This month, we have received dozens of emails from distraught pet owners who suspect their dogs have been poisoned by pet foods.  As of February 10,, 2012,the FDA has received 537 reports of illnesses in dogs, including 467 reports since it issued a renewed warning about chicken jerky treats from China in November. That number includes 353 reports logged in 2011 and 184 submitted so far this year.

There are more brands implicated than Waggin Train, but once we did a little digging into what could be the cause of the sick and dead dogs, we found a few general warning signs that apply not just to these chicken jerky treats, but commercial foods and treats in general.  Here are the top five lessons we feel pet owners should learn from these unfortunate events.

1. Transparency is important

In our experience, if it appears that a company is hiding something, they probably are.  We took a look at the Waggin Train website to see how transparent they are about their products.  What jumps out first is the FDA warning about chicken jerky treats.  Here is Waggin Train’s statement:

On Nov. 18, 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an update about chicken jerky treats for dogs. The FDA continues to advise dog owners that chicken jerky products should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be fed occasionally in small quantities. The FDA has been unable to determine a definitive cause of reported dog illnesses or a direct link to chicken jerky products. The FDA has been quite clear about this. Extensive FDA testing found no contaminants and no definitive cause for the reported illnesses among dogs. In addition, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) previously has reported that any association between dog illnesses and chicken jerky may be the result of dogs (primarily small dogs) consuming treats in excess of normal or recommended levels.

Back in 2007, when all those pets were getting sick and dying from contaminated pet food, Waggin Train dug their heels in again.  Here is their statement from 2007:

It is widely accepted that any association between dog illnesses and chicken jerky is likely the result of dogs (primarily small dogs) consuming treats in excess of normal or recommended levels.Chicken jerky products should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be used occasionally, in small quantities. Consumers should read and follow the feeding guidelines found on Waggin’ Train packages.

How could a dog possibly develop acute kidney failure and die from eating too much chicken?  It’s understandable that a dog might be deficient in calcium and other nutrients if chicken jerky was the mainstay of his diet – in the long term.  But death from eating too much chicken?  What else is in those treats that could potentially cause dogs to suddenly become sick and die?  It sure isn’t chicken!

We looked for the ingredients on Waggin Train’s website, but all we could find was the following:

Waggin’ Train prides itself on products made of high quality ingredients. Waggin’ Train Chicken Jerky Tenders are made with premium chicken breast filets and have only two main ingredients: natural chicken filets, and glycerin (a natural preservative to retain moisture and texture).

Two main ingredients?  Aren’t pet owners entitled to know what the minor ingredients are?  It seems they would need to look on the package to find out what the third ingredient is:  natural flavor.  What exactly is natural flavor?  That answer takes us to lesson 2.

2. Look at what’s on the label – and what’s not

At first glance, it would seem that, apart from being manufactured in China, Waggin Train chicken jerky would be a safe treat to feed, based on its short ingredient list:  natural chicken filets, vegetable glycerin and natural flavor.  Let’s first look at what is on the label.

Natural chicken:  that sounds wonderful except for the fact that these chickens are raised in China – which are fed foods made in China.  Foods that contain arsenic, melamine and other dangerous ingredients.  In the US, there is a Congressionally imposed ban on importing chicken processed in China because of the lack of proper food safety standards in China.  Enough said.

Vegetable glycerin:  glycerin is an odorless, colorless, sweet liquid. It serves as a sweetener and protects against mold by drying the product.  Glycerin is a byproduct left over from soap and biofuels production.  However, there has been a tremendous amount of crude glycerin coming into the market from biofuels production which places significant supply side pressure on the glycerin market to find new uses for this ingredient, such as in animal feeds.

The problem is the production of biofuels leads to a significant amount of residual methanol (wood alcohol) and sodium that remains in the glycerin co-product stream. The FDA has taken a hard look at whether this should disqualify glycerin from use in animal feeds. In the US, the USP grades of glycerin are considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but this does not extend to the crude glycerin from biodiesel production.  There is no research published on the use and safety of crude glycerin from biofuels in pet foods.

Back in 2007, at the time of the major pet food recalls, China was guilty of counterfeit – they were substituting diethyline gloycol for glycerin.  Diethyline glycol is an industrial solvent and a primary ingredient in antifreeze.  Over the years, the Chinese have slipped this poisonous substance, disguised as glycerin, into many human pharmaceutical products and there is no reason to believe they would have an issue with using it in pet foods.

3.  Check for irradiation

Waggin Train chicken jerky treats are irradiated.  What does that mean?  According to Waggin Train, it means the following:

Waggin’ Train Brand products that reflect the Radura symbol go through an irradiation process approved for pet food by the FDA. This is similar to what is used in sterilizing spices, apples, tomatoes and meat for human food. This extra precaution is taken to assure pet owners the treats they buy are safe and healthy.

If Waggin Train had confidence in their manufacturing plant, why would they feel the food is unsafe enough to require irradiation?  The larger question is, how on earth could exposing foods to radiation make them safe and healthy?

Food irradiation exposes food to the equivalent of 30 million chest X-rays. Irradiation creates new chemicals in foods called radiolytic products. Some of these products are known cancer-causing substances (like benzene in irradiated beef). Others are unique to the irradiation process and no one knows what effects these have on health.

Irradiation produces toxic byproducts in the food. Ionizing radiation knocks electrons out of atoms and creates free radicals. These free radicals react with food components, creating new radiolytic products, some of which are toxic (benzene, formaldehyde, lipid peroxides) and some of which may be unique to irradiated foods. No one knows the long term impact of eating unknown quantities of these damaged foods. Studies on animals fed irradiated foods have shown increased tumors, reproductive failures and kidney damage.

4.  Look at what’s not on the label

The third and final ingredient in Waggin Train chicken jerky treats is  natural flavors.  Although natural flavors may sound wonderful, it does beg the question, what exactly are natural flavors and why won’t the company tell us what they are?  Purina might say it is because they don’t want to give out their proprietary recipe.  Enlightened pet owners might say it’s because they might be hiding an ingredient that might not be so natural – like MSG.  By food industry definition, all MSG is “naturally occurring.  Natural doesn’t mean safe:  natural only means that the ingredient started out in nature, like arsenic and hydrochloric acid. Nestle, the parent company that owns Purina and hence Waggin Train, has a history of hiding MSG on their food labels.  Like other large manufacturers, they use the business end of MSG such as glutamic acid or glutamate as the natural flavors in their MSG-free foods.

5.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

If you are considering whether a company should be trusted to supply food and treats for your pets, take a look at the company.  It is very relevant that Purina was involved in the 2007 pet food recalls – yet still feels comfortable doing business with the same people that secretly inserted melamine into their foods and killed hundreds of pets.  It’s also fairly alarming that they are under fire by pet owners right now.  Take a look at Consumer Affairs and you will see that as of today, there are 71 complaints about Purina pet foods in 2012 alone.  Another look at Consmer Affairs shows 20 complaints about Waggin Train in 2012.

That’s not including the hundreds of complaints from distraught pet owners on the company websites, Facebook pages, and various blogs and forums.  Here is a small snippet of the emails we have received.  We will keep adding to these stories as we receive them.

Despite the pleas from pet owners and the media attention, on February 2, 2012, Nestle publicly denied all claims and all courtesy offers to pet owners have been removed from the table because the FDA had not found a definitive link in the past two months.  It sounds like 2007 all over again.

Don’t think you are safe because you are not feeding Waggin Train treats to your dog.  Dogs are here to to enlighten us and it would be a shame if these dogs died and nobody listened to their story.  Use this opportunity to dissect pet food labels – or better yet as a reason to make your own treats and food.  As long as pet owners don’t do their research, the pet food companies will continue to sell us inferior and unsafe products.