Every pet parent wants their dogs, cats, and other animals to eat healthy food. Yet there are a number of contaminants that can make pets sick and their humans as well. The pet food industry understands this, so manufacturers go to great lengths to produce safe pet food. Safety standards have also been legislated to ensure pets aren’t poisoned by the food they eat and that the foods they eat also contain sufficient nutrients. Complying with pet food safety regulations encompasses an array of processes that involve raw materials, equipment, packaging, storage and logistics. To ensure pet food safety, standards for pet food processing must address the entire production process and beyond, from the sourcing of ingredients all the way to a pet’s food dish.
Maintaining Compliance with Pet Food Safety Regulations
The U.S. legislation that helps those involved in the industry maintain pet food safety standards is known as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which is responsible for the safe and proper processing of food for both animals and humans. This act is overseen by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which specifies required standards for pet food, via its Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM).
For pet food, safety standards ensure that pet food is:
- Appropriately and factually labeled
- Free of toxins and other dangerous substances
- Produced in a clean and sterilized environment
- Safe for consumption
Risks to Pet Food Safety
There are three types of hazards that can occur when manufacturing pet food. Safety regulations applied by the CVM to the pet food processing industry deal with risks from biological, chemical, and physical sources. To best prevent dangerous toxins or other contaminants from tainting pet food, safety standards must be followed consistently in the facilities where pet food is made. Preventing contaminants from ruining ingredients or even the finished products during and after processing entails following rigorous pet food safety regulations.
Various hazardous biological substances can contaminate pet food so safety standards look to eliminate the risk from both bacterial and viral pathogens. Though fungal contamination can also occur, the danger is due to the chemicals the fungi produce, so these concerns are addressed as biochemical contaminants. The CVM monitors for microorganisms that can pose a danger to an animal’s health should they consume contaminated pet food. Safety standards also protect humans from direct exposure to disease-causing microbes within the food and from the waste produced by a pet who eats contaminated food.
The most common biological contaminants occurring during pet food processing include:
- Listeria monocytogenes: A bacteria that can cause flu-like symptoms or mimic a meningitis infection. It is particularly resilient as it is able to withstand salty and acidic conditions, a wide temperature range, and low-moisture environments. Capable of persisting for years in processing facilities, listeria is often introduced via dairy products that are not pasteurized, raw meat, seafood that’s either raw or smoked, and various refrigerated foods.
- Pathogenic Escherichia coli: Known by its abbreviated name E. Coli, these bacteria cause foodborne illnesses in both animals and people.
- Salmonella: These bacteria can cause food poisoning by infecting animals that consume the infected pet food. Safety standards should be in place to protect humans from being infected by safely handling contaminated food, as well as infected animals and their bodily waste. Occurring primarily in products containing meat or poultry, salmonella can contaminate ingredients and the production facility’s equipment, while inadequate sterilization processes can also result in its spread.
Chemical contamination of pet food covers a range of toxins that occur naturally in specific food ingredients and those produced by microorganisms, along with chemicals used in pesticides and during the manufacturing process. Under the auspices of the Animal Food Contaminants program, the CVM monitors for dioxins, heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, and other chemicals.
Certain fungi like molds produce toxic metabolites called mycotoxins, which sometimes grow on crops in the field or when stored. Environmental factors like humidity, rainfall, and temperature occurring during cultivation, harvest, or storage can promote fungal growth, with the mycotoxins transferred to the end product when infected crops are used in their production.
Mycotoxin poisoning can cause conditions that impair heart, kidney, liver, or neurological functions, leading to serious illness or, in some cases, death. Pet food producers must conduct an analysis to identify such hazards during processing, which includes preventative measures and continuous monitoring. Carcinogenic, as well as toxic, aflatoxins can cause liver damage and liver failure in a pet. Food safety regulations surrounding aflatoxins can also transfer to eggs, meat, and milk, which can potentially expose humans to these dangerous aflatoxins.
Mycotoxins that can affect pets include:
Aflatoxins: Produced specifically by a species of molds known as aspergillus, it grows on grain and seed crops, though it can also infect ingredients while stored after harvest. Highly toxic to both animals and people, the mycotoxins this mold produces varies depending on humidity and temperature.
Deoxynivalenol: Commonly occurring on barley, corn, oats, wheat, and other grains, a mold known as fusarium graminearum can cause a blight in these crops, initiating decomposition in the field. While it can cause symptoms in humans, animals who ingest it experience abdominal pain and vomiting. Domesticated pigs are the most susceptible to this illness.
Fumonisin: These toxins are produced by certain molds within the fusarium genus, which naturally occurs on corn. Though mainly affecting domesticated livestock, it can produce tumors in pet rats that overly consume food contaminated with this toxin. Other animals can develop other health effects including cardiopulmonary failure, kidney failure, and/or neurological effects.
Ochratoxin A: A fungal toxin emanating from molds in the penicillium and aspergillus families, it results from improper storage of barley, corn, rice, sorghum, wheat and other cereals, as well as in peas. Though destroyed when heated sufficiently, it has high heat tolerance and can negatively affect many domesticated animals.
Zearalenone: Growing best in conditions with low temperatures and high humidity, this toxin is produced by a fungus called fusarium graminearum. Though generally not harmful at low levels, with longer term exposure, or when exposed to high levels of the toxin, reproductive disorders can result.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s section 408 allows the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set limits on pesticide residues that can exist on pet food. Safety standards are then enforced by the FDA, with the CVM and other government agencies monitoring pesticide residue to protect animal health. Pollutants like dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) enter the environment due to industrial processes and, though their toxicity varies depending on the substance, some are noted as carcinogenic with long-term exposure even at low levels.
Heavy metals present in the environment and absorbed by the crops can be potentially harmful when these plants are used in pet food. Safety standards used by the FDA include routine testing for heavy metals. Current safety regulations are only applicable to non-essential heavy metals that, though tolerated by animals, may prove dangerous to humans when exposed unintentionally via pets. Other heavy metals are necessary for pets’ immune systems and can provide other positive health aspects.
Physical hazards refer to a broad range of dangerous materials within pet food. Safety regulations seek to prevent substances that can cause physical injuries like choking, dental or other oral damage, and gastrointestinal perforations or lacerations. Additionally, dirt, feces, insects, and other items are also considered physical contaminants, though they can also become a biological hazard as well.
Equipment & Pet Food Safety Regulations
For equipment used to produce pet food, safety standards play an increasingly vital role in preventing and eliminating pathogen growth on surfaces. This includes new designs for conveying equipment that transports ingredients and finished products. Thermal conveyors that heat products while it’s transported help prevent the growth of bacterial colonies and kill off microorganisms to encourage better pet food safety. Standards within a pet food manufacturing facility should also focus on sanitizing surfaces on which products and ingredients are transported.
Enabling greater control over temperatures and thermal treatment times with capabilities to provide greater heat transference over a larger area will help keep equipment better sanitized making for a safer end product. In fact, the newer designs of equipment and systems for handling pet food have safety regulations in mind, making them not only easier to clean but to maintain as well. Industrial equipment typically undergoes either a dry or wet cleaning process, with dry cleaning capabilities used only infrequently with pet food. Safety standards for wet cleaning, however, offer a means to clean in place a conveying system, using swab tests at discharge points and the inlet to verify when it’s sufficiently clean.
Modern machinery that supports pet food safety standards now focuses on:
- Decreasing the number of corners and ledges internally to make cleaning and sanitation easier.
- Minimizing the need for internal access to sanitize and maintain interiors.
- Putting in place support structures that make sanitation standard operating procedures more efficient and limit the need for labor.
- Reducing the need for mechanical bed grids and spreaders.
When it comes to making pet food, safety standards followed by manufacturers include maintaining a vigilant outlook as to the best equipment and system designs available. In this way, pet food processors are constantly searching for new ways to improve and keep their technology current. For example, for drying and other thermal operations like curing, disinfestation and pasteurization of pet food, industrial radio frequency processes are increasingly being used to quickly heat pet food during production.
The Future of Pet Food Safety Standards
As technology advances, so do the ways in which pet food safety standards are met. Like other modern industries, pet food manufacturers are moving towards increasing digitization and automation. When it comes to pet food safety, standards in the digital age will focus on linking automated processes with digital controls to allow greater sharing of information, which will in turn lead to greater efficiency and safer pet food. Safety regulations will no longer depend on paper and the archaic manual systems of the past, as pet food manufacturers use modern technology to take a more proactive approach to pet food safety. Regulations and standards will continue to move the industry towards prevention rather than reaction to any issues regarding pet food safety as a result.