The regulation of pet food in Australia 

 

Sentient promotes the independent regulation of the pet food industry in Australia. There is no current national regulatory framework to control the domestic manufacture or importation of pet food.[1]  The pet food industry is self-regulated against a voluntary Australian Standard, most recently the Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food (AS 5812–2017). The Australian Standard is administered by the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) through agreement with the Department of Agriculture. Compliance with the Australian Standard is encouraged but is entirely voluntary, as it currently has no legal status for enforcement. The Australian Standard is also not publically available as it must be purchased from the publisher. This was recognised in the 2018 Senate Report into pet food safety as a major barrier to transparency, compliance and accountability.[2]  

 

The PFIAA is not an independent body as many of the members are major pet food companies in the Australian market, and thus it favours the continued self-regulation of the pet food industry.[3]  There is no independent or government body with authority to regulate pet food quality or safety, to enforce compliance with industry standards, or to investigate pet food safety incidents.  There is also no real requirement for pet food manufacturers to respond to safety, quality or other complaints, or to initiate a recall based on pet food safety concerns.[4]   

 

Self-regulation has resulted in a variable response to pet food concerns.  To-date, there have been very few pet food recalls in Australia.  Since the Australian Standard was introduced, the only recalls announced have been Advance Dermocare dry dog food (over 100 confirmed cases of megaoesophagus in dogs), Weruva BFF cat food (thiamine deficiency), Whiskas dry cat food (contained foreign objects) and Woolworths dog biscuits (foreign objects).  For more detail about these and other pet food safety incidents in Australia, see CHOICE article and the report of the 2018 Committee into pet food regulation.[5] In contrast, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) regulates both finished pet food products (including treats and chews) and their ingredients, and has powers to investigate customer complaints and conduct inspections of pet food business facilities. In 2018 alone, more than 20 pet foods were recalled from American retail shelves.[6]  

 

Sentient agrees with CHOICE and Dr Richard Malik that the low number of recalls in Australia is due to lack of independent regulation, rather than evidence of effective self-regulation (as the pet food industry would have the public believe).  There have been on-going concerns regarding the toxicity of pet food in Australia, such as excessive use of sulphite preservatives in pet meat.  Sulphite is used to keep meat looking red and fresh, but it also causes thiamine deficiencies in the meat; this can lead to the development of a thiamine deficiency in cats and dogs, and consequently, to neurological problems that may cause death.[7] The Australian Standard contains a mandatory requirement that any product containing sulphur dioxide, sulphite or potassium sulphites must contain sufficient thiamine according to AAFCO guidelines for the entire shelf-life of the product. However, there is no requirement for pet food manufacturers to comply with this clause, so the consumer is unaware whether the product is compliant or not. Product recalls are very expensive and can damage the company's reputation, so it is likely that unless required to, a company will be reluctant to do so voluntarily.   Indeed, CHOICE advocates on their website that the low number of recalls in Australia is suspicious and that they suspect foods that appear to have problems are quietly withdrawn from sale and compensation is paid to pet owners in order to avoid a recall.[8]  

 

PetFAST

Australian veterinarians can report pet food safety concerns to Pet Food Adverse Event System of Tracking (PetFAST).  PetFAST was developed in 2012 as a joint initiative of the PFIAA and Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).  Reports are reviewed by both the AVA and PFIAA and if trends emerge with any particular pet food brand, an investigation may ensue. Again, the power of this avenue is limited, as it is a voluntary initiative which not all vets are aware of or involved with.  The process of logging a report has been described as 'extremely onerous' as veterinarians are required to provide detailed medical records and dietary histories of affected animals; product consumptions details and documents; product name, type, and manufacturing information; food samples for analysis; and serum and tissue samples (if pertaining to a deceased animal).[9]  Furthermore, as Bronwyn Orr from RSPCA Australia points out, “pet food companies aren't under any legal onus to initiate a recall based on a pet food safety concern, so it requires negotiation with the industry”.[10]  Also, since reports to PetFAST can only be made by veterinarians, and not by consumers, this again results in an ad hoc approach to regulation of the pet food industry.  Furthermore, veterinarians may be reluctant to make complaints. Dr Richard Malik has spoken to the media on numerous occasions highlighting the pressure placed by pet food manufacturers on veterinarians to remain silent about their concerns.[11]

 

Government inquiries into the safety of pet food

In response to the number of food safety incidents in 2008-2009, the government established the Pet Food Controls Working Group (PFCWG) to examine the management of the safety of imported and domestically produced pet meat and pet food. The working group is comprised of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, Safe Food Production Queensland, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), RSPCA Australia, and the PFIAA.  In 2012, the working group concluded that “self-regulation is the preferred approach to industry-specific consumer protection to avoid unnecessary regulatory burden on business and the community more broadly”, and that it is the most cost effective policy option to manage pet food safety in Australia.[12]  This conclusion acknowledged that the success of this approach relied on compliance with the Australian Standard and that if this did not occur, that a co-regulation approach should be considered where the Australian Standard is enforced by government.[13]

 

In response to further food safety incidents in Australia and overseas, in particular the spate of megaesophagus cases in dogs throughout 2017–18, and the large number of cat deaths and severe illness associated with Weruva Best Feline Friend cat food in 2017, an independent review into the safety and regulation of pet food was called for. As a result, a Senate Standing Committee looking into regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food was formed in 2018. [14]  In their report published in October 2018, it was concluded that self-regulation of the pet food industry is no longer acceptable by community standards.  The report made a number of recommendations for the working group on how the regulatory regime for pet food in Australia could be strengthened.  

 

Sentient advocates for changes to the regulation of the manufacture and marketing of pet food in Australia, including the following: 

 

  • Regulation of the pet food industry, either through the establishment of a government regime akin to the USFDA model, or through a co-regulatory arrangement between government, industry and the veterinary profession. Further discussion of the benefits and challenges of these regulatory frameworks can be sought in the 2018 Senate Standing Committee Report on pet food safety.[15]  It is important for this regulatory body to be truly independent of the pet food industry in order to avoid conflicts of interest or industry pressure.  This body should have the power of oversight, to initiate investigations both independently and in response to consumer and/or veterinary concerns, and to impose mandatory product recalls of unsafe pet food products.

 

  • As a first step towards improved regulation, the Australian Standard should be mandatory and enforceable by an independent regulator, with consequences for non-compliance. This was strongly advocated in the 2018 Senate Standing Committee Report.[16]

 

  • The Australian Standard should be freely available to the public so consumers can access the information they require to establish whether pet food products are fit for purpose.  This was also strongly advocated in the 2018 Senate Standing Committee Report .[17]

 

  • The establishment of a clear and direct consumer reporting mechanism available to members of the public who want to report an incident, or lodge a complaint or concern associated with pet food.[18] The 2018 Senate Standing Committee Report identified the USFDA’s Safety Reporting Portal as an example of best practice. Australia has a comparable mechanism for ordinary consumer goods through the ACCC’s Product Safety Australia website, which the Senate Standing Committee Report suggested could be extended to include consumer reporting of pet food. [19]

 

  • Regulation taking a proactive approach to ensure the standards of pet food quality are maintained and to pre-empt potential food safety issues. It has been suggested that this could involve the conduct of regular random food contamination testing, batch testing and the adoption of feeding trials to ensure that the nutritional information provided in the guidelines is tried and tested.  New Zealand has adopted the practice of feeding trials, and they also form an important aspect of the AAFCO guidelines that have not so far been pursued in Australia.[20]

 

  • The prompt and accurate publication of recall notifications by the pet food regulator to ensure that pet owners are adequately informed about pet food recalls in a timely manner.  

 

 

 

[1] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report

[2] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report

[3] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  Chapter 3, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[4] There are complications with the application of the Australian Consumer Law to the regulation of pet food.  The Law provides the relevant Minister with the authority to order a compulsory recall of a consumer good if a mandatory standard is not met or the suppliers of the goods have not taken 'satisfactory action to prevent those goods causing injury to any person'. However, the policy does not make mention of the remedies available when injury is inflicted upon a pet, such as if a pet food is found to be mouldy or contaminated.   There are also complications with regard to the way pets themselves are considered under the law, that is as items of personal property.  For further discussion of the avenue of the Australian Consumer Law, see the discussion of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,   https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

 

[5] Bray, K. 2018, Pet food regulation, CHOICE, https://www.choice.com.au/outdoor/pets/products/articles/pet-food-regulation; Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,   https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report

[6] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  Chapter 3, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[7] Steel, RJS 1997, “Thiamine deficiency in a cat associated with the preservation of 'pet meat with sulphur dioxide”, Australian Veterinary Journal, vol. 75, Issue 10, pp 719-721, <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-0813.1997.tb12252.x>

[8] Bray, K. 2018, Pet food regulation, CHOICE, https://www.choice.com.au/outdoor/pets/products/articles/pet-food-regulation; Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  para 5.13, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[9] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  para 6.18, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report

[10] Bray, K. 2018, Pet food regulation, CHOICE, https://www.choice.com.au/outdoor/pets/products/articles/pet-food-regulation

[11] Donnellan, A, “Plastic, mould found in dog food sparks call for regulation of pet food industry”, 7.30 ABC, 

19 Jun 2018, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-16/plastic-mould-in-dog-food-prompts-call-for-industry-regulation/9764318>

[12] Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Pet food safety in

Australia: economic assessment of policy options, July 2012, pp. 20–21.

[13] Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Pet food safety in

Australia: economic assessment of policy options, July 2012, p. 22.

[14] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[15] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  Chapters 4-5, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[16] Under recommendation 4, the committee recommended that there be a public review of how the Australian Standard could become a mandatory standard under Australian Consumer Law”: Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,   

https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[17] This is in alignment with Recommendation 1 that “the Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food (AS5812:2017) be made publically available on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources' website for download and distribution”: Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[18] See Recommendation 6, Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018,  https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

[19] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018, Chapter 7 & Recommendation 6, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report.

 

[20] Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food, October 2018, para 4.20 & Recommendation 3, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/SafetyofPetFood/Report