Contaminated Chow – How Aflatoxins Can Be Fatal for Fido

Mold and aflatoxin

Even as 2020 begins its slow recession into the rear view mirror of daily life, it nonetheless succeeds in finding ways to unsettle and discourage. During the purgatory of social isolation – be it quarantine, lockdown, or shelter-in-place – many of us have benefited from the easy company of man’s best friend, our faithful dog. Purebred or random genetic mix, the canines in our lives have – perhaps more than ever – offered us the comfort of certain and unconditional affection in a decidedly uncertain time. Which makes it all the more incensing that, before finally quitting 2020 had one last trick up its metaphorical sleeve: a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis linked to contaminated pet food. As with our previous articles on pet food, ‘Filet Mignon for Fido?’ and ‘Does Your Pandemic Pooch Need ‘Biotics’?’, we’re focusing today on safety concerns in commercial  food manufacture and importance of contamination control. If you feed branded dog food to your best friend, we have some information you just may need to digest…

According to a news article from the BBC, Midwestern Pet Foods of Evansville, Indiana, has recalled its Sportmix brand due to the presence of aflatoxins, a by-product of mold that grows on grains such as corn. In addition to the Sportmix brand, other affected products manufactured in the company’s Oklahoma facilities include Pro Pac Originals, Splash, Sportstrail, and Nunn Better cat and dog foods. If any of these reside in your pantry, it’s time to return them to the retailer because, according to the BBC, contamination of these foods has resulted in the poisoning deaths of 70 animals, and the sickening of 80 more. In a January 11, 2021 alert, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlined the situation as follows: ‘The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in cooperation with the state departments of agriculture for Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, is investigating certain Sportmix pet food products manufactured by Midwestern Pet Foods, Inc. that may contain potentially fatal levels of aflatoxins […] As of January 11, 2021, FDA is aware of more than 70 pets that have died and more than 80 pets that are sick after eating Sportmix pet food. Not all of these cases have been officially confirmed as aflatoxin poisoning through laboratory testing or veterinary record review. This count is approximate and may not reflect the total number of pets affected […] This is an ongoing investigation. Case counts and the scope of this recall may expand as new information becomes available.’(2)

So what are aflatoxins and how can we best protect against exposure?

One of the most significant types of mycotoxin, the term ‘aflatoxin’ is derived from the species of mold that produces it: Aspergillus flavus. Commonly found on crops such as wheat, corn, rice, tree nuts and peanuts, millet, and some spices, Aspergillus thrives in decaying vegetation and conditions of high humidity (7% and above) and increased temperatures. The mold infiltrates the crop when incorrectly stored and is transmitted via ingestion, although Aflatoxin B1 (AFB) can also be absorbed through the skin. When affected, dogs may present with a constellation of vague symptoms that often obfuscate the source. According to DMV360, a resource for veterinary professions, the issues driving the need for veterinary care could be reflective of a number of other poisonings: drug or heavy metal toxicity, infectious canine hepatitis, or exposure to biotoxins such as blue-green algae being the most obvious examples. So what are the signs associated with aflatoxicosis? DMV360 lists ‘anorexia, lethargy, vomiting, and jaundice. Hematochezia, melena, and hematemesis are sometimes present, as well as mucosal or more widespread petechiae and ecchymoses. Patients may have peripheral edema or ascites. Polyuria and polydipsia may also be noted. In some cases of toxicity, acute death occurs before clinical signs are noted. The disease is progressive, and the case fatality rate is high.’(3) And there is no antidote to this poisoning.

For our canine companions, the problem is further compounded by the often repetitive nature of their diet. Encouraged not to vary their dogs’ diet in order to minimize the potential for gastro-intestinal distress, pet owners risk enabling repeated exposure to the pathogen, one that does not show outward signs of contamination. This prolonged exposure allows the toxin to accumulate in the body and can result in chronic toxicity that directly impacts the hepatic system, leading to liver disease or cancers.

Readers who remain unpersuaded of the benefits of dog guardianship (we suspect this is a very small number) may question the extent to which the latest pet food recall is significant. Let us just note that in terms of aflatoxicosis what is true in canines is also true in humans: we are not exempt. Childhood vulnerability to Aspergillus can foreshadow developmental delays and stunted growth, with high-level exposure potentially resulting in hepatic necrosis, liver or gallbladder cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. Furthermore, tracing aflatoxicosis as the root of the problem is equally difficult in humans as it is in canines. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), detection is complicated by ‘variations in clinical signs and the presence of other factors such as suppression of the immune system caused by an infectious disease.’(4) Diagnosing aflatoxin exposure  involves measuring either a metabolite excreted in a patient’s urine or the presence of an AFB–albumin compound in the blood serum. However, where the latter can detect the biomarker weeks or even months after exposure, the urine analysis must be conducted within 24 hours of potential exposure.

In terms of tainted crops, moreover, retrieving a representative sample for analysis is equally not without challenges. The WHO notes that uneven distribution of the mold through the crop has led to the need for processes specific to this contamination: ‘Protocols for sampling procedures have been developed, in particular in the context of regulatory control. For instance, in setting maximum levels for aflatoxins, the Codex Alimentarius Commission has specified the protocols to be used for peanuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and pistachios intended for further processing and for ready-to-eat almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and dried figs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has developed a mycotoxin sampling tool. [However, recommended] sampling methods are a problem especially for subsistence farmers in rural areas who do not produce enough grain to spare the quantities needed for accurate testing. Thus there is a need to develop rapid, low-cost, low technology, accurate detection methods for aflatoxins to improve surveillance and control in rural areas. Organizations such as the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa and the World Food Programme [sic] are addressing these issues, e.g. the World Food Programme [sic] has instituted the Purchase for Progress Program to ensure grain quality by creating the Blue Box, which contains test kits for grain quality, including aflatoxins.’(5)

In a controlled environment such as a laboratory, testing for the presence of this pathogen leverages technologies such as high-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS), hyperspectral imaging, and molecularly imprinted polymers. But ‘in the field’ the use of other technologies is critical. Following a significant outbreak of aflatoxin poisoning was reported in Kenya in 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked with local authorities to trial a portable screening tool that could be used even in the absence of electrical power or refrigeration. According to the CDC investigators, ‘we used a portable lateral flow immunoassay; a test validated for use at commercial silo laboratories, and modified the methods for use in rural Kenya [… and the field methods] used during the outbreak were compared to Vicam immunoaffinity methods currently used at the Kenya National Public Health Lab. Field screening methods showed a sensitivity and specificity of 98 and 91% respectively. This investigation demonstrates that rapid lateral flow immunoasssays may be modified to provide a simple, on-site screening tool that gives immediate results and facilitates timely interventions.’(6)

So returning to the main focus of this discussion, the threat to our canine friends, what measures are being taken by manufacturer Midwestern Pet Foods to ensure the safety of their product? It’s a difficult question as the corporate website reveals no information regarding processes or quality assurance measures. We have to assume that Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols are in place, along with Current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs), however confirmation of that cannot be determined at this time. In contrast, Diamond Pet Foods which had its own aflatoxin recall back in 2005 now lists a battery of quality assurance tests run on its brand portfolio. These include 1,600+ microbiological tests and 1,340 mycotoxin texts per week, in addition to 56,000+ finished product nutritional tests per month, and 600+ safety assessments per year. Also detailed are water and air filtration and purification measures and a ‘test and hold’ program that uses an independent laboratory for outside product analysis. Measures like these are described by the company as being their ‘diamond standard’ but it’s one that we would like to see applied across the board when it comes to food manufacture. In an ideal world, of course…

So, if all of this information on the dangers of some brands of dog food has you anxious about what to feed your furry best friend, let us leave you with some lighter news. Ben & Jerry’s, arguably the nation’s favorite for eccentric ice cream artistry, has pioneered a sweet treat made with sunflower butter. Because dairy milks are hard to digest, ‘Doggie Desserts’ rely on the seed butter as a base and incorporate peanut butter and pretzels for ‘Pontch’s Mix’, or pumpkin and cookies, for ‘Rosie’s Batch.’ So is this a delightfully altruistic move on the part of Vermont’s favorite sons? Not entirely. The Ben & Jerry’s brand is now owned by behemoth Unilever, whose sharp corporate eye could not fail to spot a burgeoning market. With the pandemic showing few signs of abating, the company is tapping into an annual $96 billion market, with figures set to increase as the effects of continuing, long term social isolation see more folks welcoming a pandemic pooch into their lives. With that said, as a brand Ben & Jerry’s is synonymous not only with an idiocentric approach to frozen desserts, but also with being a dog-friendly employer. Indeed according to CNBC, ‘Before the pandemic, about 40 dogs would spend their days at the office and curl up under desks. The four-legged coworkers were a ready-made focus group.’(7) Assuming the products gain consumer support (of the two-legged, not four-legged, variety) Doggie Desserts will form a new competitor to the Frosty Paws frozen treats for dogs manufactured by Nestlé under the Purina brand. A long-time staple for pet parents, Frosty Paws may need to acknowledge the competition, especially from such a beloved brand as Ben & Jerry’s. After all, at a time when we are still isolating at home, enjoying comfort food with our best friend is a great stress reliever – so long as each party has their own share of the goodies.

For a peek at two of the Ben & Jerry’s focus group – Rosie and Pontch, for whom the two new products are named – check out the CNBC article. The dogs’ expressions may be exactly the right  kind of pick-me-up – well, that and a pint of ice cream perhaps? Let us know what you think about this article in the comments.


  5. ibid



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