Pet foods from four companies were recalled by the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday after Salmonella showed up in a variety of products.
Fortune spoke with Bill Marler, a food safety expert who has been a foodborne illness lawyer since 1993, about what pet owners should know about how the disease is spread and what to do if you or your pet is affected.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Fortune: Do we see recalls on pet food products as often as human food?
Marler: It’s pretty frequent that pet recalls occur. The FDA oversees pet food just like they do human food.
How different are the regulations on food produced for humans versus animals?
They are as stringent of regulations on pet food as there are human food, which might surprise most people.
Consumers, in my experience, sometimes seem more concerned with their pet’s health than they are about their own health -- and I suppose as a dog owner I can understand why.
There have been a lot of fairly significant recalls. Sort of a famous one was the melamine in the dog food back in like 2005 and there were literally thousands of dogs and cats that were sickened by a melamine additive that was added in China. And there was a class action litigation--I was involved in that--and the FDA did a substantial recall and it had enormous impacts on imports from China.
It’s also had pretty profound affects in China, not only as far as their food safety with pet food, but with human food.
So there have been cases of finding chemicals or pathogens in animal food. There are, I won’t say a significant number, but there are a few cases, like this recent recall, where it’s likely that the recall was prompted by human illnesses.
How does that get traced back to dog food?
The way that works is some kids come in with Salmonella and [the health department] investigates--because Salmonella is a really portable disease--and they see that the common denominator is that these kids maybe played with dog food or a toddler maybe ate some of it.
Those happen, I wouldn’t say as frequently as other recalls, but there was a rash of illnesses from pig ears or chew toys or bully sticks. A lot of the pet treats cause people to get sick due to the handling of them.
So that’s why the FDA is so concerned about bacteriological contamination in animal food is because dogs and cats can get salmonella from eating the food and then they’re in such close proximity to humans that it’s easy to get transmitted illnesses from your animal to you.
It’s not the thing that most people think about.
So pet food is pretty highly regulated?
Yes, I think the FDA takes this stuff pretty seriously.
It’s interesting, with the recall that’s happening and the scrutiny of both Listeria and Salmonella problems at this plant here in the Pacific Northwest, it seems like there might be some room to argue that the FDA didn’t get on top of these people soon enough, given the numbers of recalls they’ve had on their products.
It’s a public health issue.
The regulations for human food and animal food are the same, but are there differences in the way they’re produced that would affect the risk for contamination?
Not necessarily. People might find it odd that human food may be produced at the same quality as dog food--you’d maybe expect it to be produced at a higher level.
I think, frankly, because the FDA is concerned about human contamination, directly or indirectly, from handling or consuming pet food, they take the same sort of precautions.
You could argue that the FDA doesn't do enough on either [pet food or human food], but that's an issue of man power. The FDA does not inspect these facilities as often as a food safety lawyer would like.
But those are economic choices that Congress and taxpayers have made over time. We don’t have the inspecting force at the FDA that, I think, we need given potential--especially imported food products.
What kind of legal options do pet owners have if they or their dogs have been affected?
The two kids or three kids who are sick, they clearly have legal rights that would allow them or their parents to get medical expenses and wages lost for the parents for time missed at work taking care of the kids, and a pain and suffering award, depending on how sick the kids were.
So with humans it’s pretty straightforward from a legal perspective. Animals are, despite how much people love them, considered property, so what pet owners can recover is medical expenses if the animal had to have some kind of medical treatment, but if the animal died the family would not be able to recover emotional distress losses from the injury to their animal.
You would get the market value of the animal if the animal died, plus any medical expenses.
What does this recall mean for the dog food companies?
There are very little economic consequences for these outbreaks, which, again, underscores why it's important that the FDA regulate them, because the market doesn’t necessarily have a mechanism for making them accountable.
Are there any other steps people should take to prevent the spread of Salmonella?
From a consumer safety perspective, people need to--especially when it comes to raw pet food or chew toys--think about them like they’re handling raw meat.
You need to wash your hands--especially for kids, who get into dog food or the kitty litter. You need to wash your kids’ hands and have precautions. Even though the FDA is regulating [pet food companies], there’s not going to be a zero chance of risk. So use good hand washing techniques and food handling techniques with animal food.