CLEVELAND - Could the dog treats in your pantry make your dog sick or kill it? It's a question the Food and Drug Administration is trying to answer, but still can't after five years of investigating jerky treats made in China.
Treats, including jerky, are the fastest growing segment in the pet food industry. The FDA issued several warnings about the popular treats, but stopped short of a recall, which outraged some pet owners. The FDA said it won't issue a recall until it finds a contaminant, so you can still buy the treats in the store.
The Five on Your Side consumer investigative team looked through the FDA's files to see what's being done as some experts say the government has the power to do more.
Mary Markim smiles every time she hears her barking dogs, but wonders if it will last.
"I am very concerned because I don't know tomorrow if she is going to be here and I am trying everything I can to save her," Markim said.
Markim said all four of her dogs became sick after eating chicken jerky treats from China. Three recovered. Her dog, Chelsea, is still struggling.
"Tests show the pancreas is not functioning properly," Markim said.
FDA releases documents related to its investigation
More than 2,000 people complained to the Food and Drug Administration in the last five years. In just the last 18 months, 360 dogs and one cat were reported dead.
The agency released a few hundred of the complaints that were received by FDA's District Consumer Complaint Coordinators between Jan. 1, 2007 and July 2, 2012. The incomplete list does not include reports received through the FDA's electronic Safety Reporting Portal. Click here to report a Pet Food Safety Complaint to the FDA .
Dog owners report vomiting, lost kidney function and lethargy. While the released list is incomplete, Waggin' Train had the most complaints. Milo's Kitchen and Kingdom Pets were also listed repeatedly. All three companies said their treats are safe, and some have even done independent testing.
Waggin Train has an extensive FAQ on its website and even released video from inside its Chinese plant . The company said it has a comprehensive food safety program to ensure safety, and its production facilities are designed and operated to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.
Kingdom Pets said its treats are 100 percent safe and released independent test results to prove the safety record. The company said more than 700 million treats have been sold and not one sample tested positive for a known contaminant. All batches are tested at an independent laboratory in Tennessee.
Milo's Kitchen notes that there hasn't been a link found between the reported illnesses and the treats. The company said it also does extensive internal testing and to date, a link has not been found. The treats go through a detailed 17-step safety process and the treat must pass quality testing at every phase. The company said it sells its original product with confidence.
Vet said this is different than 2007 pet food recall
"You have complaints and no proof, and people are running scared," said Northfield Veterinarian David Koncal, DVM.
Koncal is a Board Member with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association . He feels consumers are scared because so many animals got sick or died during a recall of the melamine contaminated pet food in 2007. That recall had ties to China.
But, Koncal said this situation is different. He treated three dogs in 2007 and he hasn't seen any this time.
"The cases are few and far between. Nobody can pinpoint what might be happening here," Koncal said.
The FDA hasn't been able to figure it out after five years of testing and a visit to China. The government inspected five Chinese plants, but won't say which brands are made at those plants.
The FDA found falsified documents at one plant. The government said they were related to an ingredient in the jerky pet treats. As a result, the Chinese authority seized products at that firm and suspended exports of its products.
The FDA also found equipment issues at other plants, that were later fixed.
The fifth inspection report was not released.
The FDA tried to take samples back to the United States for testing, but the Chinese government wouldn't allow it.
Click the links below for more on the inspection reports:
FDA Inspection Report from Shandong Honva Food Co - China
FDA Inspection Report from Gambol Pet Products Co - China
FDA Inspection Report from Jinan Uniwell Pet Food Co - China
FDA Inspection Report from Shandong Petswell Food Co - China
Watchdog group wants more from FDA
The watchdog group,
Food and Water Watch , believes the FDA should do more. We asked senior lobbyist, Tony Corbo, what he believes is behind this issue.
"I really think it's our trade relationship with China," Corbo said.
Since 2003, the Chinese have been trying to send poultry products to the U.S. for human consumption. Congress and the USDA blocked those imports over food safety concerns.
Since then, we've seen an 85 fold increase in pet food exports including chicken jerky. The FDA said one reason for the dramatic increase in importation is because the Chinese typically eat only the dark meat. Therefore there is an excess amount of light meat poultry available in China.
"The Chinese figured out the FDA does not have the same regulatory apparatus to assess the safety of pet food so the Chinese have essentially taken their chicken meat and turned it into pet food," Corbo said.
Food and Water Watch feels so strongly about this connection it's become involved in the pet food issue, even though traditionally the agency's focus is human food safety.
"I want them stopped at the border," Corbo said.
Cleveland grassroots effort
Groups are pushing for change in Washington and on the streets of Cleveland.
"We're trying to get them off our shelves. That's our goal," Terry Safranek said.
Safranek said she believes the treats killed her dog, Sampson. In his memory, she fills store shelves with business cards that warn pet owners of the danger. She's also connecting with other pet owners online, hoping the power of social media will lead to action.
Safranek has an online petition that more than 72,000 people signed asking the manufacturers to take action. Another one with more than 70,000 signatures asks the treats be removed from store shelves. A third petition asks for a ban of the treats.
Retailers are not even required to post the FDA warnings.
"The companies are not not forced to recall them, but you can take them off the shelves, you can choose not to sell them, or you can choose to give people the choice," Safranek said.
FDA investigation continues
The FDA said if you feed your dog jerky treats, make sure you do so in combination with a healthy and balanced diet.
It continues to investigate, and will tap into the scientific knowledge of NASA to try to figure out why there have been so many complaints.
Click here to read about the signs of the illness in your pet from the FDA: http://5.wews.com/fhAzo