Like everyone, I was incredibly saddened to learn of the illness and untimely deaths of a number of dogs in Victoria earlier this year. These were beloved pets in otherwise good health, who consumed raw “beef” pet meat and quickly developed liver failure. While some survived, tragically at least 24 dogs were unable to be saved, with in excess of 40 more left severely ill and potentially requiring lifelong medical care.
What was perhaps equally alarming for some people, was the revelation that there are major differences between the kind of meat we eat ourselves, and the kind of meat that is permitted to be sold as “pet meat.”
It’s a topic that’s fraught with confusing and inconsistent regulations, which result in an opaque set of rules that vary from state to state. Consequently, consumers often find themselves left largely in the dark about what exactly goes into their pet’s food. I dare say a typical consumer would simply trust that any meat they purchase is subject to incredibly strict and legislated regulatory measures governing things like supply chain management and food safety, regardless of whether it is for themselves or for their pet. And they would be well within reason to do so.
Unfortunately, there are in fact significant differences in sourcing, handling and labelling requirements between meat that is intended for human consumption, and meat that is destined for our pet’s bowl.
It’s important to note from the beginning that regardless of the type of meat a product contains, if it is intended for pets, it will state something along the lines of “pet food only - not for human consumption,” but this statement alone does not dictate the source of the meat contained within. This is why you will see such a label on all pet food products, even if 100% of the meat that goes into them is sourced from within the human supply chain.
So, what’s the difference between pet grade and human grade?
Well, there are several key factors at play that inform the quality of the meat our pets eat, but the difference between an abattoir and a knackery is probably the most essential thing to understand. Put simply, an abattoir slaughters and processes meat that is fit for human consumption, and a knackery slaughters and processes meat that is intended for animal food. Some knackery meat may be from animals that have died or been killed prior to arriving at the facility, such as “dead and dying livestock,” or animals killed and dressing in “the field.” It’s also possible that meat may be rejected from an abattoir and end up at a pet meat processor.
I have noticed a new trend towards referring to some knackeries as “pet food abattoirs,” but from what I can ascertain, this is purely an exercise in rebranding and not a regulated term or a type of premises that is in any way legally distinct from a knackery.
Abattoirs are primarily regulated in accordance with the Australian standard for the hygienic production and transportation of meat and meat products for human consumption (AS4696:2007), which is enshrined in law by the relevant state body. Knackeries are predominantly regulated in accordance with the Australian standard for the hygienic production of pet meat(PISC Report 88),which is similarly enshrined in law by the relevant state body (usually).
To say broadly that knackeries and pet meat processing establishments are not regulated is untrue and unfair to those who work hard to safely dispose of animals and their meat that is not suitable for human consumption. Any pet food producer who is licensed and follows the required food safety protocols will tell you the same. They are, in fact, strictly regulated by the same state bodies who regulate meat for human consumption, with a few exceptions.
However, it would also be untrue to say that the actualregulations that determine if meat is safe to consume are the same for pet grade meat as they are for human grade meat, and this is an extremely important difference. It's so important that consumers understand what they are buying, and the recent incident in Victoria revealed that this is not always the case.
The standard governing abattoirs and whether their meat is suitable for human consumption is centred around the premise of “wholesomeness,” which is defined by 8 points relating to things like food borne disease, hygiene, intoxication, contamination, defects, additives, and treatment with substances. It also includes a 9-page schedule of “diseases and other abnormalities,” almost all of which result in the meat being condemned, in some cases to become animal food. Conversely, this word “wholesome” is not defined in the pet meat standard, and in fact is entirely absent from it. The pet meat standard includes a 5-page appendix detailing 48 postmortem observations, of which 25 are permitted to be passed for pet meat after trimming or freezing the affected carcass. These include abscesses, cysts, flystrike, measles, staphylococcus and tuberculosis, in varying degrees of severity, as well as “delays in processing.”
The Australianstandard for the hygienic production of pet meat is enforced by statutory food safety regulators in Victoria, SA, NSW, and the NT, meaning it’s not accurate to say pet meat is unregulated, but rather the issue is that elements of these regulations are clearly flawed. It does not appear to be utilised in Western Australia, and in fact their government website states, “[p]et meat is produced and processed under much lower standards than food produced for human consumption and therefore not safe for consumers to eat." There are also several loopholes—which I’m not going to detail out of concern they could be utilised—that mean it is still possible, at least in some states, to legally produce pet food without any governance whatsoever. To make this even more convoluted, Tasmania has their own Code of Practice for Hygienic Production of Pet Food, and “all meat processed in Queensland must be fit for human consumption, regardless of whether it is intended for pets” (hot tip – pet food manufactured in QLD is all human grade!)
Under the main pet meat standard, knackeries are required to implement identification mechanisms into their processes so that any issues can be traced back to the source, which fortunately was possible in Victoria recently. In this case a link was quickly made between several retailers and a knackery in Gippsland, but it took a little while longer to determine the source of the meat and the issue causing illness in people’s pets. Ultimately it was found to be from horses originating in the Northern Territory, thought to be destined for human consumption via export from Queensland. These horses had eaten native plants called Indigofera, which contain the toxin indospicine, a compound that is highly toxic to dogs. Because this toxin does not pose the same threat to humans, it wasn’t flagged as a problem that the horses had come from an area where Indigofera is prevalent, but somewhere along the way this meat was diverted to a pet food knackery, and it became a very big problem. Despite this, no charges were laid following this investigation, simply because no laws were broken.
Another thing to be aware of is that it is the end user—pets or humans—that determines which standard applies, not just the source of the meat. And this is where things can get a little murky… (except in Queensland).
Regardless of whether you use human grade meat from an abattoir, or pet grade meat from a knackery, if you are making pet food then you are at best legally regulated under the pet meat standard, or its local equivalent. This is important, because this standard does not dictate any labelling requirements in terms of the content of the meat, meaning the animal from which it came (eg. “beef”), and in fact it does not mention the word “ingredient” even once. This is one reason that pet food sometimes lists beef and/or chicken and/or pork, whereas you would absolutely not expect to see that at your local butcher (jokes about sausages aside). It is also why the meat that was involved in the recent recall in Victoria was able to be labelled “beef,” when in fact it contained mostly horse meat.
There is an additional Australian Standard that must be followed if a company chooses to become a member of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia, and this one does set out some (frankly, pretty loose) guidelines around labelling, but it is far from perfect and membership to the PFIAA is entirely voluntary. This standard is not enshrined in any laws and there is no requirement for non-members to adhere to it.
Because of all this, coupled with the requirement that allpet food be labelled “pet food only” regardless of whether the meat came from an abattoir or a knackery, it is basically impossible for a consumer to know whether a product contains human grade meat or pet grade meat unless it specifically states one or the other. Truly the only way a consumer can know for certain whether a product is made from “human grade” or “pet grade” meat is if their pet food producer says so, and they trust them.
And this onus for pet owners to diligently and extensively research whether a company is meeting a convoluted set of standards and is trustworthy should never be put onto the consumer. Consumers should have an expectation that all products on the market are consistently and strictly regulated, regardless of who produces them, which state they are in, and who the product is intended for. Add to this that most consumers are unaware of these regulatory gaps, and there is enormous potential for well-placed anxiety among pet owners when incidents like this occur.
Because the product in this recent case was raw meat sold in Victoria, and thus regulated by the diligent Victorian regulatory authority Primesafe, it was able to be fairly quickly traced, in part thanks to the pet food adverse event reporting system PetFAST. This was certainly a huge blessing that saved countless lives, but nonetheless the incident has highlighted the vast discrepancies in the regulatory mechanisms that oversee the production of our pets’ food.
I want to make it very clear that this isn’t intended to be a judgement upon anyone who feeds pet grade meat because it is affordable or because they choose to for any other reason, nor is it a blanket statement that ALL pet meat is inherently bad — I feed my dogs some foods that wouldn’t be considered human grade and that I personally would not eat. But I do this from the position of being informed and understanding the implications of these choices, which seems to be a key feature that is largely lacking in this conversation.
There was perhaps a time that this wouldn’t have seemed like such a big deal but as our pets have become increasingly dear to us, the notion that we might be unknowingly feeding our animals inferior or unsafe produce is more and more alarming. This is why the government desperately needs to put in place mandatory, consistent, nation-wide regulations of pet food, that centre around the welfare of the animals eating their products, and not of the industry producing them.
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