dog sniffing bowl of kibble

Handling our pet food

Handling our pet’s foods is something we need to be concerned with, storing, portioning and serving our pets foods should have as much care as we give our own foods.

There are food safety courses we can take when we work in restaurants or grocery stores, but none for pet food, really. I guess people ones mostly apply, but pet food has additional risks that people food does not, and some accepted habits that if you suggested using for human food preparation, you’d just shake your head, No.

Yes, dogs can handle much higher bacteria loads in their food than we can. They are scavengers and have digestive systems designed not only to handle fresh killed meat, but also carrion, long dead carcasses they eat as well. Digestive tracts that are short, fast and higher acidity, enzymes in the mouth, wolves were meant to eat what we would consider rotten meat. And, our dogs are still wolves from a digestive aspect, with the minor exception of adapting to using carbs when meat is not available. But their systems work best on an ancestral diet of meat.

Just because our dogs can tolerate more bacteria doesn’t excuse us from trying to reduce their exposure to it. The FDA has on their website “handling guidelines for dry pet food and treats” (easy Google search) that emphasize this, warning pet owners to wash bowls and scoops after each use, to wash pet food bins between bags (better yet, place the bag in the bin and close the bag tightly after each use to reduce oxygen exposure), and to wash your hands after handling any pet food or treat. These are more for your protection than the pets, but good ideas in any case.

If that sounds scary, it’s meant to. In 2007, and again in 2012, multistate outbreaks of salmonella were tracked by the CDC, directly linked to dry pet foods. Dry pet foods and treats are recalled all the time due to the presence of salmonella. Almost 150 million pounds of dry dog food and almost 2 million pounds of treats were recalled between 2012 and 2019 for pathogenic bacteria.

For raw feeders, the food has a built in safety factor in being raw meat, and even a 6 year old knows that if you touch raw meat, you wash your hands. So raw feeders start from a position of respect for the food that typically kibble feeders have never considered. With that in mind, all of the handling procedures mentioned above still hold. Most raw feeders have multiple dishes that they rotate so that they always have one clean, ready to go, especially if they use a dishwasher.

Raw adds a step in to the process, defrosting. Unlike scoop and go kibble, raw comes frozen, and should be thawed for portioning and feeding. We recommend a three container rotation for this, putting a container with the frozen food into the fridge each day means that you will always have a defrosted batch ready to go. In my house, the food I’m using today, I took out two days ago, yesterday I took out a container that I will use tomorrow, and the food I put in the fridge today will be used in two days. Easy peasy.

If you forget to take out frozen food, use the same trick you would for a steak or a chicken breast. Take the frozen product, put it in an appropriately sized zip lock freezer bag (freezer bags are thicker and resist puncture better than sandwich bags). Fill the sink with cool water, and submerge the open bag up to the seal, taking care not to get water in the bag. Seal the bag while it is mostly submerged, which pushes out the air, so that the bag can submerge easily and the food will defrost from all side, not just the bottom of the brick/disk as it floats. Do not microwave, even to defrost, as it can cook the bones in the food, making them undigestible or dangerous. And never leave it on the counter.

Storing food is another consideration. Dry foods should be stored in a cool place. If you buy more than a month’s worth at a time, you should take a week or two’s worth out and then reclose the bag after pushing out all the air. This can keep it fresher.

Storing frozen foods is best done in a chest freezer, or a non-frostfree upright. Frost free freezers can cause freezer burn quickly due to their daily defrost cycle. If using a chest freezer, it is easiest to stand the box on end and remover the end of the box with a box cutter. This means never having to move the turkey to get at the food, and putting a new box in is much easier.

Food safety, like many things, is something we don’t usually think about until after there is a problem. Hopefully, this column helps someone avoid that.

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