As a civil suit surrounding a case of monensin feed contamination begins its journey through the court system in California, some horse owners are turning a more critical eye toward the quality and safety of the feed they're using. Fortunately, a series of new laws are going into effect this year for producers of human and animal feed that will tighten requirements on companies when it comes to identifying and tracking problems with their products' safety.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2011, and it granted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a variety of new powers to regulate the production and transport of food in the United States in order to reduce food-borne illness. For some manufacturers, guidelines surrounding preventative controls for animal feed and transportation were just finalized within the last year, which means that feed companies have had to change their systems to comply.
“Essentially, I have to be able to identify every ingredient I purchase as a raw ingredient,” said Hallway Feeds general manager Jeff Pendleton. “We go above and beyond that; I can identify farms where oats are grown.”
Hallway, which is located in Lexington, Ky., estimates it feeds 24,000 horses each day and produces 1.5 million bags of feed each year. This requires an extensive paper trail, not only for the identity and origin of ingredients, but one that outlines the transportation of those ingredients, and the details about their processing. That also carries translates into where, when, and how finished products make their way to the consumer, which can prove a challenge for companies like Hallway, which see 15 to 20 percent of their sales go overseas.
“Once it leaves here I have to be able to trace it, who bought it, where'd it go,” Pendleton said. “There are good manufacturing practices that are standard, and the FDA checks that scales are accurate, rodent-proofing, any of those types of things.”
Pendleton conducts audits of Hallway's ingredient suppliers, too, a failsafe that he says “is often overlooked.” He checks to make sure the companies providing the ingredients are doing what they should to prevent contamination, and that they, like Hallway, are free of ionophores like monensin.
The Food Safety Modernization Act will require more frequent federal inspections for feed mills, grants the FDA access to their records, allows the agency to test feed, and also requires producers to have a recall plan in place if anything goes wrong.
Although most of those regulations are aimed at animals that go into the human food supply, Pendleton believes that horses are included more because they are a type of livestock than because of the risk of human consumption abroad (although it's true that human health experts have voiced concerns about the safety of equine medications such as phenylbutazone in the human system).
As it stands now, state and FDA inspectors drop by the feed mill for spot checks, and Pendleton said even some of the larger farms who use the company's feeds will pull samples at the mill from time to time for their own testing.
In the past, Pendleton said he would pull samples at random to check their contents; now, he also does a balancing act with a sheet listing all the raw ingredients used for the day (down to the ounce) and the weights of finished grain mixes produced that day. If anything fails to match up, he knows it's time to take a closer look at whether ingredients made it into the right places in the right amounts. That means that if one of Hallway's machines were to accidentally overload a bag with a mineral, Pendleton would be aware before the product even left the warehouse.
“I don't have any problems sleeping,” Pendleton said. “It takes some stress away.”
Additionally, Hallway retains samples of every batch it puts out in the event that veterinarians or officials need to investigate a horse's death or a drug positive in competition. Last year, a pair of Swiss show jumpers made headlines when the FEI found that drug positives in their horses were caused by poppy seed contamination of their feed. It wasn't the first discovery that a positive test was caused by the presence of an unwelcome addition to a horse's breakfast. Pendleton said it's not uncommon for owners and trainers of a horse fighting a positive to accuse their feed company of wrongdoing, so he's happy to have samples to help him sort out the mess.
Consumers shouldn't necessarily rely on the new act to do the work of checking out their feed companies for them — even the FDA has acknowledged that the Food Safety Modernization Act will only be as good as the compliance with the new regulations it brings. Instead, Pendleton said there are a few areas owners and managers can research themselves when considering a supplier switch.
“Consumers should ask: if the feed is manufactured in a multi-species facility? Is the feed manufacturing facility antibiotic/ionophore free?” he said. “Is there protocol for supplier verification? Is there protocol for transportation of ingredients and finished goods?
“If the retailer cannot answer these questions, steer clear.”
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