FDA to issue new announcement on links between certain diets and heart disease in dogs after expressing concern for pet food industry “bottom line” and vowing to tamp down on public statements

The Canine Review has learned that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is planning to issue an update regarding compelling new data about certain types of diets linked to heart disease in dogs. The data, which was presented by FDA officials last month at a conference for pet food industry stakeholders, regulators, and academics, had still not yet been reported or announced by the FDA on its own website as of Thursday afternoon.

The materials for the conference, including the data, were first reported on third year veterinary student Caitlin Holly’s blog, Doc Of All Trades, and the data is startling. Reports of diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, cases in dogs have more than doubled from 515 cases when the FDA issued its announcement in June 2019  to 1100 cases this year. DCM is a condition in which the heart’s ability to pump blood weakens which, in turn, causes fluid to build up in the lungs, ultimately leading to heart failure.

That earlier announcement took the unprecedented step of singling out and naming the 16 pet foods most frequently linked to reported canine heart disease cases.

The new FDA data offers perhaps the most compelling indictment of the special diets that the FDA has linked to DCM, often referred to by veterinarians as BEG diets [“boutique, exotic, grain-free”]. “BEG “is an acronym created by renowned veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Freeman, who is widely regarded as one of the leading experts on the subject.

There’s another story, which may be more significant — which is the fact that the important new data was not announced or reported on F.D.A.’s website until after TCR started making inquiries about the conference materials discovered by Holly. Among those materials were “Opening Remarks” delivered by F.D.A. Center for Veterinary Medicine chief Dr. Steven Solomon in which he seems to express concern for how his agency’s research might affect the “bottom line” of some pet food companies.

Pet food industry stakeholders exerting pressure on regulators and lawmakers is nothing new. On September 11, about three weeks before the D.C.M. conference, U.S. senators Steve Daines, Mike Crapo, Roy Blunt, Jon Tester, Kevin Cramer, James Risch, and John Hoeven issued a letter to F.D.A. chief Dr. Stephen Hahn, requesting that F.D.A. scientists coordinate their presentation of materials and data at the upcoming conference- “including guidance about the agenda, details on the abstracts and individuals who will be presenting, the process by which the FDA (and any external stakeholders) determines who and what should be presented, how discussion/questions and answers will be managed, and other pertinent information about the event” –  with the senators, noting that “the investigation has been of significant interest to the pet food industry, its supply chain – which includes farmers in our states.”  The senators added: “Please let us know how the FDA intends to release the information presented at the symposium.”

Three weeks later at the forum, the F.D.A.’s Solomon said in his opening remarks:

We have tried to be careful in our messaging, and we recognize going forward not to speak on this topic publicly unless we are clarifying information or have something substantive to share….Although CVM’s investigation must be driven by science and our public health mission, we are acutely aware that promoting transparency and public awareness may not be kind to everyone’s bottom line.”

Neither Dr. Solomon nor Anne Norris, the spokesperson for F.D.A.’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, have responded to our questions about the opening remarks, including whether Dr. Solomon intended for the remarks to be public, and why so much compelling new F.D.A. data was released on a non-government website.  They have also has not responded to our question regarding pushback from pet food companies after F.D.A. issued its announcement in 2019.

Renowned veterinary cardiologist Dr. Steven Rosenthal of Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates (CVCA) was among the experts who presented research at the DCM symposium last month. Dr. Rosenthal also works closely with the F.D.A. in its work on investigating possible links between DCM and diet. A packed schedule has not yet given him the opportunity to speak on this story, but in an interview with TCR for a different story on a related topic, Dr. Rosenthal said that a few months after the F.D.A. issued its report in June 2019, he received a letter from veterinary nutritionist George Fahey, a consultant for Taste of the Wild (the food which the FDA’s report listed as the third most linked pet food to DCM).  Rosenthal says Fahey’s letter asked him not to advise against feeding dogs Taste of the Wild, telling him that there was ‘no evidence of a relationship’ [between DCM and diet].

“They basically asked me to not tell people to not feed their diet,” he recalled.

“I emailed him to say ‘I disagree with you and I’m happy to send you evidence. I don’t have controlled studies, but I can show you examples of patients who have improved when their diet was changed. And their response was ‘Thank You.’”

Also in attendance at the DCM forum was Dana Brooks, the president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute (PFI), the American pet food industry’s largest trade association that describes itself as “the voice of dog and cat food makers.” Asked about the DCM forum, Ms. Brooks wrote in a statement provided by a spokesperson:

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has stated and PFI agrees that this is a complex issue with many components requiring scientific evaluation. Tens of millions of dogs enjoy grain-free diets in the United States and the number of submitted DCM reports suggest that, if diet is a factor, it may be among several elements involved, including dog physiology and genetics. PFI welcomes the continued dialogue among our pet food maker members, veterinarians, and ingredient suppliers to advance the understanding of DCM and its causes.”

Much more to come following the announcement.