The pet food industry has little regulation or oversight. Industry experts want that to change

The pet food industry has little regulation or oversight. Industry experts want that to change
  • PublishedMarch 25, 2024

Last year, veterinarian Anna Tebb treated a number of animals that made her think differently about Australia’s pet food industry. 

She saw three dogs who had acquired vitamin D toxicity from their food, something that was confirmed through blood tests. 

“All three of them presented with increased thirst and increased urination. And a couple of them were also vomiting,” the Perth-based internal medicine specialist says.

While two of these dogs recovered after a few weeks, one dog went into mild kidney failure and now has permanent kidney damage.

Animals receiving treatment at a vet surgery
Dr Tebb says some pet owners spend thousands of dollars to identify the cause of their pets’ illnesses. (ABC RN: Sophie Kesteven)

She says the dogs’ owners were understandably upset by what happened.

“It’s nothing that [the pet owners had] done … we put a lot of trust into pet foods and that what we’re doing is the right thing by our pets.”

So what’s being done to regulate this industry in Australia?

‘No pet food regulation at all’

Currently there are more pets than humans in Australia. Those 28.7 million companion animals include dogs, cats, fish, birds and other small animals.

Nearly 40 per cent of Australian households own a dog and 27 per cent own a cat, so it should come as no surprise that the pet food industry in Australia is estimated to be worth $5.7 billion.

But questions have been raised about what exactly goes into the food we give our pets each day.

Carolyn Macgill, the executive officer of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA), says there’s currently “no pet food regulation at all” in Australia.

In some countries, such as the United States, it’s the government’s responsibility to monitor pet foods and act on adverse pet food incidents.

Yet, despite a 2018 senate inquiry into the pet food industry where people in the sector called for a government body to oversee the industry in Australia, regulation is still not in place.

“I’m a pet owner — I have cats and dogs — and I would be horrified to think that, in good faith, I had bought a product that made my animals sick,” Ms Macgill says.  

It’s something she sees happening regularly. And although she’d like to improve things, she doesn’t have the authority to change it.

Unresponsive businesses

In the past 12 months, Ms Macgill has seen a rise in the number of pets getting sick from pet food containing excessive vitamin D or mould.

The technology tracking these cases is PetFAST, a non-government internet-based alert system that allows vets to report health problems in animals where they are suspected of being associated with pet food. It is mostly overseen by volunteer vets.

The system was developed in 2012 in conjunction with the Australian Veterinary Association and PFIAA after a spike of adverse pet food incidents in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

She says there are currently between 70 and 80 pet food businesses which are PFIAA members, but this only covers about 70 per cent of the pet food sold in Australia.

“What we find is that if it’s a [PFIAA] member, they’ll respond to my request for an investigation [after an incident]. And what we tend to see with non-members is that they don’t respond to that request,” Ms Macgill says.

“And because we have no pet food regulation at all, there is no one with enforcement powers to mandate a recall of a product where we have seen multiple PetFAST reports come through.”

The vitamin D toxicity or hypervitaminosis D cases that Dr Tebb saw last year were linked to a Bone Balancer supplement from a West Australian-based company called Prosperity Pet.

Prosperity Pet recalled the supplement voluntarily.

However it was also added to other products from other pet food companies unrelated to Prosperity Pet.

While some of those companies did an immediate recall of their food, it is not clear whether all these businesses withdrew their pet food from sale.

Uptick in pet food businesses

Young Asian woman shopping and choosing pet food in a supermarket
Australian households spend billions of dollars on pet services and products. More than half of that is spent on food. (Getty: Lupengyu)

Ms Macgill says the pet food industry is growing rapidly. She regularly receives inquiries from those who want to start a business in this sector.

“We have a whole range of people out there, who, because there are no rules around setting up a pet food business, they have the ability to come up with an idea and actually act on that idea and create a business,” she says.

To have a safer industry going forward, she wants PetFAST to be government funded and part of ongoing pet food regulation.

“For pet owners, and I’m a pet owner as well, I would like to think that if there was an adverse reaction in my animals, there would be follow-up at the least,” she says.

“But we need a government that has enforcement powers to enforce recalls. Recalls can prevent animals from becoming sick and can certainly prevent further deaths where a situation has occurred.”

‘Should be made mandatory’

The 2018 senate inquiry looked into better regulation to ensure the safety of pet food in Australia.

But since then, the government hasn’t adopted the suggested measures put forward to regulate the industry, such as a mandatory industry standard for pet food or enforced recalls of affected pet food. Instead they passed the responsibility onto states and territories. 

“There’s been little substantial progress since the 2018 review [which] is proof that national leadership on this matter is necessary,” says Sarah Zito, senior scientific officer at RSPCA Australia.

Dr Zito says the RSPCA understands that state and territory representatives will be considering the options for pet food safety regulation in 2024 and that a working group will make a recommendation to agriculture ministers once they conclude this work.

“To achieve [safe, high-quality pet food] we need all the states and territories to adopt and implement effective pet food regulation that includes making the Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food (AS5812) mandatory.”

This voluntary standard is available from Standards Australia, although there is a cost involved for businesses who want to access it. Dr Zito would like that standard to be mandatory as it is in many other countries. 

A spokesperson for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry told the ABC that as it stands: “States and territories have primary responsibility for overseeing the manufacture and sale of pet food in Australia”.

“The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has been working closely with states and territories to review current arrangements for managing pet food safety in Australia, with the aim of facilitating a nationally consistent approach,” the spokesperson said.

“This work has drawn input from many stakeholders, as well as from the findings of previous inquiries including the 2018 Senate inquiry.

“A report summarising the outcomes of this work is being developed by a working group of officials from state and territory governments and the department. It will be presented to agriculture ministers to consider later this year.”

The ABC also tried to speak to an owner whose dog was affected by an adverse pet food incident. However they said they could not talk to the media because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement. 

A mature aged woman holds a large ginger mancoon cat in a vet clinic.
Dr Georgina Child is a specialist veterinary neurologist at SASH in North Ryde, Sydney. (ABC: Sophie Kesteven)

Sydney-based veterinary neurologist Georgina Child has worked in the veterinary industry for more than four decades, and she’s witnessed a variety of adverse pet food incidents during that time.

She says it’s time that regulation around pets and other companion animals is taken more seriously.

“We’re a country where production animals are very important to the nation’s economy, and also biosecurity, and therefore they’ve been the primary interest. Whereas companion dogs and cats have not been seen in that same economic light,” Dr Child says.

‘Much broader effect’

Veterinary nutritionist Nick Cave wants pet food manufacturers to test their products and ensure the safety of their ingredients.

Dr Cave consults with a variety of pet food manufacturers and research organisations in New Zealand and Australia. He says when he’s purchasing food for his own pets, he often looks to see if the American Association of Feed Control Officials [AAFCO] label is on the bag. 

“The very first thing I will look for is that statement, that statement of adequacy. And if it is there, then I’m going to say okay, well, it’s adequate … It doesn’t mean it’s excellent, doesn’t mean it tastes wonderful, doesn’t mean it’s going to prevent disease. It just means it’s adequate,” he says.

Finally, it’s not just animals who are impacted by adverse pet food incidents.

It has lasting implications for pet owners as well, Ms Macgill says.

“If their animal has an adverse reaction to [pet food], there’s a whole range of personal issues that happen for them.

“And guilt is one of those things. They then have vet bills, but it’s also the psychological stuff that affects the pet owner, as well.

“So, it isn’t just a case of the animal is sick. It has a much broader effect on the family that that pet is part of.”


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