New FDA 483: Euthanasia drug found in canned dog food, misc. facility findings, and questions for FDA

fda-483-footerI would be remiss in the goal of this blog if I didn’t do some digging into the form 483 that was just released by FDA this week following a recall for canned dog food containing Pentobarbital. For information on the products recalled and company involved check out the FDA recalls page and search for the issue. As usual I’ll refrain from writing company and product names on this blog when there isn’t any pending civil or criminal action associated with an event. But that information is readily available for anyone by clicking through the links or performing a simple search.

The 483 is short, just two pages. What the goal of this post will be is to go over each of the observations and try to provide additional information that isn’t included in the document to hopefully provide a complete picture.

All FDA observations began with the heading clarifying which portion of the law (FDCA) the firm violated:

The following observations were found to be adulterated [sic] under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act: A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if it bears or contains any added poisonous or added deleterious substance that is unsafe within the meaning of section 402.

This wouldn’t be FF&F if I didn’t pause here for some definitions. Adulterated is a condition of food by which it cannot be sold in commerce. It includes both reasons of safety as this case demonstrates, but it could also be forms of “economic adulteration”, where something claims to be what it isn’t or has otherwise been robbed of characteristics that the consumer would expect. Like if I were to sell you caviar but it was actually flavored gelatin balls or something.

Poisonous or added deleterious substance is a substance that when added to food “may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance such food shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in such food does not ordinarily render it injurious to health.” (emphasis mine)

FDA says two things there. First, don’t add anything poisonous to food (Protip). Second, if the food happens to contain something poisonous naturally, you need to make sure it occurs at a level where it isn’t toxic. This is the often cited”dose makes poison” principal. An example would be that I can’t sell food into which I accidentally spilled some cyanide (whoops) no matter how much or little it was, but I can sell fruits that may have trace amounts of cyanide precursors in the seeds, because it’s not expected to cause an issue in both the actual dose of the seeds and the expectation that people will avoid them when eating. This clarification is actually pretty critical as we try to make sense of past FDA guidance in this case and why the food was adulterated.

So, how did these dog food products cause themselves to be adulterated?

Your low-acid canned dog food product…was found by chemical analysis to contain the barbiturate drug pentobarbital.

By Harbin (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Harbin (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pentobarbital is a sedative that in the form sodium pentobarbital is used as a euthanasia drug. This recall/483 event was initiated when 5 dogs became sick and one subsequently died. Several new updates have occurred since then and I encourage you to follow the story on a site like food safety news.

Here’s the thing about this finding, it’s annoying that the 483 made no mention of the dose that was recovered. This is important because FDA did a study on pentobarbital in dog food in 2002. In that study, the samples (not randomized/representative, convenience samples selected for likely positives) tested positive for the presence of pentobarbital in more or less than 50% of the samples. However, in the same study FDA made a determination of dose that caused adverse effects:

Based on the data from this study, CVM scientists were able to determine that the no-observable-effect level – which is the highest dose at which no effects of treatment were found – for pentobarbital was 50 micrograms of pentobarbital per day

Dogs would have to consume 5-10 micrograms of pentobarbitol per Kg body weight to hit that dose. The highest value FDA found in their samples was 32ppb (32 micrograms per Kg of food). This means that 7 Kg (15.4 lb) dog would need to eat between 35-70 micrograms to reach the minimum dose, which would have been a little over 1Kg of the highest testing food. Pet food isn’t very dense (canned pet food is denser but contains more water that dilutes other ingredients) and 2.2 lbs of it is a lot of food for a 7Kg dog. Therefore FDA concluded:

the results of the assessment led CVM to conclude that it is highly unlikely a dog consuming dry dog food will experience any adverse effects from exposures to the low levels of pentobarbital found in CVM’s dog food surveys

Which means that FDA concluded that the mere presence of pentobarbital does not make the product adulterated because “the quantity of such substance in such food does not ordinarily render it injurious to health” per the FDA study.

Now, because there is report of adverse events and an Oregon State College of Veterinary Medicine report out there showing that the levels in this food were high enough to cause an effect, this food is clearly adulterated. But it seems like FDA should have included a note about the concentration of the drug found in the food in this 483 to clarify why it was legally adulterated, given the past study.

Now for the findings not related to the chemistry analysis and recall:

Condensate dripped throughout your processing facility from the building…including condensate dripping directly into open cans of the in-process low-acid canned dog food product…and also into multiple open totes of raw meats including beef intended for your canned dog food product

Example: steam hood over my stove that I apparently need to clean…gross.

Condensate is found wherever foods are heated and cooled, and FDA has been addressing it more and more. Condensate was noted in the Blue Bell 483’s as well. The logic is that while steam or vapor may be clean, once it collects on a surface like the ceiling or whatever else, it can carry bacteria from these “non product contact” areas back onto your food. Think of it this way, would you lick the underside of the steam hood/vent above the stove if you hadn’t just cleaned it? Now imagine that the steam from your stroganoff was condensing on the underside of the hood and dripping back into it, carrying all that old grease and dust. Yum.

The floors throughout your processing facility are pitted, cracked, and otherwise damaged causing pooled water in areas where food is exposed including where open cans of…dog food are staged

Source: my patio.

Uncleanable floors = environmental pathogens. While they didn’t go on a “swab-a-thon” in this facility (yet), uncleanable floors are essentially considered harborage points for things like Listeria and Salmonella. In any other business than food, pitted floors aren’t normally an issue, which makes it a common finding in plants holding themselves to a manufacturing efficiency standard rather than a “food grade” standard.

Additional sanitary conditions observed…include peeling paint and mold on walls throughout the processing facility including in areas where food is exposed, a live fly-like insect in the …hand-packing area during processing, and an open sanitary sewer within approximately 25 feet of two food storage trailers and one food processing trailer at the rear exterior of the facility.

Really just shows a lack of preventative maintenance and facility investement when there wasn’t a clear ROI. This particular company has been in business for a long time in the same location, so it’s possible they themselves put that old coat of paint in years ago to spiff it up and make it look nice and be good for food. These kinds of things are expensive preventative maintenance tasks (mold removal, repainting) because it causes downtime as well as the expense of the repair. Typically FDA will show discretion depending on risk to product (e.g. if you only have closed containers in a room with old paint), but the inspectors here probably determined that this was facility neglect and should be noted. Same thing happens in restaurants and retail establishments where facilities have aged but there’s been no spiffing up.

You lack operating refrigerated storage facilities or other means of controlling the temperature exposure of raw meats during thawing, storage, and processing.

Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner, here’s where we demonstrate the true lack of food safety commitment/appreciation at this facility. The last findings all relate to proper temperature control:

…raw beef and other meats in various stages of thawing were stored in ambient temperature inside your processing facility and also at abmient temperature inside three trailers…the exterior ambient temperatures were below freezing…there was frozen ice containing a blood-like substance across the floors of the three trailers and also on the ground…

Open cans of beef were staged on a pallet at ambient temperature during the hand packing process [from the start of operations until 2:00 PM]

So here’s what the deal is with food safety here. This product is going to be retorted, which means that as a low-acid product, it’s going to be cooked until it’s commercially sterile.

So, in theory, it doesn’t matter if your raw meat doesn’t stay refrigerated, since you’ll kill anything that might grow on it! Heck, you can pack it in a dirty facility with dirty tools if you wanted to…

That was sarcasm.

Processors who think like this fail to understand how cooking and kill steps work, and don’t have respect for your food at all stages of production.

FDA expects the thermal process for low-acid foods to provide a minimum of a 5 or 7-log reduction for spores and pertinent pathogens. What this means is that the process should destroy a minimum 99.999% of spores/bacteria in the product, or alternatively, it would sterilize meat that contained 10,000 spores/gram (bacteria are easier to kill than spores, and would have a much higher log reduction with the same process).

This would work for most “raw” products used in this process. However, if you don’t refrigerate or otherwise control raw meat to keep it out of the danger zone of 40-140ºF, bacteria will start to grow. And with the average piece of beef trim having anywhere from 100 to 100,000 bacteria/gram, if these bacteria are allowed to multiply to the ten-millions from lack of refrigeration suddenly that 5-log reduction doesn’t work anymore!

99.999% of 10,000,000=100

While 100 un-killed spores may not seem like much, one of them could be C. botulinum, and with a shelf life of years in a can of dog food, it only has time to grow.

Take this home: every cook or “kill” step in food processing has a log-reduction value. So while you can technically cook spoiled meat until all the bacteria are dead, you have no way of knowing (without testing) that your standard procedure of cook until 165ºf will work if the number of bacteria are 100 fold higher than what the cook was intended for.

If you still think you can throw away your refrigerator and just cook everything through, I recommend purchasing an autoclave to really sock-it-to-em. Don’t think what comes out will be very tasty though. Oh, and general autoclave parameters will give you a 12-log reduction. Happy cooking.

While this is a significant finding, it isn’t related to the issue causing the current recall (and subsequent enforcement). The issue with the product had to do with pentobarbital in the food, which is a supplier sourcing issue (pentobarbital didn’t make it’s way in at the plant unless it was a malicious act). This plant has had a poor history with supplier approval (sourcing duck that wasn’t actually duck for example), and also has a history of being ignored by the FDA based on inspection history.

What this warning letter serves to do is show that FDA is doing it’s job (or backtracking to do so) enforcing all the regs at this plant regardless of the specifics of the current problem. But I have a lingering problem with this timeline:

12/31/17: Dogs become sick after eating the implicated food.

1/3/17: Oregon State University receives the samples for autopsy and analysis, report indicates FDA was informed.

1/10/17: FDA shows up at the plant to perform inspection that led to the facility 483 findings

1/17/17: Michigan State University confirms Pentobarbital contamination

2/1-2/2/17: FDA continues inspection according to the 483, no new findings noted from the later dates

2/3/17: Recall initiated, presumably this was a result of the meeting with FDA from the previous two days where they informed them of the results and helped identify the scope of the recall and “recommended” a “voluntary” recall.

2/8/17: FDA continues inspection according to the 483, no new findings noted from later dates.

2/17/17: FDA releases their own independent press release through CVM updates

This facility had multiple problems in 2011 and 2012 that led to FDA action, and FDA had last interacted with them (according to the inspections database, which does not include contracted inspections through the state) on 2/28/13.

Did FDA inspect a facility, find problems, and then decide not to go back for 4 years? And from this timeline above, did they only go back to this facility because they had a potential poisoning related to it on file?

Thorough and rapid response to a crisis FDA, good job! But shouldn’t you have been inspecting a known problem facility to prevent problems like this from happening?

After all, in 2011, you said this:

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, enables FDA to better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system. It enables FDA to focus more on preventing food safety problems rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur.

We can’t say whether increased visits from FDA (which should have been every 3 years at minimum) would have prevented this from happening. But it certainly couldn’t have hurt.