Since April 2021, over 278 cases of feline pancytopenia, approximately 130 of which have proved fatal, have been detected amongst the UK's feline population. This has now led to a recall of various cat foods, affecting large and small retailers.
Despite no definitive evidence, a possible link has been established between this rare condition and certain hypoallergenic cat food products, leading to a major voluntary recall by the manufacturer, Fold Hill Foods Limited (‘FHF'), a recall welcomed by the Royal Veterinary College.
The primary regulator for pet food in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Food Standards Agency (‘FSA'), has published details of the recall, which is labelled as precautionary, on its website.
The recall has impacted a supermarket whose own brand cat food is one of the product lines in question, and a sizeable pet shop chain, who stocked some products now being recalled by FHF. Another retailer has decided to issue a voluntary recall for several of its own-brand products manufactured by FHF, despite them not having been included in the recall. It is not suggested that there is any evidence linking the products manufactured for this retailer with cases of feline pancytopenia, and FHF have confirmed this retailer's decision was purely commercial.
Aside from the wellbeing of the nation's feline friends, reputation is no doubt at the forefront of the minds of retailers affected by this recall, particularly where own-brand products are of concern. Retailers are sensitive to their customers' concerns and recognise that the default position of the average pet owner is that the pet is effectively a ‘member of the family'.
But is this an isolated incident? How will consumers perceive these issues, and what do businesses need to know about pet food regulation?
Pet food recalls: a trend
The FHF recall is not an isolated incident. In this country or elsewhere. There have been many pet food recalls over the decades, and some high profile ones, particularly in the USA. In 2007 the USA led in what became a global pet food recall of over 5000 different pet food products due to the presence of melamine and cyanuric acid allegedly causing widespread kidney failure and fatalities in dogs and cats.
In late 2020, following the deaths of between 28 and 70 dogs, a US pet food manufacturer recalled nine lots of pet food products, after high levels of aflatoxin, which can cause fatalities in pets, was found in samples. Two weeks later the recall was expanded to include all pet foods containing corn from a specific plant with a particular expiry date. An investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration followed, as did the filing of a proposed class action.
Closer to home, earlier this year Mars Petcare UK recalled several dog food products due to vitamin D levels exceeding the permitted intake.
And last week, a Welsh based manufacturer recalled some frozen raw dog food products because of salmonella.
Demand for pet food is increasing (over 3.2 million pets were purchased during the UK lockdown). Different types of pet food products (particularly ‘premium' types) are proliferating. Pet food recalls, and reputational risk for both manufacturers and retailers, is unlikely to be going away.
Despite the FSA website stating the recall has been prompted because of action taken by the manufacturer, consumers may be quick to point the finger at the retailers stocking the products, particularly when a retailer's own brand product is involved.
Point of sale notices (‘POS notices'), such as those displayed in retailers in light of the FHF recall, can go some way to shaping public perception. POS notices are displayed in stores to make consumers aware of a recall. The wording of the POS notice can help distance the retailer from the recall.
In relation to FHF's recall, whilst one notice explicitly states the retailer is voluntarily recalling certain cat food products, rather than the manufacturer, another states the retailer is supporting the manufacturer's decision to withdraw and recall certain products. The subtle difference between these two POS notices could alter public perception. Retailers should be careful when drafting POS notices to consider reputational risk. However, a well drafted POS notice can only do so much. It is vital retailers understand pet food regulation.
Pet food regulation
Food intended for animals is governed by the same laws, and as many animals form part of the human food chain, the laws are strict so as to protect the health of humans as well as animals.
Ingredients and manufacturing
EU Regulations (incorporated post Brexit into the UK's domestic legislation) governing general food and feed hygiene are enforceable by the FSA under The Animal Feed (Composition, Marketing and Use) (England) Regulations 2015 (‘Composition Regulations') and the Animal Feed (Hygiene, Sampling etc. and Enforcement) (England) Regulations 2015 (other countries within the UK have their own equivalent composition and hygiene regulations). These establish the general food safety standards to be followed and for traceability for human food and animal feed. They require businesses involved in the use, manufacture or marketing of feed to be approved or registered with the competent authority, and to ensure third country importations meet certain conditions regarding origin and safety.
Retailers should ensure that the manufacturers from which products are being obtained have the necessary authorisations and registrations in place, including those from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (‘APHA'), and/or the relevant local authority should a manufacturer be processing animal by-products or material of animal origin into pet food. Approval is also required for producers and transporters of animal by-products, given the potential for contamination.
The types of animal by-products which can be processed into pet food depend on whether the pet food is raw or processed, but as a general rule, category 1 and 2 by-products (i.e. classed as high risk) are not allowed in pet food products.
Industry codes of practice are also in place. The European Pet Food Industry Federation (‘FEDIAF') publications ‘Guide to Good Practice for the Manufacture of Safe Pet Foods' and ‘Nutritional Guidelines for Complete and Complementary Pet Food for Cats and Dogs' provide guidance on manufacturing safety and hygiene, and nutrient levels and nutritional value.
The Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (‘PFMA') (leading trade body for the UK pet food industry) has published UK specific guidelines for manufacturing raw pet food.
Labelling and marketing
Standards regarding the placing on the market of pet foods are enforceable under the Composition Regulations (or equivalent). FEDIAF have also produced a Code of Good Labelling Practice for pet food. Together, legislation and guidance place restrictions on the use of health and nutritional claims on pet food packaging, along with requirements to include allergen, additive and food composition information.
The Advertising Standards Agency has highlighted the need to refrain from implying an animal product can cure health conditions, if the product is not a licensed medical product. Claims about general health benefits are permitted, provided there is robust evidence to support them.
Pet food issues seem increasingly likely to occur. In the current climate they are likely to generate more attention than previously, particularly if numbers of much-loved pets become gravely ill, or worse. It represents risk – both legal and reputational – to manufacturers and retailers alike. It may not previously, for understandable reasons, have been given the priority that human foodstuffs have been. It will be interesting to see what priority this area is now given in light of recent events, whether by manufacturers, retailers or regulators.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.