Canada’s pet food industry is not regulated — and experts warn about the dangers

If there is a pet food recall in Canada, it is up to the manufacturer, not the government, to warn consumers. Getty Images

If there’s a food recall in Canada, the government is usually quick to notify consumers about the health risks. However, when it comes to pet food, a national recall does not exist.

That’s because the pet food industry is also not regulated in Canada, meaning if there is a recall, it is up to the pet manufacturer to share the information.

“Pet food safety and hygiene are the responsibility of the pet food manufacturers,” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) told Global News in an email.

The pet food industry is a big business in Canada. In 2017, Canada imported more than $669 million worth of pet food. In 2016, dog and cat food sales in Canada reached more than $1 billion, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

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There are countless brands to purchase, and a variety of different health claims and prices. And despite the enormity of the industry, it is the responsibility of pet food manufacturers to issue recalls on a voluntary basis, the CFIA said.

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Are there any dangers to this?

“[The] impact of having a hodgepodge of overseers and not having a federal body to report to would include a lack of timely information to the consumer who may have tainted pet food tins sitting in their pantries,” Victoria Shroff, a pet litigation lawyer and an adjunct law professor at UBC, said.

“Most of us who buy food rely on our pet stores to warn us about recalls,” she said.

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Dr. Daniel Joffe, the national medical director of VCA Canada, said because Canada’s pet food industry is based on the honour system and a lack of enforcement, there could be room for dishonesty.

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This week, eight dog food brands, including one that is sold in Canada, were recalled after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned about their potentially deadly levels of vitamin D.

Although the FDA released a recall for consumers (as pet food is federally regulated there), Canada did not, as the CFIA does not have the recall authority, so companies have to take the lead.

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“I think it should be regulated because what we are feeding our pets ends up in kitchens and with our kids,” Joffe said.

Dr. Maureen Harper, a former veterinarian with the CFIA, said the fact the pet food industry remains unregulated, is potentially putting our pets in harm’s way.

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“Many years ago when I was still with the CFIA,  I became aware of the fact that condemned product from the slaughterhouses was being used in the manufacture of pet food by a particular company,” she said.

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“The CFIA vets sign documents which accompany pet food that is being exported. As a result of learning about the condemned product, we stopped signing all pet food documents for export. But, that begged the question for me, what about the domestic market for pet food?”

Where can pet owners turn?

There are organizations in Canada that can help pet owners when it comes to health and safety.

The Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC) is a voluntary organization and membership group of pet food manufacturers that promotes labelling and nutritional requirements (but they do not have any power over manufacturers).

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Martha Wilder, the executive director of PFAC, said if companies want to become a member, they have to meet strict standards in terms of nutrition, safety and labelling.

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Wilder said many of its members export pet food to the United States and Europe, which both have strict regulations (more than Canada), and many Canadians benefit from this.

“Half of the [pet food] sold in Canada comes from the U.S., and these companies have to follow these strict requirements. Canadians benefit from the U.S. and EU rules,” she said.

However, she said there is a gap in Canada’s system, and that has to do with recalls.

“Because there is no domestic oversight, there is no central recall in place,” she said. But she added that unlike human food, pet food recall is not as frequent. And when it does happen, “companies get it off the shelves as quickly as possible.”

Joffe agreed. He said there’s been recalls in the past and pet food manufacturers have been quick to notify the public. However, it depends on the company.

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“The good pet food companies that I call ‘the science-based companies’ that do all of the research in pet nutrition … they do these recalls and there have been examples in the past.”

CFIA regulates pet food imports

Although there is no regulatory body overlooking the pet food industry in Canada, the CFIA does regulate pet food imports. This is in order to prevent diseases from being introduced into the country.

“Pet food containing animal origin ingredients can be a source for some diseases, and as such, the CFIA conducts risk evaluations on incoming pet food based on its ingredients, the country of origin, the disease status of the producing country, and the thermal processing of the product,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Also, pet food manufacturers must comply with the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Competition Act. The rules specify how pet food may be marketed to consumers, including how food is named and what information must be included on pet food labels.

It does not include nutrition. Nutrition labelling in Canada is not regulated — meaning even if there is a label saying the food contains “high-quality ingredients,” there is zero enforcement.

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“The label can be misleading,” Joffe said. “I could make a dog food out of motor oil and car tires, and can make the label look good.”

He said the best advice he can give pet owners when it comes to food nutrition and safety is to talk with your veterinarian.

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