Dr. Janak Dhakal, Assistant Professor of Animal Science, Department of Agriculture (Photo by Todd Dudek, Ag Communications)

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to aid its research into how commercial pet food transmits foodborne pathogens to humans.

The $600,000 in funding, awarded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), enables research to run through March 2027.

“We hear about the salmonella outbreaks linked to chicken, produce, and vegetables, and pet foods contain a similar type of salmonella, especially the raw ones,” said Dr. Janak Dhakal, an assistant professor in UMES’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences, and one of the principal investigators in the study. “When we handle and feed these feeds to our pets, we may get exposure through contaminated feed handling.  Additionally, the pets then become a carrier for salmonella and increase our risk for exposure.”

The prevalence of salmonella in pet food can be attributed to the differences in how they are processed and what ingredients were used compared with food produced for human consumption, Dhakal added. At post-processing steps, human food is treated with antimicrobials and heat.  There is no established post-processing intervention for commercial pet foods leading to potentially higher load of the bacteria.

Dhakal further added that since 2015, there have been at least 58 recalls due to salmonella in pet foods in the United States and 6 of those were associated with human illness and hospitalization. Out of the 58 recalls, more than half were linked to raw pet foods.  

“Dr. Dhakal’s project is especially timely for the university as UMES is preparing to start a new School of Veterinary Medicine,” Dr. Sandeep Gopalan, Interim Vice President for Research said. “Moreover, the research being conducted by Dr. Dhakal and colleagues has important implications beyond pets because of our understanding of One Health.”

One Health, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is “a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach” that works at the local, regional, national, and global levels with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

NIFA’s funding of the study is unusual as the regulation of pet food is normally under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, not the USDA. The USDA was included because the salmonella found in pet foods is known to cause human illnesses, not necessarily in pets.

When applying for the funding, the researchers had to plead their case for the study’s viability to the USDA after receiving an initial no-go decision from the internal reviewers. As a result of the researchers’ advocacy, the USDA agreed to reconsider the proposal and ultimately approve the grant.

“It was a burning issue and I think the USDA realized that it’s not actually a pet food issue, but that it is a human health issue,” he said. “It’s attracting interest from researchers to act in this area.”

Dhakal said the grant aids UMES in becoming one of the forerunners in examining the safety of pet food. UMES hopes to ultimately provide training to pet food manufacturers on applying proper safety measures.

“We want to be one of the hubs for research in the pet food sector,” he said. “There are not many institutions in the U.S. working on it, and it’s growing in popularity.”

Scroll to Top