Pet Food Express removes pig ear treats from stores over salmonella concerns

Health officials are expanding warnings about dog treats made of pig ears now that a salmonella outbreak is growing. 

People - even more than their pets - are getting sick after handling the pig ears with bare hands. 

In recent weeks, 127 people have become ill and 26 hospitalized, according to the FDA.

The cases are spread across 33 states, with Iowa, Michigan, and New York hit hardest. 

"Oh no, wow!," was the reaction of dog owner Tom Dolan, at the dog park in Petaluma with his beagle-terrier Rex. "He likes those, so I'm glad you're telling me, I'll keep Rex out of the pig ears." 

The FDA and CDC have issued joint advisories, recommending people avoid pig ears, throw them away, and stop feeding them to their dogs. 

"The pig ears we have pulled are now in plastic bags," said JIm Castleberry, Director of Merchandising for Pet Food Express.

The California chain has 70 stores, all of them pulling pig ear products off the shelves. 

They will also accept consumer returns of pig ears, no matter where they were purchased, if a customer is unsure how to discard them. 

"Treat it like raw meat, like you would with raw chicken, wash your hands  when you're done touching it," advised Castleberry, "and make sure everything is wrapped when you are putting it in your waste." 

For dogs, salmonella causes loose, possibly bloody, stools. 

For humans, symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, and fever, within three days of exposure and lasting as long as a week. 

People who were sickened either handled contaminated treats, or cared for dogs who ate them. 

"The FDA has been investigating the problem with some pig ears from South America over the last few weeks," explained Castleberry, "but it wasn't until now they expanded it to say they would like all pig ears removed." 

Argentina and Brazil are the source countries identified so far. 

"We don't deal with salmonella very often," veterinarian Richard Bachman told KTVU, "but this is a no-brainer, with how widespread it is and how many states have reported." 

Dr. Bachman noted that the outbreak is not limited to a particular brand or supplier, making it a challenge to isolate, and a serious threat. "Somewhere along the line contamination occurred bring bacteria into the process." 

Pet food and treats make up a $30 billion annual industry. 

Some smaller stores are still displaying and selling pig ears, but larger chains are adopting the cautionary measures. 

Some pig ears are sold in sealed packages- others in bulk- which is more risky.  

"I think just using common sense is a good idea," said Dr. Bachman, " because we wouldn't reach into a barrel of candy and take it, not knowing whose hands have been there before."

As experts trace the source and try to stem the outbreak, some dog owners admit the treat was one they were never attracted to. 

"Just the notion of a pig ear seems kind of gross," said Mary Ellen Slater, at the dog park with her wheaten terrier, Booker. "We're very cautious about what we give him because we love him, he's our baby."  

So far, California has one reported case of salmonella illness linked to the pig ear contamination.