food & nutrition
Wellness: Healthy Living
Toxic chemicals also found in dog food
A long-term study conducted in Britain has found that male dogs are losing fertility, and that exposure to environmental chemicals (ECs) that have leached into the environment may be to blame.
The dogs—Labradors, Border Collies, German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers bred to aid the disabled—made an ideal group to explore the larger question of a decline in human semen quality that has been occurring since long before this study.
This twenty-six year long study, 1998-2014, was conducted by Richard Lea and colleagues at Nottingham University’s school of veterinary medicine. They collected annual samples of semen from dozens of dogs, all from the same breeding program, all healthy and well cared for. Each year, the same problem recurred; a 2.4 percent dip in sperm motility, that is the ability to swim in a straight line. In addition to monitoring semen quality, they analyzed health records, finding an increase in cryptorchidism, a condition in which the testicles fail to extend normally to the scrotum. Over the same years, fewer male pups were born than females, also there was an increase in fetal and prenatal female mortality.
And, lurking in the samples of semen and testicles of dogs obtained from neutering, it found ECs—chemicals that tamper with hormones. The chemicals include polychlorinated bisphenol (PCB), a compound banned in 1977, and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). PCBs don’t readily break down while phthalates are common in a wide number of products, from cosmetics to detergent. Both chemicals are associated with fertility issues and birth defects.
In human babies, exposure to chemicals has been linked to faulty development of semen quality and cryptorchidism. According to the study, such reproductive problems often cluster in geographical areas, and so are suspected of having a common cause; exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is “thought to be the initiator.” To explore the same possibility in dogs, chemicals were measured in canine testes and semen taken from the same geographical area where the study took place.
Both chemicals “perturbed sperm viability, motility and DNA integrity in vitro.” The researchers concluded that the direct effects of chemicals on sperm “may contribute to the decline in canine semen quality” that parallels that in humans.
“Why the dog?” said Dr. Lea. “Apart from the fact that it is a great population of animals to work with, dogs live in our homes, they sometimes eat the same food, they are exposed to the same environmental contaminants that we are, so the underlying hypothesis is that the dog is really a type of sentinel for human exposure.”
The same ECs were found in a range of commercially available dog foods. DEHP and PCB153, “were detected in adult dog testes and commercial dog foods at concentrations reported to perturb reproductive function in other species.”
While the brands were not named, they are reported to be both wet and dry forms sold worldwide. The scientists don’t know how the chemicals made it into the food, but since they are not deliberate additives, they may have leached from the packaging or processing sources.
These overall findings are troubling, but they also noted that: “Amongst the dry dog food samples, one sample designed for puppies (1 to 24 months of age) had higher concentrations … relative to the other samples tested.”
Plus, while the researchers cannot say the dog food is a direct source of the ECs, the New York Times reports that "Dr. Lea said it was probably a major one."
What is known is that the chemicals wound up in dog’s testicles, where they messed with sperm motility and viability. “This may be a way by which environmental chemicals directly affect male fertility.”
While the dogs in the study were still able to reproduce, it’s hardly reassuring that, once more, the dogs who share our homes also share our diseases, unwittingly, acting as the “canary in the mine” for us.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Q&A with Judith Jones
Recently, we chatted with Judith Jones, a renowned cookbook editor who worked with the greats—Julia Child, Jacques Pépin and Marion Cunningham, among others. Now in her 90s, she has written a delightful book, Love Me, Feed Me (Knopf), about cooking for herself and her little dog Mabon.
This sensible book reminded us of food writers like Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher: recipes plus a pinch of life itself.
After I got my compliments on the book out of the way, I asked her why cooking for her dog was important to her.
Judith Jones: There are insecure people who are a little nervous about cooking; they think, “Oh, I don’t have the precise enough measurements,” or something like that. I want people to relax and have fun, like when I’m having a steak dinner and put aside a third of it for my little friend. For me, it’s part the camaraderie I share with him. Mabon loves his meals, and he’s having what I’m having. I follow the basic one-third meat protein, one-third vegetables and one-third grain [ratio] for his meals.
CK: How about the little spot of wine you add to some of the dishes?
JJ: The wine usually boils away and is there for the flavor. Sometimes, if it is easy [to do], I hold back and don’t give him any, but if it is a big braise or a stew, I add the wine and it just burns off. Mabon has never objected. Nor does he get boozy.
He’s really incredibly healthy, and he definitely makes choices. The world is now made up of kale lovers and kale haters—I’m so sick of kale … I don’t think it’s one of the most graceful and delicate of our vegetable offerings. The first time I gave it to Mabon, I put little clumps [of it] in his dish; he pulled them out one by one, put them on the kitchen floor and walked away. So eloquent—he didn’t need words.
CK: Has Mabon turned tail on other things besides kale?
JJ: He hasn’t given up on kale, but I haven’t forced it. He loves broccoli, so it isn’t just a big prejudice that covers everything green.
CK: I loved your roasted-vegetable recipe; it seems so simple to prepare.
JJ: Mabon loves the roasted vegetables. It is easy, and roasting changes the flavor slightly because it sweetens the vegetables. The natural sweetness comes to the surface—that’s what causes them to brown.
CK: What are your hopes for the book?
JJ: I don’t want to force people to do things, because then they wouldn’t have any pleasure it in. But I think we have become a little bit rigid about our own diet. They want us to do cookbooks called “food is medicine.” It’s not medicine—it’s so much more, almost transforming. It’s sensually delicious, and you love to taste it. If it needs tweaking, maybe you add a drop of lemon juice or bit more salt. I think that I really want to bring pleasure to cooking for your dog, whether you’re alone or with a family.
CK: I think the book is also perfect for children, a great way to get them involved in that level of dog care.
JJ: Exactly. Dogs are part of your family and you should know what you’re feeding everyone in your family. It shouldn’t come from China; treats from China have killed dogs. My vet agrees that I couldn’t be doing anything better for Mabon. She risks something by saying that, as some vets would disagree with her.
And don’t you love that quote by MFK Fisher? “I wouldn’t feed my dog or cat anything I wouldn’t feed myself.” That’s all there is to it.
Judith Jones is the author of The Book of New New England Cookery and The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. In 2006, she was awarded the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Winter not only keeps us inside, it’s also a time of food-centric holiday celebrations. How can we share the fun with our dogs without packing pounds on them? When you want to get the facts, you go to the pros, and for an answer to this question, we checked in with Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, ACVN and associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. Her general advice is that we be mindful of our dogs’ daily caloric needs and their total intake. (More on this in a future issue.) Dr. Churchill also shared a few tips.
> Go for frequency, not volume, and choose either very small treats (pinkie fingernail-size) or ones that can be broken into small pieces.
> Look for tasty low-cal alternatives; if your dog likes likes raw fruit and veg —carrots, celery, green beans, cucumbers, apples, blueberries—keep a ready-to-eat supply on hand.
> Unsalted, unbuttered popcorn provides lots of bang for its caloric buck; there are only 20 calories in a popped cup, and a cup goes a long way, especially when scattered around for the dog to find.
We saved the really big question for last. How do we resist those soulful eyes as we eat our turkey sandwiches and our special holiday cookies? Dr. Churchill advises that if we’re going to cave, we should do it with the lowest-calorie treat. It’s also important to avoid reinforcing begging (do your best!) and to preserve our dog’s routine. Dr. Churchill’s final takeaway: Dogs choose joy, and the time we spend with our dogs means more to them than food. Carve out time to make some joyful memories.
Valentine Liver Nibbles
This delicious recipe is nutritious and tasty, and the loaf can be sliced up into any size. What better way to make your pup feel truly special this Valentine’s Day than with homemade treats richly infused with love. The added bonus is that Valentine Liver Nibbles are completely wheat-free, making them ideal for sensitive pets.
What to Do
Note: We've omitted the garlic originally in this recipe.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What makes a “super” food? Edibles that deliver the maximum amount of nutrients with minimum calories. Humans and dogs can share several common foods that are nutritionally dense, and pack a lot of healthful benefits into a serving. These super foods help people and their pets fight disease, boost energy and maintain good health in general. They make great additions to your dog’s diet—whether you feed packaged dog food or home cook meals—consider adding the nutritionally-packed components to compliment your dog’s eating regime. Be sure to introduce these foods gradually and with the proper proportions, and check with your veterinarian if your dog has any dietary or health concerns.
Besides these, there are also many simple, fresh and wholesome food items that dogs and humans can thrive on, including apples, green beans, papaya, leafy greens, liver and hearts, eggs, oats, bananas, wheat grass, cranberries, nuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, parsley, wheat germ and apple cider vinegar. For dogs, animal protein such as, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, goat, rabbit, pork, beef, fish and venison, should be an integral part of their meals.
A simple home-prepared meal that incorporates healthy ingredients that not only improves our animals’ health but is also easier on our budgets.
Combine all ingredients, mix well. Serve.
Hint: Powdered calcium sticks to wet ingredients, sprinkle evenly over wet food.
Protein: 36 grams Fat: 28 grams Calories: 436
Daily serving for a 30 lb dog, can be divided into 2 feedings.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Q&A with Susan Thixton, authors of Dinner PAWsible.
Whole food, real food, clean eating: however it’s described, many of us are turning—or returning—to minimally processed, additive-free food made by nature rather than machines. In their newly revised cookbook, Dinner PAWsible, holistic veterinarian Cathy Alinovi and pet food safety advocate Susan Thixton apply that concept to the world of companion animals. They suggest that home-prepared meals incorporating healthy ingredients are eminently do-able alternatives that not only improve our animals’ health but also, are easier on our budgets. Bark recently spoke with the authors.
For years, we’ve been told that variety in a dog’s diet is a bad thing, yet in your cookbook, you encourage it. Why?
We promote variety for pets for the same reason it’s recommended for humans: to provide a balance of vitamins and minerals. Eating different foods from meal to meal helps achieve this.
How should we go about switching our dogs from commercial foods to a diet that incorporates the recipes from your book?
Changing brands of commercial pet food quickly (from one meal to the next) can cause some dogs to have “tummy issues,” aka diarrhea. So, to be safe when making the transition, we recommend switching slowly: for example, one-quarter new (home-prepared) food to three-quarters old (commercial) food for two or three days, half-and-half for another two or three days, and so on. Dogs who’ve been eating real food all along can be switched right over to the recipes we provide.
When preparing meals for our dogs, how can we be sure that the nutrients are bio-available? And, related to this, why is “lightly cooked” better than “thoroughly cooked”?
Remember when commercial cat food was introduced and researchers discovered that taurine had to be added, even though it was made with meat? Taurine, an amino acid [protein’s building blocks] cats require, occurs naturally in meat; however, in the manufacturing process, the meat was overcooked to the point that the taurine broke down and was no longer available as a nutrient.
It’s the same thing with cooking for dogs—if you cook the ever-living daylights out of meat, the nutrients will be degraded, while cooking it lightly leaves more nutrients accessible to the body. Feeding raw meat is also acceptable, but we recommend that people avoid feeding their dogs raw ground meat from the grocery store, as it is often contaminated with bacteria that can be harmful. Vegetables are a bit harder for a dog to digest, which is why we recommend lightly cooking them; if you feel you need to boil veggies, add the cooking water to your dog’s food, as boiling tends to leach the vitamins into the water.
You advise boiling a whole chicken and then using the bones to make a broth that incorporates apple cider vinegar. What’s the advantage of adding vinegar?
Chicken can really be prepared by any method; broiling or baking works great too, and still leaves you with bones you can use to make broth. (Regardless of how you prep your chicken, don’t overcook it. We recommend using a meat thermometer to make certain the meat is cooked to the proper temperature of 165 degrees.) Apple cider vinegar helps leach the minerals from the bones, which gives you bone broth, a powerhouse food source.
Most of your recipes have around 10 to 15 percent fat. Why is fat important for dogs, and do highly active dogs need more?
For dogs—for all mammals, actually—fat is an energy source and provides nutrients necessary for an efficiently functioning nervous system. Some, like working sled dogs, need an amazing number of calories, on the order of 10,000 kcal a day when they’re running at top speed (10 times the amount comparably sized pet dogs require), and fat helps them meet these requirements. While our recipes are designed for pet dogs who are moderately active, they can be modified for higher energetic needs, which also come into play during pregnancy, puppyhood and agility work. We discuss these modifications at the beginning of the book, and we’re available to help individuals with specialized requirements.
Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to some ingredients, for example, nuts and seeds? I use a NutriBullet to make drinks for myself and my dogs that include ground hemp, goji, flax and other seeds and nuts. It seems our dogs would also benefit from high-value “smoothies” made with raw leafy veggies, fruits and seeds, moistened with broth or whey. What do you think?
Just like humans, dogs can get too much of a good thing, although it takes repeated daily overeating of one item to cause a problem. Fresh grinding makes rich foods like seeds and nuts—wonderful sources of protein and trace nutrients—more digestible, as well as helps the body access their wonderful omega fatty-acid oils. You can make great pet food add-ins by using a NutriBullet, Vitamix or even a coffee grinder.
Why don’t you advocate a raw diet?
We promote minimally processed food, raw or cooked. Our original concept was to help pet owners new to real food get started, and some are grossed out by the idea of raw meat. We’ve found that as people become more experienced, many do switch to raw foods. On the other hand, some dogs—those who are older or who have particular health problems—cannot comfortably digest raw meat, so cooking it lightly makes sense for them.
You point out that not every meal needs to be complete and balanced. In the overall scheme of things, how important is balance, and how can we be assured that our dogs get all the nutrients they require?
Consider human diets: every meal, every bite, is not 100 percent balanced and complete. But over the course of a few meals with a variety of ingredients, balance is achieved. The same thing works for our dogs: variety fills in any “holes” that may exist in individual recipes. We like the concept of providing balanced nutrition through whole-food ingredients instead of via synthetic supplements (which is what most commercial pet foods use).
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Home cooking helps you feed ’em well for less.
When suppertime rolls around, there’s nothing like a healthy home-cooked meal. This is true not only for the human members of your family, but for your dog as well. Cooking for your canine companion has many benefits, including fewer preservatives and additives, more varied and potentially better ingredients and, of course, more interest for the canine palate.
Homemade meals may even make it possible to feed your dog well for less. A 15- pound bag of high-end dry dog food costs approximately $42, and a 5.5 oz. can of high-end wet food runs approximately $2. Feeding a medium-sized dog two cans of wet mixed with two cups of dry food costs about $5 per day. That doesn’t include the treats, bones and tidbits that inevitably make their way into her tummy! Compare that with four cups of Puppy Stew (recipe here) at $2.25 per day. Add the cost of a vitamin/ mineral supplement and calcium, and it is still less than the cost of feeding high-end commercial food.* (You can also combine homemade meals with commercially available dry dog food. This will, of course, change the nutritional calculations as well as the price, but your pup will still be pleased.)
As both able hunters and scavengers, dogs ate from a diverse menu when they began accompanying humans. An omnivorous diet of protein, carbohydrate and fat sources suits them; dogs in good health can also handle the fat in their diet more effectively than you can— their bodies use it for energy and then efficiently clear it from the bloodstream.
The caveats? Dogs have different nutrient requirements than people. For example, they need high-quality protein, more calcium and more minerals for their proportional body size. Calcium is particularly critical. In The Complete Holistic Dog Book, co-author Katy Sommers, DVM, notes that “calcium is perhaps the single most important supplement for a successful home-cooked diet. Even if you’re feeding a variety of foods, you’ll need to supply an extra source of calcium.” She recommends giving one 600 mg calcium carbonate tablet (or 1⁄2 teaspoon of the powder form) for each 10 to 15 pounds of body weight daily for most adult dogs. (She also points out that, if you’re mixing homemade and commercial foods, you don’t need to supplement as heavily, as commercial foods contain adequate or possibly even excessive amounts of calcium and phosphorus.) More good advice on this subject can be found in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn.
There are some human foods that dogs should never be given, including macadamia nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, raisins, grapes, onions or excessive amounts of garlic. And, of course, check with your veterinarian before making big changes to your dog’s diet, particularly if she has any preexisting health conditions. Once you get the green light, make the changes gradually to avoid digestive upsets; introduce new foods slowly, substituting a small proportion of the new food for the old over time. Finally, be careful not to provide too many overall calories (energy), as obesity is just as unhealthy for dogs as it is for humans; your vet can help you determine how much your dog should be eating.
Food safety is also an issue. While dogs have many defenses against bacteria, parasites and other food-borne pathogens, they are not immune to them. Be sure to keep utensils clean, perishables refrigerated and ingredients cooked to appropriate internal temperatures to kill off any unwanted bugs. This is particularly important for puppies, old dogs or those with a health condition that makes them vulnerable.
In general, your homemade recipes should contain a high-value protein source (muscle meat, eggs, fish, liver), a fat source (safflower, olive, canola or fish oil; the best and most easily available fish oils are salmon and cod), a fiber-containing carbohydrate (brown rice, sweet potato, oats, barley), and a phytochemical source (fruits, vegetables, herbs). Substitutions can be made; for example, if you know your dog likes whole-grain pasta, substitute pasta for barley as a carbohydrate source. Some dogs, like some kids, hate veggies but will eat fruit, so use fruit instead; fruit can complement meats just as readily as vegetables can. Yogurt, cottage cheese, beans and tofu can occasionally be used as protein sources, but keep in mind that not all dogs can tolerate dairy products, beans or soy and may become flatulent or experience other gastrointestinal “issues”; test tolerance with small quantities.
When you cook a batch of homemade food, let it cool, and—if you make more than your dog can eat within a couple of days—portion it into reusable, washable containers, then freeze and defrost as needed. You can safely keep cooked food in the refrigerator for three days; after that, spoilage becomes a concern.
By adhering to the basic guidelines, you can be creative, provide great homemade meals and know that the ingredients are wholesome. You might even try serving some of these recipes to your human family so they can feel special too.
These recipes are calculated for a healthy adult medium-sized dog (approximately 35 to 40 pounds) who’s moderately active. The ingredients listed are standard (not organic) and can be purchased at any supermarket. Dogs of this general description require approximately 1,800 mg of calcium daily, according to Sommers, et al. If your dog is smaller or larger, her total calcium requirements can be calculated using 600 mg for every 12.5 pounds. (If your dog is a senior, still growing or has health issues, please consult your veterinarian— we really can’t say this often enough!) For a veterinary nutritionist– developed canine vitamin/mineral (calcium- inclusive) supplement, check out BalanceIT® powder.
Important: Many veterinarians, while acknowledging that pet food recalls and the poor quality of some pet foods are causes for concern, still feel that homemade diets, when fed exclusively, may result in nutritional imbalances and vitamin/mineral deficiencies that may pose threats to canine health. Therefore, if you choose to feed your dog a homemade diet, it is important that you understand and provide what your dog needs to stay healthy; veterinary nutritionists can assist in developing suitable homemade diets. While caution was taken to give safe recommendations and accurate instructions in this article, it is impossible to predict an individual dog’s reaction to any food or ingredient. Readers should consult their vets and use personal judgment when applying this information to their own dogs’ diets.
*The cost of feeding homemade will vary according to the size, activity level and health of your dog. Dogs who are pregnant or lactating, growing pups and those who perform endurance activities require much more nutrition (calories, protein, fatty acids) and have other special nutritional needs.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Some things to know about "low-cal" pet food
There’s no denying obesity is a major canine health issue. Obesity contributes to arthritis, heart and liver disease, diabetes, respiratory difficulties, heat stroke, some cancers and more. And somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of domestic cats and dogs in the United States are overweight, according to several estimates. As we do in our personal battles of the bulge, we turn to reduced calorie diets for help. Unfortunately, these may not be the straightforward solution they appear to be.
A study of so-called light or low-calorie pet foods performed at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University revealed a confusing variation in calorie density and feeding recommendations among brands. Researchers found dry dog foods making weight management claims ranged in calorie density from 217 to 440 kilocalories per cup (kcal/cup), and that the recommended intake ranged from 0.73 to 1.47 times the dog’s resting energy requirement.
What this means is that well-meaning dog owners following manufacturer guidelines might not see promised weight loss in their chubby pups—in fact, they might see weigh gain—leading to frustration for people and ill health for dogs.
Knowing and counting calories is a priority for weight management, according to veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, MS, VMD, DACVN, with whom we talked about the Tufts study and canine weight management. Dr. Moser is an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, he serves on the National Organic Standards Board Pet Food Task Force.
“It’s incumbent on the pet owner to know what calories are in the food and the energy their dog needs,” Dr. Moser says. While weight and age are a good starting point for calculating what your dog requires maintain or lose weight, there are other important multipliers to take into consideration, such as whether your dog is spayed or neutered, and the intensity and duration of their daily activity. Also, pregnant or nursing dogs and puppies need more energy (aka calories).
A good way to set a calorie baseline is with a visit to your veterinarian. Since only about 17 percent of owners think their dogs are overweight, according to one study, the first step is breaking through denial. Your vet can help. There are several ways to set a daily calorie count, such as aiming for a one percent of total weight loss each week, or 75 percent of the calories required to maintain a goal weight, etc., Dr. Moser says.
The important thing is to be consistent and engaged. Once you cut back on calories, weigh your dog about every ten days, Dr. Moser says, to see when they plateau. Also, he recommends something called “body condition scoring.” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine website provides an illustrated chart that shows dogs and cats from emaciated to obese. Look at the pictures and ask: Where does my dog fit? You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs but your fingers shouldn’t fit between them.
Why diet food? Why not just feed your dog less of his or her regular food? “What makes a diet food different is we’re essentially diluting calories,” Dr. Moser says. There are only a couple ways you can do that including reducing fat content, which decreases calorie density and palatability, or adding fiber or even air, in the case of kibble. The calories in canned food can be diluted with water. “We are making dogs think they are full when they’ve really only eaten 75 percent of the calories,” Dr. Moser says. “The other stuff is just helping you feed more so the dog doesn’t beg.”
One reason Dr. Moser says people aren’t successful with low calorie food is because they leave it out for free-choice feeding. (Imagine a sort of bottomless bowl." “Because even low calorie foods have calories,” he says. He agrees with the study recommendation that free-choice feeding is not a good option—in part because food today is extremely palatable and so it’s easy for dogs to overeat. The better option is a measured quantity of food a couple times a day, he says.
If you don’t see calories listed on your label that’s because calorie counts are only required on dog food that claims to be lite, light, less calorie or low calorie. (The Academy of Canine Veterinary Nutrition, to which study co-author Dr. Lisa Freeman and Dr. Moser belong, is advocating for requiring calorie information on all pet food labels.) Foods with a light, lite, or low-calorie designation must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. However, Dr. Freeman pointed out that more than half of the foods evaluated in her study exceeded this maximum.
Why does it matter if your pup’s a little plump? Dr. Moser points to research that shows keeping dogs thin can extend their lives by as much as one and half years—that should motivate us to study labels and get out our measuring cups.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Stores are selling more and more dog foods labeled “natural,” “human grade” and “organic,” and the industry considers them to be the hot new trend. But what can these words mean?
Because the government has never bothered to define “natural” for human foods, this word essentially means anything the manufacturer says it does. For pet foods, however, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has an official definition:
Natural: A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes.
Got that? You can render or extrude a pet food to mush, but it’s “natural” if you haven’t added anything synthetic—unless you had to. AAFCO also says that “natural” must not mislead; if it appears on the label, every ingredient in the product must meet the definition. But even AAFCO knows this is impossible. Pet food companies typically buy vitamins, minerals and other additives from factories overseas, where, as we learned in last year’s pet food recalls, quality controls are sometimes nonexistent.
We do not see too many claims about human-grade ingredients on package labels, mainly because AAFCO does not have an official definition of the term. Without an approved AAFCO definition, an ingredient or term is not supposed to be used on pet food labels. AAFCO says “human-grade” is false and misleading, and constitutes misbranding, unless every ingredient in the product—and every processing method—meets FDA and USDA requirements for producing, processing and transporting foods suitable for consumption by humans, and every producer of the ingredients is licensed to perform those tasks. Few pet food companies can meet these criteria.
But AAFCO’s unease does not stop pet food makers from using the term, particularly because larger legal concepts appear to be on their side. In 2007, a case against The Honest Kitchen led the Ohio courts to rule that the company had a constitutional right to truthful commercial free speech, and could use “human-grade” on its labels. The Honest Kitchen advertises on its website that it is “the only pet food manufacturer in the United States to have proven to the Federal FDA that every ingredient it uses in its products are suitable for human consumption.”
Only a few other companies make human-grade claims on their food labels, but many use the term freely in their in-store materials and website advertising. For example, Newman’s Own Organics presents this information in a question-and-answer format: “Q: Does Newman’s Own Organics use human grade materials? Why isn't that written on the bag? A: Newman’s Own Organics organic pet food uses human grade and fit for human consumption ingredients such as natural chicken and organic grains. The AAFCO Board … actually prohibits the printing of ‘Human Grade’ on pet food packaging.”
That brings us to organics. For human foods, “organic” has a precise meaning defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified as organic, plant ingredients in pet foods must be grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge. Animal ingredients must come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Producers must be inspected to make sure they adhere to these standards. (Note: They do, but whether the standards are good enough is a separate question.)
In 2002, the NOP did not include pet foods in the organic rules because it could not figure out how to do so. In 2005, it appointed a pet food task force to handle the figuring. A year later, this group quite sensibly recommended that organic standards for humans be applied to pet foods. But, the NOP cautioned, “these requirements will present challenges for pet food manufacturers, especially sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients.” No kidding. More than 90 percent of soybeans and half the corn grown in United States now come from genetically modified varieties.
Because the NOP has not yet adopted the task force recommendations, organic pet foods are in regulatory limbo, leaving AAFCO with the unenviable task of explaining how to label “organic” pet foods. AAFCO says that (1) under NOP rules, pet foods may not display the USDA organic seal or claim that they were produced according to organic standards. But (2), NOP also says labeling terms such as “100% organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients” on pet foods may be truthful and do not imply organic production or certification. Therefore (3), AAFCO recommends that labeling rules for human foods apply to pet foods.
What to make of this? We think the statements imply that nobody is going to make a fuss about organic claims on pet foods, even when some, most or even all of their ingredients are not really organic.
Mind you, following the rules for organic labeling is complicated (see chart). Even so, you can go into a pet food store and easily find products that violate these standards. Our favorite: companies calling themselves organic when their foods do not contain a single organic ingredient. They get away with this because the USDA, unlike the FDA, doesn’t regulate company names.
Organic foods command higher prices because people believe in the integrity of the standards. If the standards are not met, why pay more? If the USDA allows weaker standards for pet foods, we wonder whether it will continue to defend strong organic standards for human foods. Without strong standards, organics are just about marketing, not production methods. We think everyone—pet food makers, the USDA, AAFCO and the readers of Bark—should demand nothing less than the highest possible standards for natural, human-grade and organic claims on dog foods.
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