely important that we understand, research, and be informed ourselves. We also believe that informed pet parents can make informed decisions, so without seeing to be fuelling societies pathological fear of the unknown, these fears also apply to us. We believe that you can reduce any potential risk of food poisoning related to dogs and cats by simply having good hygiene - scrupulously washing your hands after cleaning up after your dog and washing up thoroughly before eating. Keeping your fur kids themselves clean probably doesn't hurt, either. And it would make sense to avoid letting your dog lick you right after eating a chicken neck. For these reasons, we believe that pet parents with pets and toddlers might want to be extra vigilant when fooding raw diets because small children will not follow the above rules. Kids often will let the dog lick their face any old time, and they may even try to taste the dog's meals (Sato Y, 2000).
Beside the concept of 'relative risk' there is the question of risk versus benefit. If pet parents, guardians, slaves and integrated veterinarians were completely happy with the health of dogs and cats from kibble feeding, the entire "raw food" movement would never have taken root, right?. There's nothing more convenient than pouring kibble into a dish. As a result, we have to surmise that many pet parents, guardians and slaves, such as ourselves, must be seeing a benefit from fooding raw.
We believe that most veterinarians' assessment of risk from raw diets is skewed by the fact that normal, healthy dogs and cats are not generally seen by vets, and that most nutrition research is done using commercial diets (McKibble and McCan). If there is a large population of totally healthy dogs eating raw diets, they may never be noticed by a veterinarian. On the other hand, vets will usually see the dogs who got the 3-day old chicken bones from the garbage can, or the one whose owner misguidedly thought it was a good idea to give their dog the skin and bones from their holiday turkey.
However, fact is, that biologically, specie appropriate raw diets do carry potential risk, but no more than that of ALL raw food. These can be reduced by feeding the freshest cleanest meat the pet parent, guardian and slave can buy, or pre-made meals from registered manufacturers in South Africa, such as those that we supply from Doggobone, Raw Love Pets, Simply Pets and Dogmatters, and following all the rules about temperature, storage and hygiene (USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services, The Poultry Label Says "Fresh", 2013). Why registered? Simply put, these manufacturers must comply with a responsible level of hygiene, certified sourcing, and purchasing raw materials from registered abattoirs. See our article on Tips for Buying commercial raw meals here.
Kibble diets and dog treats also carry risk - and these can be reduced by buying fresh and high-quality food, rather than the cheapest stuff available, and by following proper storage and hygiene rules. But it's worth noting that some of the priciest brands of kibble were recalled because of toxic contamination (Administration U. F., 2009), so a high price does not ensure safety!
At Raw Food for Pets, we don’t believe that there is ONLY ONE right way to food and feed your fur kids. We believe that careful attention to nutrition and hygiene reduce the risk associated with whatever feeding and fooding regime you choose for your mutts, pups, nobles, masters and muggles. By now you will realise that fooding raw meat (biologically, specie appropriate raw food) is intensely controversial, while feeding pig ears and jerky - which carry similar if not higher risks for contamination - is widely accepted as reasonably safe!
To close out our discussion, we would like to draw your attention to a similar study conducted in Finland by the University of Helsinki (Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa, 2017), which we believe offer a more balanced view on the topic. Section 4 of the study, the Discussion section, highlighted some important observations:
“Pets fed raw meat are suspected to shed meat-borne pathogens more often in their feces than pets not fed raw meat. In our study, dogs fed raw meat shed Campylobacter more frequently than dogs fed dry pellets; however, the difference was not statistically significant.”
Some observations concluded that contamination could actually be due to sources other than the food, such as outdoor water sources. “Dogs exposed to outdoor water sources have an increased risk of shedding C. upsaliensis .”
“This study shows that RMBDs can contain zoonotic pathogens that can be a health hazard both to pets and in-contact humans; however, a clear link between feeding RMBDs and infections in pets and pet owners still remains mostly unclear. As feeding RMBDs gains popularity, the potential risks should be reviewed, and lists of precautions and typical disease symptoms should be made available to dog owners feeding their pets RMBDs. However, consumers should handle all dog food products carefully, being mindful of their potential risks to human and animal health. Several outbreaks of human Salmonella infections have been caused by contaminated dry dog foods [41–43].”
We agree - hence we have many information articles about hygiene, our welcome pack include a list of do's and don't, and we advocate responsible fooding practices.
The Conclusion states:
“Zoonotic meat-borne bacteria—such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and enteropathogenic Yersinia—were only sporadically detected in RMBDs by PCR. These pathogens were not found by culturing, indicating a low contamination level in frozen commercial RMBDs produced in Finland. C. upsaliensis was a common finding in dogs irrespective of feeding RMBDs or dry pellets. Salmonella and enteropathogenic Yersinia were detected only in dogs fed RMBDs; however, the infection source and transmission routes remained unclear. Y. enterocolitica bioserotype 4/O:3 and Salmonella were probably transmitted from contaminated RMBDs to the indoor cats but not C. helveticus. However, the indoor cats shed C. helveticus in their feces for months. The practice of feeding raw meat to dogs and cats may increase the potential transmission risk of meat-borne pathogens to people. Pet owners, especially individuals at increased risk for infectious diseases (small children, old people, and immunocompromised individuals), should be aware of the safety risks of feeding RMBDs. Attention should particularly be paid to storage and handling of raw meat. RMBDs should be kept frozen until use.”
Managing Risk Associated with Raw Food
Not just the supreme pet cuisine we supply, but also your own! Keep in mind that there are always three sides to a story – his, hers and the truth.
- Purchase raw meat or meals from unregistered vendors or manufacturers;
- Do not feed 4D meat sources to your fur kids (diseased, decayed, dead or dying);
- Do not let your pet lick around your mouth and face after eating;
- Do not let your pet lick any of your open wounds or areas with broken skin;
- Do not use your pet’s feeding bowl to scoop food. Use a clean, dedicated scoop, spoon, or cup;
- Do not thaw the packs in the clear in your fridge – use glass bowl with lid - when thawing frozen raw meat, fish and poultry, put the food on the lowest shelf to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods;
- Use plastic feeding bowls when fooding raw;
- Reciprocate in your dogs' greeting routines, so no licking and sniffing;
- Use your frozen pet cuisine to drum up afternoon pate spread for visitors;
Prevent cross contamination when handling, preparing, and serving food, by washing your hands and surfaces thoroughly after handling raw pet food.
- Wash your hands with soap and water right after handling any raw pet food;
- Clean and disinfect all surfaces that the raw food touched, like countertops, microwaves, refrigerators and objects like knives, forks, and bowls.
Safely store and handle raw pet food.
- Keep raw pet food away from other food in your refrigerator or freezer;
- Freeze raw pet food until you are ready to use it;
- Do not thaw frozen raw pet foods on a countertop or in a sink;
- Throw away any food your pet does not eat.
Use separate cutting boards for meat and produce. Alternatively, prepare produce first, then meat.
Wash and rinse cutting board, knives, and preparation area after cutting raw meat, fish or poultry. These items can be sanitized after cleaning.
If you do play with your pet after they have just eaten, wash your hands, and any other parts of your body they licked, with soap and water.
CHILL foods promptly. Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Cold air must circulate to help keep food safe, so do not over fill the refrigerator. Maintain the refrigerator temperature at 5 deg Celsius or below. Place an appliance thermometer in the rear portion of the refrigerator, and monitor regularly. Maintain the freezer temperature at -18 deg Celsius or below.
- Refrigerate and/or freeze meat, poultry, eggs and other perishables as soon as possible after purchasing, yours and your fur kids;
- Consider using a cooler with ice or gel packs to transport perishable food;
- Perishable foods, such as cut fresh fruits or vegetables and cooked food should not sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer (one hour when the temperature is above 32 deg Celsius) , yours and your fur kids;
- There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked (yours) or fed (your fur kids) immediately;
- Submerging the food in cold water. It is important to place the food in a bag that will prevent the water from entering. Check the water every 30 minutes to make sure it is cold. Cook food prior to refreezing (yours). DO NOT refreeze your fur kids’ food if you thawed this way – it must be fed immediately;
- Microwave thawing. Cook food immediately once thawed because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process. Cook food prior to refreezing (only applicable to your food). We DO NOT recommend thawing pet cuisine using a microwave;
- Cool leftovers quickly by dividing large amounts into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator (your food). There will be none left of your fur kids’ food if you are fooding them on our superlicious, frozen pet cuisine!