The government on Friday moved to protect America's pets by proposing tougher rules for how their food is manufactured.
The new Food and Drug Administration regulations would establish production guidelines to help prevent harmful bacteria and other contaminants from tainting pet food and animal feed. The aim is to reduce food-borne illness that could harm people as well as animals.
The announcement comes as the FDA continues to grapple with a widespread outbreak of illness linked to imported jerky treats. About 3,600 dogs and even a few cats have been sickened since 2007 after eating the Chinese-made products; nearly 600 pets have died.
The agency has yet to determine the exact cause of the illnesses. But reports of sickness have declined dramatically since a recall was issued for some name-brand treats.
The FDA says the proposed rules will give its inspectors more power to crack down on offenders during the manufacturing process rather than waiting for contaminated products to reach market.
"This is a critical shift from the past," said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. "We [currently] take evidence and go to court and persuade the court to act."
The proposed rules would give the FDA "tools that permit us to act directly to detain products and suspend a facility," he said.
The agency can also restrict imports from overseas suppliers found violating the rules.
FDA officials say the new regulations would help prevent recurrences of outbreaks like the 2007 melamine scandal in which a chemical used to make plastic was added to pet food produced in China, killing and sickening thousands of pets across the U.S.
Tainted pet food can also sicken humans through cross-contamination. Last year, 30,000 tons of dry dog and cat food were recalled because of a salmonella outbreak linked to a production facility in Gaston, S.C. Nearly 50 people were reportedly sickened in 20 states.
The proposed rules stem from the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, which placed a greater onus on food producers, both domestic and foreign, to implement safety plans. The FDA's goal is to shift from a reactive to preventive stance when it comes to food safety.
The FDA said the new regulations would require facilities producing animal food to produce written plans identifying hazards, steps to minimize or prevent those hazards and steps to correct problems after they arise.
If the measures are implemented, the FDA's Taylor said, the agency would be able to check a factory's records to ensure products such as canned dog food were heated correctly to reduce bacterial contamination. In addition, Taylor said the FDA would inform producers that their food must be nutritionally balanced.
Taylor said the rules do not address the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed, which have been blamed for increasing instances of antibiotic resistance.
The proposal is open to public comment the next 120 days before taking effect. The FDA said compliance would cost the industry an estimated $130 million.
Both the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals applauded the proposal for applying tougher standards to animal food.
"The ASPCA supports the idea of providing additional regulation around the production of pet food," the group said in a statement. "Pet owners expect that products sold in the US will be safe and nutritionally balanced for their pets."
Debbie Phillips, editor in chief of Petfood Industry, a trade publication, said most leading manufacturers had prepared for the new regulations and already have safety measures in place.
Phillips said the industry has reduced its sourcing from China since the 2007 melamine controversy because of the public outcry and consumer demands for alternative sources of pet food.
"There's very little pet food from China anymore," Phillips said. "Not that there isn't any, but it's declined quite a bit. I think the involvement of the FDA working actively with entities in China is helping keep the remaining food safe. It's not fool-proof, considering the current jerky problem."
China is still the nation's leading foreign supplier of pet food, accounting for nearly half of the $691 million imported last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That's a fraction of the total U.S. retail pet food market, which amounted to $19.7 billion last year, according to market research firm Mintel.
The three largest producers include Nestle, which carries the Purina brand; Del Monte Foods, whose brands include Meow Mix and Kibbles 'n Bits; and Mars Inc., which makes Pedigree, Whiskas and Royal Canin.
Del Monte Foods said it welcomed the proposed rules and was already implementing similar protocols.
"These standards represent a fundamental shift in pet food safety standards, will raise the bar across the entire pet industry and ultimately ensure what's best for pets' health and safety," said Mike Hayes, director of food safety and quality at Del Monte Foods. "We'll be reviewing the proposed rules in detail over the coming weeks, but believe that we are already in a strong position to meet or exceed them."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun