AVMA proposed stance on raw diets draws critics

Group stresses that policy — not law — is up for consideration today

August 2, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Louisa Johnson
Owners who feed raw meat to their pets are railing against proposed AVMA policy that advocates against such diets due to public health concerns.
VOTING UPDATE: The House of Delegates defeated the resolution in question but passed an amended version of the policy that replaced "never feed" with "avoid feeding."

Policy drafted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has fired up proponents of raw diets as the national group mulls whether to formally oppose feeding uncooked meats to pets.

This afternoon, the AVMA House of Delegates — the association’s primary policy-making body — is expected to publicly debate a resolution titled  Policy on raw or undercooked animal-source protein in cat and dog diets." Delegates from nearly every state and 16 allied organizations are gathered for the House’s biannual meeting in San Diego, where they're likely to vote on the raw meat policy in addition to other unrelated business.

"The AVMA discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans,” states the resolution, submitted to the House by the AVMA Executive Board. “Cooking or pasteurization through the application of heat until the protein reaches an internal temperature adequate to destroy pathogenic organisms has been the traditional method used to eliminate pathogens in animal-source protein, although the AVMA recognizes that newer technologies and other methods such as irradiation are constantly being developed and implemented.”

The resolution references several peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that "raw or undercooked animal-source protein may be contaminated with a variety of pathogenic organisms, including Salmonella spp, Campylobacter spp, Clostridium spp, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus. Cats and dogs may develop foodborne illness after being fed animal-source protein contaminated with these organisms if adequate steps are not taken to eliminate pathogens; secondary transmission of these pathogens to humans (pet owners) has also been reported."

That language reflects more than a year of study by the AVMA Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine, a 10-member group of veterinarians that was alerted to public health concerns tied to the feeding and handling of raw diets by the AVMA Welfare Division and the Delta Society, a non-profit that trains therapy animals and refuses to work with those fed raw meat diets. (Delta Society has since been renamed Pet Partners.)

But the backlash over the proposed policy extends beyond potential public health issues. With raw meat diets increasing in popularity among pet owners and recalls tied to manufactured kibble becoming more commonplace, opponents of commercially prepared sources of food for their pets are fervent. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 49 people in the United States and Canada had been infected with Salmonella Infantis after handling contaminated dry dog food produced by Diamond Pet Foods.

On the AVMA's Facebook page, news of the proposed policy attracted dozens of critics. I understand your statement that this is policy for what vets will recommend — not government policy, but it's only a small step for lobbyists to use your policy to get legislation pushed through. Every time I turn around, I'm reading about a pet food recall, so why don't you have a policy against feeding that?” asked Wendy Lovas, a commenter.

Sonny Piccirillo, another commenter, added: "I hear that the pet food manufacturers fund veterinary schools. Conflict of interest?"

public outcry prompted AVMA officials to blog in the group's defense.

First of all, this proposed policy would be an AVMA policy if approved, not state or federal law,” the AVMA explained in a July 18 post. “The AVMA cannot, and will not, regulate what pet owners choose to feed their pets. If you already feed raw food to your pet, that’s your choice. This proposed policy is about mitigating public health risks, not about restricting or banning any products.”

The post concluded with a warning: "We realize that this issue is controversial. You are free to express your opinion, but please be aware that comments that are offensive, abusive, profane or personal attacks will be removed."

Of the 1,072 replies that followed, at least one respondent noted that the AVMA isn't attacking the nutritional merits of raw diets but merely reminding owners that raw meat must be handled with care.

"I have not seen one post on here where anyone is arguing that raw diets are not nutritionally appropriate or provide health benefits," wrote Jake Dalton, RN, MPH. "The policy is intended to raise awareness about the potential risk of disease associated with feeding raw food — just like there is a risk from handling raw food which is why there has been greater awareness about proper food handling in the kitchen."

On the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, some said they would like to see the AVMA take a step back to focus on the handling of all pet foods. 

"Before we take a stance on anything, I'd like the AVMA to go beyond raw foods because there's almost a constant barrage of recalls on commercial kibble," said Dr. Maren Bell Jones, a practitioner in Columbia, Mo. "We can't treat kibble like it's sterile. If we're going at this from a public health standpoint, we need to look at that, too."


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