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Posted on Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 6 a.m.

Irradiation now being explored as a culprit in pet deaths linked to chicken jerky treats

By Lorrie Shaw


flickr photo by andyarthur

The Food and Drug Administration officials have issued the first summary of reports of pet deaths linked to chicken jerky treats since 2010, and a telling statement will cause pet owners to take notice if previous cautions from the organization haven't created some doubt in their minds as to the safety of the treats, imported from China.

Claims of illnesses tied to the products have topped 2,200, officials indicate.

So far, about 360 dogs are thought to have died as a direct result of eating the chicken jerky, as well as one cat.

Citing the online report:

The FDA is reminding pet owners that jerky pet treats are not necessary for pets to have a fully balanced diet, so eliminating them will not harm pets. Commercially produced pet food, which is very safe, contains all of the nutrients that pets need.

You'll remember that in March, I reported that the The Food and Drug Administration had cautioned pet owners about feeding chicken jerky, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association had voiced some concern about feeding the treats imported from China to dogs after pet owners and veterinarians reported illnesses likened to Fanconi syndrome and even death after eating them.

Fanconi syndrome causes kidney dysfunction, and results in different complications, which should be taken seriously.

After years of testing, the FDA is still having a hard time honing in on what is killing pets when it comes to these treats.

The agency's standard protocol is to test for bacterial contamination, mold and chemicals like those used in antifreeze, resins and plastics. Heavy metals are on their list of things to test for, as well as melamine and melamine analogs that were detected in pet foods that caused illness and death in thousands of animals in 2007 (the catalyst for the largest pet food recall in history).

But now an interesting — and unusual — theory that may shed some light on the mystery is being explored.

The FDA is seeking the expertise of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to talk about the possibility of irradiation being the culprit in the pet deaths. NASA has studied the effects of irradiated food.

Irradiation is nothing new to the human and pet food industry. The practice is used to eliminate pathogens and microbes and to control spoilage, and varying levels of irradiation are used for different foods.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, foods for human consumption are limited to 1 kiloGray (kGy) for fresh foods and 3 kGy for fresh shell eggs (to eliminate Salmonella) and poultry. Frozen, uncooked meats have a higher limit, which is 7 kGy. Frozen packaged meats for astronauts can be irradiated at levels up to 44 kGy.

Regulations in this country allow pet food and treats to be treated up to a maximum of 50 kGy.

By all accounts the practice is deemed safe and even necessary to stave off foodborne illness.

Interestingly, the Australian government banned the use of irradiation in pet food in 2009 after a number of cats died or were sickened after eating irradiated cat food. According to Veterinary Information Network, these cats suffered neurological damage after consuming the food over a period of months.

As more information on this very perplexing issue becomes available, rest assured that we will have updates here on the pets section.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Connect with her on Google + or e-mail her directly.


Ken Bryant

Fri, Sep 21, 2012 : 1 a.m.

If you're looking for a Safe, REAL 'American Made' chicken jerky for dogs or cats, we started making our own Chicken Jerky after we ran across the FDA warning of 2008 about Chinese chicken treats making dogs sick or killing them. It turned into a cottage "Mom & Pop" business and we now sell our TriPom Chews online and in 20 stores in the New England area. Our products are homemade, hand made, 'Maine Made', 'American Made' chicken jerky produced from whole, restaurant-quality chicken breasts containing NO Additives and NO Preservatives. Our 3 Pomeranians (our babies) taste test every batch for quality. We were recognized by DownEast Magazine, a national publication, in their 'Best of Maine' edition in July 2012.


Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 10:22 p.m.

VERY interesting article, Lorrie. I have never fed jerky of any kind to my dog, or any pet I've owned. So, this isn't really pertinent to Bree and I....but it does make one want to investigate it further. Thanks, once again, for helping us all keep our pets safe. You are an treasure.

Sarah Rigg

Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

I'm pretty skeptical about the Australia incident. Further reading here: Excerpt: The cause of the illnesses was never fully identified, but the manufacturer of the tainted pet food put the blame for the cats' illnesses on the irradiation process. However, **all pet food imported into Australia is either heated or irradiated, and the malady was linked to one specific lot of cat food from one specific brand. No illness was associated with other brands of irradiated cat food or even with previously irradiated batches of the same brand of cat food.** The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that the problem was specific to the lot, not the irradiation process.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 2:13 p.m.

Sarah: True, but one thing that is important to remember is that the food in question is one that contains very high concentrations of meat/fish, and thus, may be subject to a higher rate of irradiation than others. (I'm hypothesizing about that; in looking at the differing rates that are used between fresh foods, eggs and meats - meats get the highest dose of kiloGrays.) Animals are more susceptable to so many things... chemicals, medications, foods, so why not irradiation. Further, all species are not created equal. As I understand it, these cats were fed the formula of pet food over the course of a few months each - it wasn't just one lot. I've purchased the brand before and it's good. I can tell you that it is indeed fresh, the smell of the formula was indeed "fresh smelling" - bordering on overpowering - unlike other pet food products that do not contain nearly the amount of whole meat/fish. (What I'm getting at is, yes, plenty of pet food brands do employ irradiation, but are pet food products that have the ingredient profile that are higher in whole meat/fish treated at a higher rate of kiloGray? Maybe. And over the long term, that could explain a lot.) Thanks for posting that link. That really offers more to the conversation.


Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 11:20 a.m.

Lorrie Shaw: Irradiation, like any method used to purify, decontaminate or remove microbial growth is only useful if used with extreme caution in a controlled environment. It is very scary to think that irradiation, in the wrong or unskilled hands, might be used without strict discipline, perhaps in lethal doses, putting our pets in extreme danger of sickness or death. Since the improper use of radiation is potentially the "invisible enemy" to people and their pets, please continue your journalistic awareness on this subject. You may have saved the lives of my two dogs already. Jim D, Royal Oak, MI


Wed, Sep 19, 2012 : 2:38 p.m.

You have a fundamental misapprehension: The radiation (low-energy X-rays) is absorbed or passes through. There is no radioactivity as a result of irradiation.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 1:53 p.m.

Thanks, Jim. Considering that animals are more profoundly affected by chemicals, medications, foods and the like, irradiation may be something else that the FDA might need to have a second look at when it comes to pet consumables. Thanks for reading!


Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 11:19 a.m.

Point to a single mechanism within irradiation that could sicken a creature. Have someone with a science degree help you if needed. Occum's Razor - something far simpler is going on here.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Sep 18, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

M: Indeed, the facts demonstrate some very distinct, simplistic possibilities associated with this topic. One doesn't need a degree in science to understand that (and I pointed out), differing levels of irradiation are applied to various foodstuffs. Pet consumables can be irradiated up to 50 kGy, a rate that is much higher than the food that we humans eat, save for astronauts. Which pet products are those? That's not clear. But in looking at the rates, raw meats are irradiated at the highest rates, so one might deduce that chicken jerky for pets would fall into that category as well. So far, the FDA has looked at other avenues and now they are seeking some possible answers from the experts. I think that's the prudent thing to do. What we do know is that animals of all species metabolize things differently than humans do, and comparatively, canines and felines are far different from each other. Typically, animals are more profoundly affected by chemicals, medications, specific foods, etc. Irradiation may turn out to be something else that can be added to that list. Thanks for your comment!