Recalls

Pet food recalls can be scary. They make pet parents worry if their pets’ diets were affected, wonder what to do next, and question whether they should even be feeding commercial pet food. It is extremely important for all pet parents to understand what recalls are, why they happen, and what to do if their pet’s diet has been affected by a recall.

History of pet food recalls

The most historic pet food recall happened in 2007. It involved over 150 pet food companies that sourced plant proteins from two manufacturing plants in China. These ingredients were adulterated with a compound called melamine, which is not an approved food additive. Melamine and related compounds can cause kidney failure and death in pets; contaminated foods caused illness or death in thousands of pets in the US. The melamine recall was a tragedy, but it helped lead to many of the pet food regulations we have today.

What is a recall?

Recalls affect both pet and human foods. Most commonly, pet owners hear about recalled pet diets or treats. A pet food recall happens when an issue is identified with a particular pet food item, and that product is taken off the market. Per the FDA, “when an FDA-regulated product is either defective or potentially harmful, recalling that product ... is the most effective means for protecting the public.”

Classes of recalls

There are different categories of recalls, each denoting how serious the recall is.

Class I

“Dangerous or defective products that predictably could cause serious health problems or death.”

For example:

  • Pet foods contaminated with Salmonella, Listeria, or Clostridium botulinum → these bacteria pose severe public health risks

  • Pet foods mistakenly containing toxic levels of certain nutrients → can cause harm or death

  • Pet foods with other toxins present in the food

Class II

“Products that might cause a temporary health problem, or pose only a slight threat of a serious nature.”

For example:

  • Pet foods with formulation errors that are non-life threatening

  • Pet foods contaminated with bacterial species that are not on FDA’s zero-tolerance list (the species mentioned above)

  • Pet foods containing foreign objects like plastic or rubber

Class III

“Products that are unlikely to cause any adverse health reaction, but that violate FDA labeling or manufacturing laws.”

For example:

  • Pet foods with defective packaging

  • Pet foods with labels missing necessary elements

How a recall happens

There are three ways a recall can be initiated.

Scenario 1: The company discovers a problem with a product and contacts the FDA

Pet food companies with good quality control find issues with their products before they even hit the shelves, meaning no true recall is issued. Other times, issues are found shortly after the product hits the shelves, meaning few (if any) pets are affected. In these situations, the company usually recalls a few specific batches or lots of food because they know exactly when and where the problem happened. This is a form of a voluntary recall, because the pet food company agrees to issue the recall.

Scenario 2: The FDA inspects a manufacturing facility and determines the potential for a recall

In these instances, the FDA lets the company know their product is potentially unsafe or mislabeled based on inspection results. They will suggest the company fix the problem or recall the product. In this situation, the company can do one of two things in response:

  1. Fix the problem or issue a recall. This is the ideal outcome, and it also falls into the category of voluntary recalls, because the company acknowledges the problem and agrees to the recall. The company should then take steps to modify their quality control so the issue does not happen again.

  2. Ignore the problem and don’t issue a recall. A company is within their right to ignore the FDA’s suggestions, but they put themselves at risk for an involuntary (or forced) recall if their product truly is unsafe. They also risk bad publicity and lawsuits if their product causes pet illness or death, because they knew about the problem and chose to market the product anyway.

Scenario 3: The FDA receives reports of pet or human illness caused by the product

The FDA has access to various reporting systems where pet owners, veterinarians, physicians, and pet food companies can submit reports of health problems caused by pet foods. When pets or people become sick from pet food or treats, this is usually an issue of very poor quality control. In these situations the FDA issues an involuntary recall, where products are removed from the market by the FDA, not the pet food company.

How did the manufacturer handle the recall?

A good pet food company will recall products quickly and willingly. They will work with the FDA and state regulatory agencies to ensure no unsafe products remain on the market. They will be open and transparent about the issue with their customers, and advise pet owners on what to do next. They will help spread the word about their recall through social media or news media. They may even issue reimbursement to pet owners whose animals were harmed by the product. Good pet food companies will also perform their own internal testing and trace the issue back to its source to determine where the problem arose and why.

Untrustworthy pet food companies will ignore the FDA when it advises a voluntary recall. They will deny the issue exists, or they may blame others for the problem. These companies often do not own their own manufacturing facilities, have very poor quality control, and don’t perform routine product testing. They may have multiple warning letters from the FDA as well. Truly abhorrent pet food companies fight the FDA on their recall procedures and food safety policies; these companies should be avoided!

When is a recall over?

When the pet food company has completed their own corrective actions in response to the recall, the FDA will determine whether the corrections are appropriate. Then, the FDA will ensure all affected products are destroyed, and investigate why the recall happened.

How to stay up-to-date on pet food recalls

The FDA has an email notification list for all recalled products, which includes drugs, human foods, and pet foods. A good way to keep up with pet food and treat recalls specifically is to bookmark the FDA’s pet food recall page and check it regularly. You can also follow pet food companies on social media; they may share information through their platforms if there is a recall.

What to do if you suspect your pet’s food has been recalled

  1. Confirm your pet’s food is affected.

Check the FDA’s page for all relevant information on the recall, including brand, name of diet, and batch/lot number of the recalled product(s). Compare this info to your pet’s food label. This is just one of the many reasons it is important to store pet food in its original package (see Food storage for more information).

  1. Discontinue feeding the diet.

If you confirm your pet’s diet is affected by a recall, stop feeding it to your pet immediately. However, you’ll want to save some of the food in case testing needs to be performed on it. For dry food, put some kibble in a zip-lock baggie and store it in the freezer. For canned food, save one can from the batch. You’ll also need to save the label or take a photo of the batch or lot number, as well as the front of the package.

  1. Return the food for a refund.

Oftentimes, you can bring pet food back to the place of purchase for a full refund (details can be found on the FDA’s website). The pet store will then dispose of the diet for you. If you bought the food online, contact the online distributor and inquire about refunds for recalled products. If the online distributor doesn't pay for the return shipping, you’ll have to dispose of the diet yourself.

  1. If you need more information...

The FDA usually provides pet food company email addresses and phone numbers on their product recall announcement page. You can also check the product packaging or website for manufacturer information.

What to do if you suspect there’s something wrong with your pet’s food

  1. Keep the original packaging

Ensure you have all relevant information such as the brand, diet name, and batch or lot number. Find the manufacturer’s information on the package or online. If possible, find the receipt from when and where the food was purchased.

  1. Note any issues with diet

Does the diet smell bad or appear rancid? Are there pieces of foreign objects in the bag that shouldn’t be there (e.g., plastic, rubber)? Is the packaging defective? If you notice any of these things, take photos to document the issues.

Did the diet make your pet sick? Be sure to bring your pet to the veterinarian if you notice any unusual signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Let the veterinarian know when the pet ate the diet and how much they consumed. Keep invoices of the cost of diagnostics and treatment.

Did the diet make humans in your home sick? If people are showing signs of illness, they should see a physician. Be sure to document the problem, including when the person handled the diet and when they began to show symptoms of illness.

  1. Report a complaint to the FDA

The FDA has a page on their website dedicated to reporting pet food complaints. Be sure to read the instructions carefully before filling out the form; it’s long, time-consuming, and requires a lot of specific information about the diet and issue.

  1. Contact the pet food company

This step is very important. Even though the FDA is the authority to which you should report problems, a good pet food company may be able to act more quickly than the FDA. The company should be able to advise you on what to do next, such as returning the defective product for a refund. They may also be able to or get you a new bag of food for free.

Should you look for a brand that has never had a recall?

This may seem like a safe bet, but there are many other important things to keep in mind when choosing a pet food company (see How to pick a pet food, part 1 for more details). When evaluating the recall history of a pet food company, consider these factors:

Is the company large or small?

The biggest pet food companies can have hundreds of thousands of consumers, so the law of large numbers says they are more likely to have a recall. Smaller pet food companies have a fraction of the number of consumers, and thus are less likely to have recalls. When large pet food companies have a few recalls, they typically represent a small percentage of all the diets they produce. When smaller pet food companies have a few recalls, it is more concerning because this means there are problems with a bigger percentage of their diets.

Does the company have good quality control?

The only way you’ll find the answer to this question is to call the company and ask for details. How do they ensure their products do not have contamination? Do they do a final visual check and chemical analysis of the food before it leaves the factory? Do they perform feeding trials?

How long has the company existed?

Newer pet food companies are less likely to have recalls because they are in a sort of grace period with the FDA and AAFCO. Pet food companies that have existed for decades are naturally going to have more recalls than newer manufacturers.

What kind of recalls has the company had?

Some pet food manufacturers advertise they have never had a recall, but what they actually mean is that they have never had an involuntary (FDA-enforced) recall. Find out if the company has had voluntary or involuntary recalls in the past, why they happened, how the company handled them, and what the outcomes were.

Should you stop feeding commercial pet food?

Some pet parents believe the only way to avoid dangerous or harmful products is to feed a homemade diet. The idea behind this is that you as the chef can control the ingredients. However, human foods are actually recalled much more often than pet foods!

Despite some problems with commercial diets, they are often safer and healthier for pets than homemade diets. Commercial pet foods are complete and balanced, and they are more practical and less expensive than making pet food at home. Pet food manufacturers are also required to follow the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines and are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). AAFCO, the FDA, and your state government all work together to ensure commercial pet foods are safe and follow certain standards.

There are a few commercial pet food manufacturers that are more trustworthy than others. Good pet food companies have stringent quality control and can therefore catch problems with their diets quickly. Learn how to assess pet food manufacturers to see if they are reliable and science-based by visiting How to pick a pet food, part 1.

If you are seriously considering feeding a homemade diet to your pet, please visit Homemade diets. Home-cooked pet foods can be disastrous to your pet’s health if they are not formulated and prepared properly. Homemade diets should only be fed with the help of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.