Have you ever picked an apple, had a bite of sushi, crunched a nut or chewed a freshly gathered green? Would you be surprised to learn this goes against your doctor’s recommendations? These forms of food must be cleansed, processed or otherwise purified to ensure your safety. Sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it?
This appears to be the message the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has endorsed regarding raw diets for pets.
AVMA’s raw feeding policy
AVMA adopted a resolution recently that discourages the feeding of raw diets to pets. The decision is sparking controversy among pet owners who feel the policy is misguided at best and conspiratorial at worst. What has AVMA truly done?
In the interest of full disclosure, I am an advocate for raw feeding. I believe it is one of the best ways to feed your pet, although it is not appropriate in all situations. If you choose to feed raw, there are certain precautions that should be taken.
AVMA’s policy appears to go further than this. To its credit, the policy raises the issue of potential contamination from improperly handled raw pet food. This is a real concern. Raw food should be handled differently from kibble from preparation to cleanup.
The policy endorses the practice of “cooking or pasteurization through the application of heat until the protein reaches an internal temperature adequate to destroy pathogenic organisms”. In other words, the food must be treated in such a way to kill beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and other nutrients in the interest of safety.
Why kill the good when the bad can be managed?
When we prepare our meals, common sense tells us to use certain sanitary practices. We wash our fruit to remove dirt and residue. We’re told to wash meat preparation surfaces and cutting utensils in hot, soapy water. Why should an approach to pet food be any different?
It is encouraging that a veterinary association has moved the debate forward. We can now intelligently begin a different conversation. No longer is the discussion distracted by the fictional argument that salmonella and other bacteria contained in raw food are harmful to our pets. That is rarely the case, since our pets’ digestive system is designed to handle these pathogens.
Where is the true danger?
The most recent supporting study cited by AVMA is dated 2006. This article details cases of illness resulting from ingestion and handling of pet treats, primarily pig ears, rather than raw food. It correctly documents the presence of salmonella in uncooked foods, and in droppings from pets who consume that food. Even so, it concludes “The risk to human health posed by the handling and feeding of pet treats and raw food diets remains unquantified.” It then calls for further study.
Much has changed in the pet food world since 2006. What has not changed is the relative low number of pets sickened by raw food, and the high number or pets and people made ill or killed by processed pet products.
The danger is to us, not our pets
AVMA correctly reminds us that there are dangers associated with raw feeding. What’s being lost in this discussion is that the dangers are primarily to us, not to our pets. The policy references a collection of studies which support this point.
Contrast that to the number of recalls issued by dry pet food manufacturers. Compare the results of the studies cited with the number of people, and pets, who have been sickened or died as a result of contaminated kibble.
This is not to say that there is no danger presented from handling or preparing raw food. Unquestionably, there is. But as human beings, common sense tells us to use precautions when handling raw food. We’re not as likely to take similar precautions when handling pet treats or kibble.
Is this an endorsement for a raw food ban?
While much of the controversy insists that the newly passed resolution is a proposed ban on raw pet food, AVMA states on their website:
Please keep in mind that this policy is NOT a ban on raw foods for pets and it is not a regulation that requires veterinarians (regardless of whether they’re AVMA members or not) to comply, or even agree with it. It’s not a debate on the healthiness of or risks associated with raw foods versus other commercial pet foods. Nor is it an attempt to force a ban or restrict pet owners’ rights to feed their pets how and what they want.”
AVMA is fully aware the resolution is controversial. It is an attempt to address a concern that was brought to their attention “in the interest of public safety.”
The whole story should be told
Unfortunately, AVMA’s policy goes a step too far. By concentrating solely on minimizing the risk to humans, it overlooks the benefits that raw diets offer our pets. It also misses an opportunity to raise awareness of similar safety concerns related to processed products.
Proper preparation, handling and cleanup are indeed critical parts for safely feeding raw food. The same holds true for processed products. Processed pet treats and kibble are far more common than raw pet foods. Processed pet products are a multi-billion dollar industry.
Raw pet food comprises a growing, but miniscule share of that total. As more of the larger manufacturers jump into the raw market, awareness will grow. This is a perfect opportunity to educate those who begin to feed raw on the importance of safe handling techniques.
Pet owners who choose to feed raw should be educated about feeding safety from a perspective of health, rather than fear. The nutritional benefits of raw feeding are real. Studies now exist which support this, and more are underway. It’s unfortunate that AVMA’s policy overlooks this in its narrow focus on human health.