(ATTN: ADDS more info on latest cases, contact tracing throughout)
SEOUL, Aug. 2 (Yonhap) — The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs of South Korea declared Wednesday that it had discovered an H5 avian influenza (AI) strain in cat food, and told its producer to recall and dispose of the affected products.
Last month, a cat living in a shelter in Gwanak, Seoul, passed away after exhibiting respiratory symptoms, and it was established Monday that it had been infected with a highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza strain, as per the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Following tests on the facility showed that the H5 virus was found in cat food used there, and its manufacturer, Nature’s Raw, in Gimpo, west of Seoul, had not followed the necessary sterilization procedures, the ministry said.
It will take around two days to determine if the virus from the cat food is highly pathogenic.
“The company had not completely implemented the necessary sterilization steps since May 25. The government ordered the company to cease production and sales of the items, and to recall and destroy them,” the ministry said in a statement.
The company had not done the sterilization process due to the breakdown of its equipment, a ministry official said.
In the wake of the case, the ministry made the decision to launch an inspection into all manufacturers of animal food using chicken, duck and other meats.
Anxiety has grown over the spread of avian influenza among cats and other animals, as the country reported AI cases in two cats at a shelter in Yongsan, Seoul, last week, marking the first infections of the virus in mammals since 2016.
Officials said four additional cases have been confirmed among cats in the two shelters, bringing the total caseload among cats to seven.
People who have had contact with the cats in the Gwanak and Yongsan shelters have not exhibited any symptoms, and there has not been a human AI infection through cats or other mammals.
But the health authorities are closely monitoring them, as the incubation period for human AI cases is known to be 10 days.
Contact tracing is under way, and the authorities are conducting virus tests on street cats in Seoul.
It is unlikely that the cats were infected with the virus through poultry animals, as extensive tests, involving more than 40,000 samples from poultry farms and wild habitats and conducted in May and June, found no suspected or confirmed cases.
The authorities are also grappling with how to deal with infected cats.
According to regulations, animals infected with the avian influenza are supposed to be culled, but it is not easy to force cat owners to administer mercy killing.
“We are reviewing an option of setting up facilities to isolate infected pets and treat them,” the official said.
According to government data, South Koreans raised 2.54 million cats as pets in 2022.