Food Safety For Raw Feeders
Updated: Jun 19
Food-borne pathogens are the primary concern revolving around raw feeding. Raw feeding involves an extended amount of time preparing and handling raw meat, increasing the risk of cross-contamination. But, by prioritizing food safety, concerns for food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. Coli, or Listeria can be minimized.
Life strongly depends on microbes. The body contains trillions of "good" and "bad " microorganisms." Commensal bacteria ("good") provide the host with essential nutrients, metabolize compounds, and defend against colonization against pathogens. Pathogenic bacteria ("bad") cause diseases, such as Salmonella. These pathogenic bacteria attack the host cells and can cause various side effects. Through sanitization, pathogenic bacteria are reduced and eliminated with cooking above 73°C (163°F).
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Salmonella infection (salmonellosis) is a common bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract. Salmonella bacteria typically live in animal and human intestines and are shed through feces. Humans become infected most frequently through contaminated water or food.”
The CDC estimates that Salmonella causes “more than 1 million foodborne illnesses in the United States every year” Infections stem commonly from contaminated food sources, including meats, vegetables, and processed foods. Salmonella spreads through contaminated water, the environment, and other people and animals. Symptoms start 6 hours to 6 days after infection and include diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. While most recover within a week without antibiotic treatment, some people with severe symptoms may need medical intervention.
There are over 2,600 salmonella serotypes. But less than 100 serotypes cause salmonellosis in people. With “the number of bacteria that must be ingested to cause symptomatic disease in healthy adults is 106 to 108 non-typhoid Salmonella organisms.” The serotype Non-typhoidal causes the disease in dogs, with healthy dogs being well-equipped for a healthy bacterial load. From licking their rears and eating feces without falling ill, healthy dogs naturally have 36% salmonella in their GI tract (this percentage came from kibble-fed dogs), making them relatively resistant. However, all pet owners should be aware of handling pet feces and proper hygiene practices regardless of diet type.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issues recall on pet food (both raw meat and kibble). Salmonella found in some raw foods leads many veterinarians to advise against it. However, several kibble recalls for salmonella contamination show both foods are susceptible. Ultimately, there is no 100% “safe” food, and both diet types are at risk of food-borne pathogens. However, raw food seems to be the showpiece for Salmonella in the pet food industry.
The FDA has published several warnings surrounding Salmonella and raw pet food, including the risks of humans contracting Salmonella. Their 2-year study (2010 to 2012) stated, “Out of 196 raw pet food samples, 15 were positive for Salmonella.” This study concluded there was a higher risk of Salmonella in raw food diets (7% vs. 0%). A 2006 study also concluded the same results but with a smaller sample size of raw meat diets, 240 samples from 20 different raw meat diets.
As mentioned, both types of diets are vulnerable to food-borne contamination. In 2012, the FDA processed the largest FDA recall in kibble due to Salmonella. Most kibble brands stemmed from the Diamond Pet Foods manufacturing plant, where the FDA called several brands back. The FDA does not currently routinely test dog foods. Dog food recalls are self-reported, with no required pathogen testing before selling food commercially. Therefore, it is plausible there are more unreported contaminated foods than the FDA reports. Reported recalls are updated on the FDA page here.
While a commercial raw diet has a 7% risk (according to the FDA study), several factors, such as food safety practices and sourcing, influence the likelihood of illness in a household setting.
The association between raw meat and Salmonella was studied in a greyhound breeding facility. The facility fed poor-quality 4D meats and practiced sub-par food handling, resulting in 93% of dogs being positive for Salmonella, 44% showing clinical signs of illness, and 11% dying from Salmonella.
This setting was designed for an outbreak as sourcing was from non-human grade sources, bowls sanitized only once before feeding, thawing meat at room temperature, and failing to disinfect dog runs. While these conditions are far from what is expected in pet homes, it is valuable information to highlight the significance of food safety practices.
Humans contracting a food-borne pathogen is a concern. However, like dogs, exposure to Salmonella does not equate to illness. Prevention through proper hygiene and sanitation can minimize risk. The only exception is immunocompromised folks or those with young or elderly folks. Factors increasing an animal’s risk of infection include overall health, poor nutrition, cancer, neoplasia, antibiotics, and chemotherapy. In these exceptions, fresh food can be provided through kibble boosters, cooked food, and HPP raw foods.
But what would the risks of raw feeding look like in a household setting? In an internet-based research survey, out of 16,475 raw-feeding households, 99.6% had no known food-borne illness from raw feeding. 0.2% reported transmission of pathogens from raw dog food to a human family member. And 3 of the household said they were found to have the same pathogen in the human sample as the raw pet food sample. This estimates around a 0.4% risk of illness due to Salmonella if fed a raw diet. As for kibble, the Diamond Pet Food Salmonella outbreak caused 49 people to fall ill, with ten hospitalized due to Salmonella infection.
Food Safety Practices
Food safety is practiced from storage to consumption. Prioritizing these habits ensure safety and sustainability for both humans and animals involved. Let’s review food safety for all the raw-feeding-specific scenarios.
Food must be kept frozen or refrigerated when actively handled or fed. Refrigerate below 40°F/4.5°C as bacteria thrive rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F (4°C-62°C). Most household refrigerators are factory set at 37°F (3°C) but may need adjustment depending on location.
According to human consumption food safety guidelines, raw meats and seafood are limited to 2 days in the refrigerator. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination and food temperatures reaching the “danger zone,” raw foods should not be at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. While dogs have a higher bacterial tolerance level, taking proper food safety and sanitation measures for both pet and human safety is essential.
Freeze raw meat and seafood for safe long-term storage when not actively used. Defrost food in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours, depending on the volume of meat. If in a time crunch, defrost in cold water, replacing the water every 30 minutes for up to 2 hours. Do not defrost with warm water, as it allows bacteria to multiply. Avoid microwaving for the same reason, and it will begin to cook the food.
Cross-contamination is when bacteria or other microorganisms unintentionally transfer from one place to another. In this case, raw meat transfers to countertops, utensils, different foods, etc., when handled differently. Having a specific space and tools specifically for raw feeding is an easy way to avoid cross-contamination and minimize risk. In addition, ensure to sanitize the countertops and spoons, bowls, and cutting boards with soap and hot water. You may choose to feed the dogs in kennels to help with clean up.
One of the best practices to avoid cross-contamination is hand washing! We’ve all heard this since childhood, but the information remains. Washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water is the best way to prevent illness.
Eating & Prep Spaces
Having an organized and sanitized prep space and eating space for your pup is crucial. Thoroughly clean and sanitize prep and eating spaces after, with any uneaten food picked up and refrigerated. Everything used for prep, including bowls, knives, cutting boards, and utensils, should be washed and/or disinfected. If you cook raw meat for yourself as a human, the clean-up hygiene practices are essentially the same with the addition of where your dog eats.
Should you wash your meat?
Some believe the meat should be rinsed or washed before being fed. Historically, we often associate washing with cleanliness. However, this should be avoided as water increases the spread of bacteria and increases the risk of cross-contamination. While fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed to remove pesticides and other residues, raw meats, poultry, eggs, and seafood should not be washed before being fed. Washing meat is risky and is not needed for safety.
Can my dog get worms/parasites from meat?
Will a raw diet give the dog worms? Parasitic infestation is a valid concern for many. There is a chance that your dog contracts parasites, but only if fed improperly prepared meat. While meat purchased from raw feeding suppliers, grocery stores, or anywhere not in the wild is pretty much safe to feed, there are a few exceptions to be aware of.
Quality meat & meat raised for human consumption are safe to feed immediately. However, wild game and specific types of meat are not safe for consumption. For example, wild hogs should not be fed due to the parasite trichinosis. But this is not a concern in farmed pork as the variables that increase infection are controlled. Parasites are most present in wild game and fish. If you are feeding a fresh game or fish, freeze at -0.4°F (-18°C) or colder for a minimum of 3-4 weeks or more to ensure that any parasites or worms in the animal are properly killed to make it fit for feeding. Removing the animal’s intestinal tracts, where the parasites and worms reside, is another prudent step.
Seafood must also be adequately prepared prior to being fed. As shellfish are susceptible to Toxoplasma gondii infection, any shellfish should be steamed/boiled before being fed to eliminate the risk. If the mussel is sold in the half shell or without a shell, it will not need to be prepped as it was steamed prior.
Feces can also be a significant way parasites can be transmitted. This means ensuring your dog does not eat any droppings from wild animals. Feeding quality meat and taking the proper precautions help your animal stay safe & healthy!
#1 Toxoplasma Gondii
Shellfish can be susceptible to Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a worldwide “protozoan parasite that infects humans and other warm-blooded animals.” The organisms are killed with heat at 67°C (152.6°F). Therefore, any mussel or oyster should be steamed or boiled before being fed to eliminate the risk. No shells or half shells usually indicate they are cooked. Remember to remove the shell before feeding. While it can be found in all warm-blooded species, “felines (members of the cat family) are the only definitive hosts of the parasite (A definitive host is an animal that a parasite requires in order to mature normally.) Both wild and domestic cats serve as the main reservoir of infection. Generalized infection may occur in dogs as the parasites travel through the body and invade the tissues.”
“The organism present in meat is killed by contact with soap and water. They can also be killed by exposure to extreme cold or heat. Tissue cysts in meat are killed by heating the meat throughout to 67°C (152.6°F) or by cooling to −13°C (8.6°F).” According to this study, “Dogs rarely suffer from toxoplasmosis as a primary disease, and, in most cases, the disease is linked to immunosuppression and absence of vaccination against canine distemper virus (CDV). Neurological disease, with signs of seizures, cranial nerve deficits, tremors, ataxia, and paresis or paralysis within encephalomyelitis (8), may be seen.”
Also called trichinosis, is a food-borne disease. Pork tends to get a bad rap due to trichinosis. Trichinella is found within carnivorous animals, including bears and foxes, and omnivorous animals, such as wild boars and pigs. While trichinosis used to be an issue, commercially farmed pork and updated regulatory practices make it no longer a concern in commercial pork. Cases were commonly caused by undercooked pork. However, according to the CDC, infections are now “relatively rare.” As legislation banning feeding raw-meat garbage to pigs and public awareness increased, cases plummeted. Although trichinella is almost eliminated in the USA and Canada, only some places have the same food inspection laws and practices. Therefore, if there is a risk of trichinella, the CDC recommends freezing pork less than 6 inches (15 cm) thick for 20 days at 5°F (-15°C) to kill any present worms.
“Cysticercosis is a parasitic tissue infection caused by larval cysts of the tapeworm Taenia solium.” usually contracted via contaminated water, feces, or wild animals. Many types of tapeworms are found in meat, including taenia saginata, taenia solium, taenia hydatigena, and taenia multiceps. However, the most common strain in pets is a flea tapeworm (dipylidium caninum) caused by the pet swallowing a parasite-contaminated flea, not raw meat. As a safety measure, prevent your dog from eating wild animal droppings, and freezing contaminated meat for 7-10 days at -31°F(-35°C) to kill tapeworm eggs and larvae, but avoiding feeding these meats in the first place is best. As most home freezers do not reach these temperatures, freezing for 4 weeks is a preventative measure. Parasites are a valid concern, and preventative measures should be taken place.
Wash hands before & after handling raw meat
Properly store raw meat
Sanitize prep surfaces after use
Have separate raw feeding-specific tools
Source quality meats
Do not allow dogs to eat wild animal feces
Avoid contaminated water
When in doubt, throw it out
Raw Feeding provides several benefits, but some safety concerns come with it. However, proper food safety practices can minimize the risk. Any diet is vulnerable to contamination with age, lifestyle, health status, sourcing, manufacturing, and more, all influencing food safety risks. By creating a robust food safety system, from sanitization to sourcing, risks can be mitigated to a minimum. No matter the type of food fed, proper hygiene and food safety practices should be implemented to protect everyone involved!