It’s tough to find a contaminant when you don’t know what you’re looking for. But that doesn’t mean FDA isn’t trying hard to figure out why chicken jerky pet treats from China seem to be making so many dogs seriously ill.

Since the beginning of 2011, FDA has received a total of 537 reports from dog owners and veterinarians of dogs that fell ill after being fed these popular dog treats. Several days ago, I asked Laura Alvey of FDA what the agency was doing to solve the mystery, and received this reply:

“Testing continues and is ongoing. We have tested samples from all over the country.

Since so many of the reports received involved vomiting and diarrhea, we were looking for microbial pathogens. We have tested for salmonella and none have come back positive. We have been testing for chemical toxicants, including melamine, melamine analogs and diethylene glycol (DEG) and none have come back positive.

Unless we detect a contaminant and have evidence a product is adulterated, we are limited in what regulatory actions we can take. The regulations don’t allow for products to be removed based on complaints. We will continue to monitor.

We have reached out to relevant competent authorities in other countries to request intelligence on increased reports of illness in dogs associated with consumption of chicken jerky treats, any investigations conducted, analyses conducted on suspect product, etc. We have received some feedback regarding our questions and some suggested collaboration/sharing of information.

I asked the same question of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and had a very different – and far less comforting – reply from Dr. Carl Rudat, a Veterinary Program Specialist with CFIA.

The CFIA,” Rudat said, “does not have a process that records calls about chicken jerky treats. The CFIA has not conducted analyses of these products. Pet food and pet treats are unregulated commodities in Canada. However, due diligence is being done and Chinese pet treat facilities have been inspected by CFIA veterinarians. I hope you find this information useful.”

So, Canada is NOT recording or tallying illness reports on chicken jerky treats, is NOT testing chicken jerky treats, and does NOT regulate pet food and pet treats. But have no fear, because “due diligence is being done.”

I pursued the issue further. “Was CFIA in communication with FDA on this issue?” I asked.

CFIA is aware that the FDA is testing chicken jerky originating from China,” was his reply. “To date, nothing definitive has been determined.”

If CFIA does not regulate pet food and pet treats, what was the regulatory authority for CFIA’s policy entitled Import of Pet Food, Treats and Chews Containing Animal Products and By-Products? Why the heck was CFIA inspecting Chinese pet treat facilities? And what was meant by the reassurance that “due diligence is being done?”

I posed these questions (politely, of course), and was told that the legal framework for CFIA’s Import of Pet Food, etc. policy is the Health of Animals Act and Regulations. Animal by-products are regulated under this Act, and “…most pet food begins as an animal by-product.” Dr. Rudat added that CFIA has the authority to prevent “diseases of concern” from entering Canada. He did not elaborate on his “due diligence” statement.

Sounds to me as though pet food is regulated when CFIA finds it convenient, but not otherwise.

The situation on the US side of the world’s longest undefended border is quite different. FDA has taken a lead role in trying to find the source of the chicken jerky problem, and is continuing to pursue the issue assiduously. Unfortunately, as FDA Spokeswoman Laura Alvey reminded me, the agency cannot take regulatory action unless a contaminant has been detected and there is evidence that a product is adulterated.

I expect that FDA eventually will find the answer to this mystery. Presumably, once FDA comes up with a solution for the problem, Canada will gladly accept the fruits of a free ride.