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On the Shiba Inu Forum, Nicole/Saya pointed out a recent news story on commercial raw dog food. Coming out of WCCO in Minneapolis, Jamie Yuccas reports on “Pros & Cons To The Raw Pet Food Diet: Is It Worth It?” Interviewed were Liz Cummiskey of a Twin Cities-based holistic pet food store, Woody’s Pet Food Deli, Dr. Julie Churchill from the department of Veterinary Clinical Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, and a pug owner rather condescendingly described as a “believer” of raw diets. Crudely polarizing the salespeople against the scientists, the report basically gave Dr. Churchill the last word, coming down against raw diets by ridiculing the costs, hyping potential risks, and dismissing anecdotal claims made by proponents.

Now, I understand that personal observations only go so far, and there are very compelling reasons for many pet owners to not feed raw. However, it drives me batty when journalists fall back on any type of authority without properly contextualizing what is presented as fact, just focusing on who says what they want to use as news. This is true in any venue in which “expert” testimony is solicited, but even more frustrating when it comes to scientific reporting in mainstream media — precisely because I’m not a scientist and need others to filter information for me in an accountable manner.

This is exactly what we expect journalists to do, so it’s maddening when the task is carried out so sloppily. Take, for example, the presentation of this “factoid” from the news report:

In a recent University of Minnesota study, the department looked at 60 raw meat diets available at stores in the Twin Cities. Seven percent of them tested positive for salmonella.

All sorts of alarms clang when I read statistics framed in such a vague context. First of all, the University of Minnesota is a large research university with many departments — which department conducted the study? What is the title of the report? Where was it published? Who funded it? How did they select the samples for testing? What brands? How did they handle the samples? Did they bother trying to trace the source of the contamination, or is the mere presence of Salmonella meant to be damning in and of itself?

Bowpi looking cute and round-eyed for dinner

Curious about details, I looked up the study. Not too hard to find, though it would have been nice if the report had been cited to begin with.

  • Mehlenbacher, Shelley, Julie Churchill, et. al, “Availability, Brands, Labelling and Salmonella Contamination of Raw Pet Food in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Area,” Zoonoses Public Health 59.7 (November 2012):513-20.
    Abstract at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22551080

The study looked at 60 different types of raw dog food from eleven different unnamed brands, including frozen, dehydrated, and freeze-dried varieties. Five unnamed kibble brands were tested as well. Though the samples were anonymized, a table was included comparing the first five ingredients, so it’s not too difficult to figure out that they appear to have sampled all the major, nationally-available brands, and probably some regional ones that I’m not familiar with.

The way that the study is being used to foment paranoia about raw dog food is problematic to me. Here are a couple details that I find interesting enough to highlight:

    “The 2010 Food Safety and Inspection Service progress report on Salmonella testing of raw meat and poultry products sold in retail stores indicated the Salmonella prevalence was 18.8% in ground chicken, 10.2% in ground turkey, 6.7% in broiler chickens, 4.6% in turkeys, 2.4% in market hogs and 2.2% in ground beef (United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, 2010). A 2009 Consumer Reports study indicated that the prevalence of Salmonella contamination between store-bought organic and non-organic brands was similar and ranged from 6% to 29% (Consumer Reports, 2010).” (p. 514)

In other words, by their own review of findings, the presence of Salmonella in 7% (four out of 60 samples) of commercially available raw dog foods falls within the low end of the TYPICAL amount of Salmonella found in grocery store meat fed for human consumption. If this information is remarkable at all, it should be pointed out that this is actually on the low side of the spectrum, especially given the conditions under which the meat was prepped for this study.

See, here’s the funniest segment to me (because I always go to public health journals for light comedy…):

    “Products were purchased, placed in a cooler and transported to the University of Minnesota and stored according to package instructions until processed. For [lab] processing, frozen diets were thawed at room temperature in original packaging for 12–16 h.” (p. 515, emphasis mine)

Wait, what? This was allowed to pass as appropriate procedure? You know, a long time ago, I worked at a food safety testing laboratory… No doubt the lab’s clients, which included several national restaurant chains, would have terminated their contracts and charged us with rigging the results if we had thawed their frozen hamburger patties by this protocol!

Now, I understand that the study is geared in part towards their final recommendation that proper handling guidelines need to be added to raw pet food packages. But honestly, that information is just as accessible as how to handle raw meat for human consumption. Is a consumer safety sticker saying “HEY! RAW MEAT IS RAW!” really going to protect the clueless??

When I thaw frozen meat for myself or for the dogs, I know to do it overnight in the refrigerator, or not more than a couple hours at room temperature and ideally submerged in cold water. Perhaps I am being too generous in assuming this is basic information that any cook already knows. It seems, however, that this study was designed by someone playing dumb in order to promote the growth of all sorts of icky germs…

Thus, it’s no surprise to me that the four samples that DID test positive for Salmonella were indeed frozen raw products, which were thawed out using the process described above. “It was interesting to note,” the report reads, “that Salmonella was not recovered from the processed samples, perhaps warranting further research into the use of processing methods such as HPP or freeze-drying for the prevention of bacterial contamination” (p. 518). Let me put it another way: it’s interesting to note just how safe raw dog food may actually be if properly handled in the first place, because the way I see it, the problem isn’t with the diet itself, but the way the researchers prepped it for the purposes of conforming to their own agenda.

A note to future veterinary nutritionists designing and writing up these types of studies: You might do better negotiating the “belief structures surrounding this practice” (p. 514) of raw feeding if you started by acknowledging the existence of your own. When experiments seem designed, for example, to suggest that raw feeders are idiots, it’s no wonder they provoke an irate, defensive response…

Bowdu's dinner