By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – What your dog eats for dinner wouldn’t normally be something one would think as a controversial topic, but it’s been stirring up a storm in state and federal courts in Colorado. The debate is over the safety of raw pet food, which has become a popular trend for many pet owners across the state.

Arlo enjoys a raw meat bone in Stapleton (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

One raw pet food company, Lystn, which makes Answers pet food, says its products are healthier than traditional kibble because nutrients haven’t been cooked out of the food, and it’s not infused with chemicals or preservatives.

But, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration say raw pet food can be dangerous.

Since 2018, the FDA says there have been 32 national recalls of raw pet food products, because they tested positive for harmful bacteria like listeria and salmonella.

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Agencies warn pets can spread that bacteria to humans and make them sick, especially those more vulnerable, like babies and the elderly.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture said Answers pet food could be dangerous, because it found salmonella and listeria bacteria in samples of Answers’ products while conducting monthly pet food testing last year. The department fined the company $750 for those positive results.

But instead of paying that fine, Lystn decided to spend more than $750 to fight it in state administrative court, claiming the state’s testing practices are unfair and the state is enforcing unreasonable regulations.

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Lystn doesn’t debate that bad bacteria like listeria and salmonella may be present in its products, but instead argues there isn’t enough of that bacteria to make people sick. The company’s owner, Keith Hill, also insists his company implements a fermentation process to introduce good bacteria into its food that counteracts the bad bacteria.

“Our product is very unique in that, because of the fermentation, it continues to protect the food, the pet, and the pet owner,” Hill explained.

The company has also filed suit against the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in federal district court, aiming to set a precedent and protect the raw pet food industry.

“The federal government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that there’s some problem with raw pet food, and it prefers chemically irradiated dry food, kibble,” said attorney Joseph O’Keefe, of Colorado Springs, who represents Lystn. “They are denying consumers choice.”

Answers raw pet food (credit: CBS)

O’Keefe said the Colorado Department of Agriculture has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy pushed by the FDA regarding how it tests for pathogens in pet food. The suit claims that policy is not legally enforceable.

“There’s no logic behind this policy at all, there’s no science behind this policy at all, and in enacting it, they have absolutely positively misled the public,” O’Keefe said. “(Lystn’s) food is not only safe, one of our clients, the production manager, will eat the raw pet food like pate coming directly off the line, because it’s a USDA approved plant, you can’t tell me someone making kibble would do the same.”

The FDA declined to comment on the federal lawsuit, as it is ongoing litigation.

However, Administrative Law Judge Matthew Norwood has issued an initial decision in the state case, noting that the level of salmonella found in the Answers pet food sample was enough to make it “ordinarily harmful” to health, but there was not enough evidence to show there was a harmful level of listeria.

The court upheld the $750 state fine against Lystn.

In his initial decision, Norwood wrote, “(Lystyn) asserts that the young, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are outliers and should not be included in deciding what is meant by ‘ordinarily harmful.’ It argues that the few deaths in the Blue Bell ice cream case are insignificant in light of the total amount of ice cream that was sold. But the idea that children or the elderly are expendable, or the cost of doing business, is completely inconsistent with any reasonable food safety regulation scheme. The General Assembly could not have meant to exclude these individuals from consideration by the language ‘ordinarily harmful.’”

That decision is an initial decision and is currently being reviewed.

Attorneys with the Colorado Department of Agriculture declined to comment on camera, but a spokesperson for the department sent the following statement about the state case decision: “The Colorado Department of Agriculture Inspection and Consumer Services Division has received the Initial Decision from the Administrative Law Judge and is reviewing that decision. The litigation is still on-going and we cannot comment on the specifics of the case.”

Meanwhile, experts advocating for safe consumer products warn consumers to be vigilant when they’re at the pet store.

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“At the end of the day, consumers have a right to know what’s in their pet food,” said Jaclyn Bowen, Executive Director for the Clean Label Project. “Over 90% of pet parents consider their pets a part of the family… just like we’re trying to eat healthier, we want the same for our pets.”

A couple of years ago, the Clean Label Project tested 1,100 top selling traditional pet foods in America, and found some disturbing results.

“We tested them for industrial and environmental contaminants and toxins. Things like heavy metals, pesticide residues, and we reported these results to consumers as a wake-up call that we really need to be concerned about what’s in our pet food,” Bowen said.

While Bowen says it’s good to find wholesome products, she explained if consumers do want to try raw food, they should look for foods that go through a “kill step” to eliminate any harmful bacteria that could be present. A kill step for raw food could be subjecting it to high pressures, so nothing has technically been cooked.

Barbara Garcia, of Thornton, feeds her dog Bentley, an Aussie Cattle Mix, that type of raw food.

“I think it’s probably one of the best dog foods that we’ve seen out there,” Garcia said. “He devours it, so he obviously really likes it.”

Bentley poses for a photo at his home in Thornton. (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

She made the switch after she said her old dog got sick eating kibble.

“We could see instantly that her energy level was better. She was able to digest the food better as well,” Garcia said.

If you’re wondering what’s best for your pet, Bowen explained, it’s important you read the labels and list of ingredients, just like you would for your own food.

“Do your research, reach out to companies if you have questions,” said Bowen. “Always ask your veterinarian what food is right for your pet.”

Kati Weis


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