food & nutrition
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.
When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.
Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence.
Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience.
The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency.
Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.
The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins.
In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it.
This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.
Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent.
It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients).
Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality.
In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).
In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.
Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.
The Take-Away on Label Claims
Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.
News: Guest Posts
Book Review: Dog Food Logic
How wonderful if you could pose this question just once in your dog’s life and receive a perfect answer that would last a lifetime. Imagine if there were a ‘right’ formula, and once you know it, you could feed your dog forever and ever on the same exquisite diet. Your dog, in return, would be the happiest and healthiest doggie camper there ever was.
Unfortunately, “What should I feed my dog?” is not the question we should be asking. In fact, “What should I feed my dog” is akin to the infomercial that comes on at 3 AM informing you that if you just buy this Mega-Blast Belt (for three low monthly payments of $19.99), six-pack abs will follow. Both fall into a quick-fix category — the “right” product, the “right” answer — that unfortunately doesn’t exist.
Instead, the question that will last you a lifetime is, “How should I feed my dog?” This is where Linda Case, M.S. comes to the rescue. I don’t mean to be superhero-y about it, but Case’s new book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices is a unique work designed to help readers make informed, science-based decisions on what and how to feed our beloved companion dogs. As one veterinarian offers, “Dog Food Logic cuts through the noise and chaos and provides pet owners with a rational, science-based approach to evaluating their pets’ dietary needs and their feeding choices” (The Skeptvet Blog).
Linda Case knows a thing or two about animal nutrition. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She maintains the well-received blog, The Science Dog, and has written numerous books on companion animal nutrition, training and behavior. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Cats in Context conference at Canisius College in 2013 (Case spoke on cat nutrition, and I gave a talk on research into whether dogs and cats in the home can be friends — they can).
But back to dog food. If you are expecting a dry read on dog nutrition and diet, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dog Food Logic is a page turner, jam-packed with real-world examples that you can easily relate to. Case unpacks label claims, fad diets and the wonderfully persuasive field of pet food marketing. What does it mean when a food is ‘recommended by veterinarians or breeders?’ Who is Chef Michael, and should you trust him? And who’s keeping our dog food safe?
Throughout the book, Case discusses research into canine nutrition and diet in a way that is easy to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun. For example, studies have investigated:
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and since I can’t possibly summarize all the topics and findings covered in Case’s book, the above are intentional teasers. To find out more, read the book.
Case, L. 2014. Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices. Dogwise Publishing.
Case, L. The Science Dog blog.
Hecht, J. 2013. Dogs and Cats in the Home: Happiness for All? Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog?
McKenzie, B. The SkeptVet blog.
This article first appeard on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Some news on the pet food front: Mars is buying Procter & Gamble’s pet food brands that include Iams, Eukanuba and Natura. Interesting that the company, which owns candies like M&M’s, Snickers as well as pet food brands Pedigree, Royal Canin, Nutro, Greenies, in addition to the Banfield Pet Hospitals, just increased their holdings on the pet food market. Wondering why this happened? P&G only just recently purchased Natura, but perhaps the handling of a large-scale recall of that brand in 2013, was more costly to their bottom line than they had anticipated. We did find it difficult to get timely information from them on these series of recalls, which just seem to escalate from month to month. Perhaps too they were surprised about the scale of the backlash that the news of their purchase of Natura caused. It will be interesting to see how Mars will handle customer confidence in their new acquisitions, as well as their other brands too.
Here's the story from Pet Age, a pet industry magazine.
Mars has agreed to buy Procter & Gamble‘s Iams, Eukanuba and Natura brands in major markets for $2.9 billion in cash, the companies announced in a joint press release.
The strategic move for Mars Petcare will expand its already large portfolio of pet brands, and signals Proctor & Gamble’s move to reduce its pet segment.
“Exiting Pet Care is an important step in our strategy to focus P&G’s portfolio on the core businesses where we can create the most value for consumers and shareowners,” A.G. Lafley, P&G’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, said. “The transaction creates value for P&G shareowners, and we are confident that the business will thrive at Mars, a leading company in pet care.”
The geographic regions included in the acquisition, which account for approximately 80 percent of P&G Pet Care’s global sales, include North America, Latin America and other selected countries. The agreement includes an option for Mars to acquire the business in several additional countries. Markets not included in the transaction are primarily European Union countries.
P&G said it is developing alternate plans to sell its Pet Care business in these markets.
“This acquisition is a perfect fit with our Mars Petcare vision of making A Better World For Pets,” Todd Lachman, Mars Petcare global president, said. “The deal reinforces our leadership in pet nutrition and veterinary science, attracts world class talent and grows our world leading portfolio.”
The companies expect to complete the transaction in the second-half of 2014, subject to regulatory approvals.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
COOL STUFF FOR EGG HEADS
For an easy, quick source of calcium … Grind up cleaned, dried eggshells into a powder using a spice/coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Half a teaspoon of eggshell powder equals 1,000 mg of calcium.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-related plans for 2014
Years ago, my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to give up New Year’s resolutions, and she was one of the few people who stuck to her plan. (Success rates are generally less than 10%.) Her secret was resolving to do something that she wanted to do anyway. If your resolutions for 2014 are dog-related, make success more likely by choosing to focus on one or a few things that are of real interest to you.
Simple ideas for dog-related resolutions are plentiful. Here are 10 possibilities.
1. Leave that cell phone in your pocket on walks so that you are truly present and spending time with your dog. It’s the time you spend together that builds the relationship, and this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy each other’s company.
2. Try a new activity with your dog. Classes in agility, tracking, fly ball are common in many areas. Hiking, weight pulling, dock jumping, herding, lure coursing and canine freestyle are just a few of the other possibilities.
3. Provide better nutrition for your dog. This is a big task for most of us, but even a few simple steps can make a difference. Try a higher quality dog food, add fresh vegetables to your dog’s diet or vow to measure your dog’s food for every meal so there’s no risk of overfeeding.
4. Give back to the canine community. There are so many ways to help out such as walking an elderly neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a shelter or rescue, fostering a dog, or giving money to an organization that improves the lives of animals.
5. Teach your dog something new. Practical training skills such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at the door or a solid stay all pay big dividends. Other possibilities are to teach your dog a new game so you can play together more. Fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options, though depending on your dog, not every game may be a good fit.
6. Make plans for your dog in the event that you die first. Financial planning so you can provide for your dog when you are no longer here as well as making arrangements for someone to be the guardian for your dog are two important steps.
7. Give your dog more exercise. This can be daunting so plan to make one small improvement to start. Perhaps add 10 minutes to a weekend walk or set up a play date with a dog buddy a couple of times a month. When it comes to increasing activity, every little bit helps, so taking one step in the right direction is a wonderful goal at this, or any, time of year.
8. Take better care of your dog’s teeth. Consult with your veterinarian about a dental cleaning or about brushing at home. Dental care helps improve overall health and can make your dog’s breath more pleasant, too.
9. Make plans in case of a medical emergency. Whether it is putting aside a little in savings each month or investigating pet insurance, the peace of mind that you’ve got it covered in the event of an emergency is worth a lot.
10. Go new places with your pet. Novelty is great fun for most dogs, so try to go a few new places this year. Perhaps a new pet store or a new hiking trail will provide your dog with an experience that is really enjoyable.
Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions are common this time of year. Do your plans for 2014 include any dog-oriented New Year’s resolutions?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Helping vulnerable people feed their dogs
Low income means tough choices. Should I buy medications or heat my home? Do I pay my rent or buy shoes? Who gets to eat—me or my pets?
It’s this last question that inspired volunteers with Meals on Wheels to add pet food to deliveries for seniors and disabled individuals who are at risk of hunger. People who were taking food to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities noticed that many of them were doing without the food they desperately need in order to make sure their pets had something to eat.
As dog lovers, this is no surprise to most of us. Many of us have a “my dog eats before I do” mentality in the event of economic stress, but not all of us have had to act on it. Once volunteers became aware of this new threat to adequate nutrition for the people they serve, they became enthusiastic partners with a program called AniMeals on Wheels.
This program allows volunteers to deliver pet food along with the meals they bring to human clients. It relies on donations and volunteers for all pet food and deliveries and involves collaborations with a number of pet programs in multiple states. Despite the popularity of the program and the huge amount of food donated, the need is even bigger. They are never in a position where they don’t need more donations of pet food.
AniMeals on Wheels is one of many programs nationwide that seek to address the problem of hunger in both people and dogs. It’s important to understand that until there is enough food for their pets, the problem of hunger in low-income seniors and the disabled will not be solvable.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Find the proper balance in the intestinal tract.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is quoted as saying, “bad digestion is at the root of all evil” and “death sits in the bowels.” What Hippocrates likely meant was that the GI tract, or “gut,” is responsible for much more than digesting food; it plays a vital role in creating and sustaining health. Nearly 2,500 years later, scientists are discovering that Hippocrates was right. You simply cannot have a “sick” gut and be truly healthy!
The “gut”, which is made up of the stomach, small intestine and colon (large intestine), is actually a complex microsystem of “good” bacteria, or microflora. While bacteria also live in our mouths, on our skin and in our urogenital tract, more than 70 percent take up residence in the mucosal tissue lining of the gut, which is known as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. The trillions of beneficial bacteria inside the gut comprise a metabolically active organ—the largest immune organ in the body—and are important for a variety of essential functions, including regulating digestion, producing and metabolizing vitamins and other trace nutrients, and protecting the body from infection.
The gut also contains pathogenic “bad” bacteria, such as E. coli. When the balance of good and bad bacteria goes awry, humans and animals can experience a myriad of digestive disturbances, including bloating, constipation or diarrhea, as well as abdominal cramping, surface erosions, and ulcers. But the relationship between gut bacteria and health extends far beyond the digestive system.
For example, gut microflora serves as a significant barrier to infection from outside pathogens, preventing unwanted invaders such as food toxins, toxic chemicals, bad bacteria and fungi from entering our systems. A condition called “leaky gut” arises when the integrity of the gut’s mucosal lining is compromised, causing it to become permeable, or “leaky.” When this occurs, unwanted molecules are allowed to pass through. Since the body recognizes these molecules as foreign, it attacks them. Science is now learning that “leaky gut” likely contributes to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroiditis.
Other conditions linked to imbalances in the gut’s bacterial ecosystem include:
A recently released study by the Cleveland Clinic exemplifies the important role of gut bacteria. The study found that some gut bacteria produce a compound called trimethylamine- N-oxide, or TMAO, while digesting lecithin found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, beef, pork and wheat germ. The researchers also found that blood levels of TMAO predict heart attack, stroke and death—independent of other risk factors. The fact that gut bacteria can cause heart attack, stroke and death, even in otherwise “healthy” people, is a true testament to their importance!
Obviously, to create and maintain health, we want to keep the gut microflora in tip-top shape. But if the gut is teeming with trillions of good bacteria, what’s the problem?
Many environmental factors can disrupt gut bacteria, throwing the balance between good and bad bacteria out of whack, including:
Fortunately, you can help keep your pet’s gut in tip-top shape by giving him probiotics.
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria. When ingested in sufficient numbers, probiotics colonize in the gut, thereby supplementing the existing beneficial microflora.
Probiotics can provide many health benefits in pets, including:
But don’t just run out and buy any product labeled “probiotic”. The product you purchase should meet strict standards, including:
Contain live bacteria. The product is not a probiotic unless the bacteria are live.
Contain multiple bacterial strains. Different strains of bacteria exert different biological activities. Look for a product containing at least 10 different strains.
Is potent. When it comes to a probiotic, the more potent the better. While some products contain 1 billion beneficial bacteria per serving, I advise looking for a product containing at least 30 billion or more beneficial bacteria per serving.
Is pure. A probiotic is designed to increase gut health. The last thing you want is a product that contains artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, sugar, salt, corn, wheat, soy or other undesirable ingredients.
And please don’t share your probiotic with your pet. An animal’s intestinal tract contains species-specific microflora, so a probiotic that’s beneficial for you isn’t necessarily beneficial for your companion animal. Opt instead for a probiotic targeted specifically to your pet’s species.
Supplementing your companion animal’s diet with a probiotic is a simple, safe and effective way to optimize gut health. You might just be amazed at the positive improvements these “gut bugs” can make!
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Q&A with the founder of Lily’s Kitchen
Henrietta Morrison is the founder of Lily’s Kitchen, voted the UK #1 pet food company for the last four years. Now she has a great new recipe book, Dinner for Dogs, written to inspire dog-loving home cooks everywhere. The book has 50 easy to make, delicious and nutritious recipes for your dog. We had a chance to chat with Henrietta recently.
Why do you think that people are reluctant to cook for their dogs?
Pet owners can be quite nervous about cooking for their dogs—I had lots of concerns when I started to cook for Lily. Initially, I was worried that what I was cooking for her might not be nutritionally complete, I was also concerned that she may love my home cooked food too much and never eat shop bought pet food again!
You started cooking for Lily because of skin allergies, but what inspired you to expand this into your very successful pet food business (in the UK)?
When I first started to cook for Lily it was really out of desperation. I had tried almost all pet foods on the market and she would either refuse to eat them or they just exacerbated her itchy skin. Cooking for her was a real eye opener—the first recipes were very much based on the kinds of food I love. I would say I’m a pretty healthy eater and have always been on the look out for interesting ingredients and alternatives—e.g. oat flour instead of wheat flour etc. I would use really healthy ingredients such as blueberries and squash as well as grind down herbs like rosehips. Lily just loved it! Not only that, but her skin finally made a radical improvement and the itchiness disappeared within a couple of weeks. I was delighted but also furious! I could not believe that I had been feeding her ready made pet food that was actually making her itchiness worse rather than providing her with the nutrition she needed. I was determined to do something about this and produce a pet food that would be perfect for Lily and help other dogs with similar issues.
What are the 5 common misconceptions people have about canine nutrition?
What is Lily’s all time favorite recipe?
Tricky question! Lily used to be a very fussy dog and turn up her nose at most things. Now she adores everything I make. I guess one of her favorites is the Wonderful One Pot from my recipe book—it has lentils, chicken, salmon and lots of other yummy ingredients.
Were you involved in food/cooking before you started cooking for Lily?
Yes, I have always been a very keen cook and I am a very keen gardener so I always have a glut of fruits and vegetables that need to be turned into recipes.
Did you work with veterinarian nutritionists to formulate your recipes?
Yes, I spent a long time collaborating with a number of veterinarians from different fields—holistic, herbalist and conventional. My brother is a veterinarian so he has also been very helpful as an adviser.
How important is it to use locally sourced ingredients? (I couldn’t find info on where your pet food ingredients are sourced.) I ask this because one of the pet food recalls that happened in the US happened because of organic basil from Egypt.
In an ideal situation you would always use locally grown ingredients. However it is not always possible to do this as it can depend on the crop outcome in a given year —for example for us last year it was very hard to source apples locally as the crop yield was extremely low in the UK, so we had to bring them in from other parts of Europe. What is critical is to have stringent food safety procedures in place wherever the ingredients come from and always ensure you are sourcing the best quality you can.
Who oversees pet food and the regulations and recalls in the UK or in Europe? Have there been many large-scale recalls like there have been here? I am thinking of the recent one that impacted most Natura brands.
In the UK we have the Pet Food Manufacturers Association as well as a variety of government bodies that put together regulations as well as carry out testing. At Lily’s Kitchen we carry out very regular testing on all our foods which get sent off to the government lab for testing—although there is not the onus on companies to do this. But I like to be extra vigilant as my dog’s name is on the label!
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What’s gotten into food safety?
We’re barely halfway into the year and already, there have been a flurry of pet food recalls. The sheer number of brands has been surprising, as have the names of the brands involved; we’ve seen recalls from some of the industry’s most respected companies. How and what we feed our dogs (and ourselves, for that matter) is such a fundamental issue that we’ve decided to do a series of articles on pet food safety, starting with a report on a few of the most recent recalls. We examine the reasons behind them, lessons learned and what we might expect in the future.
Until very recently, all recalls have been voluntary (a confusing term that can lead consumers to believe that a recall is optional), triggered for a variety of reasons: mislabeling, misbranding, the inclusion of potential allergens or adulterants, or contamination with a pathogen such as one of the varieties of salmonella. And some products are recalled simply because they were produced at the same factory during the same timeframe as the affected food.
So far, no pet food recall has been as widespread as the one in 2007, which involved the Menu melamine scandal. If Hurricane Katrina taught policymakers the importance of the human/ pet bond, the ’07 Menu Foods recall did the same for the focus on the safety of the food that we feed our pets. As William Hubbard, a former FDA official, notes, “I do think that this pet food thing has shown people … that something needs to be fixed. If this is not a wake-up call, then people are so asleep, they are catatonic.”
It took a while for Congress to fully awaken, but in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given more power with the passage and then signing into law by President Obama of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The act marks the most sweeping food-safety reform since the Great Depression.
This new act will soon be putting broader issues into the spotlight. For the first time, the FDA will be empowered to more aggressively regulate and enforce preventive measures. Recalls will no longer just be voluntary, but rather, can be mandatory. In our opinion, given this new regulatory power and the plethora of places from which pet food manufacturers source their ingredients, the number of recalls will surely rise. Closer attention and accountability are good for consumers and the animals we feed, and definitely something we need to be informed about.
RECALL CLASS OF 2013
We have the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to thank for finding what might be the contributing factor: the department identified antibiotic residues not approved for poultry in the U.S. in the treats. This spurred Del Monte, the makers of Milo’s Kitchen Chicken Jerky Treats, and Nestle Purina, manufacturers of Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch dog treats, as well as others, to finally initiate a nationwide removal of these products from store shelves.
Though the FDA continued to claim that “there is no evidence that raises health concerns, and that these results are highly unlikely to be related to the reports of illnesses,” the findings were enough to convince the slow-moving food industry that they needed to get the products out of circulation. The FDA, which still considers this to be an open investigation, notes that they “welcome additional information about New York’s testing methodology …” To date, the treats are thought to have contributed to the deaths of roughly 500 dogs and nine cats. If New York’s state inspectors had not found the illegal antibiotic residue, those treats would still be available. Chalk one up for the state team!
DOMESTIC PRODUCTS TAKE A HIT
In February of this year, Kasel had the dubious distinction of being the first pet food manufacturer to possibly face a first-ever FDA/FSMA mandatory recall notice, a threat based on inspections by an FDA team that found a number of infractions: “All of the finished pet treat product samples and 48 out of 87 environmental samples collected during the inspection tested positive for salmonella. More than 10 different species of salmonella were found in the firm’s products and manufacturing facility, indicating multiple sources of contamination.” The jerky treats were sold through a number of big-box retailers, including Target, Petco, Sam’s Club and Costco.
Other jerky products made in Kasel’s Denver plant were drawn into the recall as well. Bixbi, an up-and-coming independent brand from Boulder, had batches of their products swept up, and Nutri-Vet, a more established brand, was also named, although it was noted that none of these products had tested positive for bacteria. (I contacted the owners of Bixbi and Kasel, who responded to my questions; I also placed numerous calls to Nutri-Vet, who didn’t reply.)
Treats aren’t the only products in which salmonella has been found, however. Natura, a premium holistic brand now owned by Procter & Gamble, had its first recall experience this year after one of their dry-food products tested positive for salmonella by Michigan inspectors. When I spoke in late March to Jason Taylor, a P&G spokesperson, he said the company was still in the process of trying to recreate the production situation at the time the contamination happened; they were, however, sure that it had occurred during a post-extrusion step. “We have an extrusion [cooking] process that is scientifically proven to kill pathogens … So it probably happened either at the dryer or packaging line.” According to Taylor, the company has a complex manufacturing process in place to ensure that their products are contamination- free. Their microbial-mitigation process, which has more than 100 steps, addresses each step the food goes through, from raw material through packaging.
Taylor said that the company was fairly confident that the problem was limited to products manufactured during the two-week period beginning December 17, 2012, and ending January 2, 2013. Since then, we learned that they extended the recall for products manufactured up through March 24, 2013— making this a larger-scale recall.
RAW FOOD PRODUCTS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
While most of Honest Kitchen’s rawfood sources are in North America, they also get some produce from Europe and exotic fruits from Asia. Surprisingly, they get their parsley from Egypt. Yearround availability of organic and/or human-grade ingredients at a reasonable price is one of the challenges faced by smaller food manufacturers like Honest Kitchen, and is the reason for this wide-ranging sourcing.
Since this incident, Honest Kitchen has switched to another parsley supplier (also in Egypt) and added a new step to their processing of dried herbs and leafy greens, treating them with a gentle steam sterilization to protect against microbial pathogens.
More raw food companies were hit with recalls in March, when the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture found salmonella, first in Steve’s Real Food Turducken patties, and a week later in a two-pound tube of Bravo! Chicken Blend raw frozen food diet the agency had purchased from a local pet store.* I talked with veterinarian Heidi Kassenborg, director of Dairy and Food Inspections for Minnesota, to get a better idea about her state’s pathogen inspection process.
Many have observed that while salmonella is the most prevalent foodborne pathogen, few dogs actually become ill from it, and I asked her why the FDA and her agency have such a strong concern about its presence in pet food. She explained that they are charged with finding adulterants in food, and “in food items, salmonella is considered to be an adulterant.” As for the USDA’s salmonella-tolerance level for raw poultry (now at 7.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 1996), she confirmed that “in raw food, like poultry and beef, it is not considered to be an adulterant.” Basically, there is no tolerance for adulterants in finished food items, and even raw diet is considered a “food item.”
Kassenborg explained the high concern about pet food, saying that since pet food is handled by humans, they are exposed to any pathogens that may be in it; these pathogens can also be excreted in the pet’s stool. Given that salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, the frail or elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, this is indeed a compelling reason for concern.
She went on to say that there would be increased surveillance now that raw diet has tested positive for pathogens. “Once things are found in one food type, they start looking at it and testing more. We have an obligation to find out if it is a widespread problem. And if so, is there a way to produce it better without it becoming contaminated?”
Doug Lueders, supervisor of Minnesota’s Commercial Feed Regulatory Program and the person responsible for its product-sampling plan, concurs. “If we have a category that has had few [contaminants] or none, we may switch our emphasis to one where we have had a problem. I think we will raise the percentage [of resources] that we have devoted to raw in the past; that, however, will be at the expense of something else.”
Resource allocation is a real issue. Other states have registered positive hits on items like jerky and kibble, so even though there might not be direct interstate coordination of efforts, Lueders says, since “Michigan found salmonella in one brand of pet food, it probably doesn’t serve much practical purpose for us to look at the same brand ourselves. There is an old adage that says an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we wouldn’t continue to test the same pet food for salmonella in hopes of finding more salmonella, or hoping to find that it is clean …”
THE PRICE OF SAFETY
Prior to processing a food in their facilities, suppliers must certify that the food is pathogen-free. Throughout the manufacturing process, pathogens are tested for and eradicated. A few NARPA members use what is known as highpressure processing or high-pressure pasteurization (HPP), which disrupts a pathogen’s cell walls. Miller says that this very expensive system is considered by the general food industry to be stateof- the-art in controlling pathogens.
Companies like Bravo! also batchtest and follow a test-and-hold system, meaning that finished products are not shipped from their plants until negative pathogen reports are in hand. A Bravo! spokesperson described the company’s process: “Most established companies in raw diet own their own facilities. We [at Bravo] come out of the meat business and our facility is a USDA facility for human food, so we have standards we have to keep up. We have a USDA inspector who checks the plant daily to make sure that [things are] being done by the books [and] we have a HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] plan in place. What consumers should be looking for are companies who use ‘test and release’ and batch testing, and have HACCP plans.” He also noted that the company’s website will soon have a function that will allow consumers to enter an item number and “best used by” date and receive test results for E. coli, Listeria and salmonella.
This type of high-level testing increases the cost of the final product; as Miller observes, “you can’t add a whole level of pathogen controls and not have a resulting increase in cost to consumers.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
But while smaller brands can be devastated by such events, companies who have worked hard and long to develop a loyal customer base can, most likely, recover from them, as can internationally distributed brands such as Natura.
I don’t believe that most of these pet food companies and manufacturers acted recklessly. But after a recall, it shouldn’t be business as usual. Measures need to be taken to identify where the contamination came into the system, and pathogen controls need to be improved. Changes need to be made—for some businesses, that may mean switching manufacturers, raw-material suppliers, warehouses or distributors, or even instructing pet stores on proper handling and storage techniques for their products.
It’s also critically important that they pay attention to how customers are notified (and receive compensation or refunds). For example, I commend Honest Kitchen for quickly alerting its customers via email, social media and website notices. Retaining the trust of customers requires companies to be transparent, forthcoming and ready to make production and sourcing modifications, as they and a few other companies have done.
Realistically speaking, it’s unlikely that the food system can be made 100 percent safe. Nonetheless, we need to know we can trust that those who make the food we feed our companion animals are held to the same standards as those who supply the food we eat ourselves.
Over the years, we’ve become well aware of the concept of food sourcing. In addition to knowing exactly what goes into the food we feed our dogs and cats, we also need to know where it comes from. How the finished products are processed, packaged and distributed is also vitally important. As P&G’s Taylor observed, pathogen elimination is challenging when working with large quantities of raw meat and poultry.
Do some food processors take shortcuts to save money? For some, that might be the case, as evidenced by the huge 2012 recall involving a Diamond co-processing plant in Gaston, S.C. , which ultimately affected 17 brands representing more than 30,000 tons of dry dog and cat food. Because a rare strain of Salmonella infantis was found in some product samples, all brands, ranging from high-end Wellness to Costco’s brand, Kirkland, were recalled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 49 people in 20 states and two in Canada who came in contact with pet food made at this facility are confirmed to have been affected. When the FDA inspected the plant, they found numerous problems with the contamination-containment processes, including the use of cardboard and duct tape on some of the equipment. How they got away with this—how they managed to fly under the radar of the companies for which they were making food—is anyone’s guess.
Yet another problem that cries out for better monitoring involves actually getting recalled products off store shelves. A reporter for a Colorado television station found bags of the tainted Chinese jerky in stores such as Safeway, K-Mart and Albertsons almost a month after it had been recalled. I learned about this from attorney Jennifer Reba Edwards of the Animal Law Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo. As Edwards points out, “The bigger problem is [that] once recalled, the products are still getting to the end user. Retailers are not pulling the products from the shelf and you can buy them online; that is almost a bigger problem than the recall itself—preventing it [from] being available to the end user.” Who is responsible for this step? Who should be held accountable? This is definitely a problem to track and one that consumers need to be aware of.
Within the dog community, the issue of salmonella is controversial; some question its potential to harm dogs. However, I don’t believe this is debatable. There are too many instances in which people have been damaged by cross-contamination or mishandling in the home of food intended for pets. The FDA considers it to be an adulterant in both human and animal foods, as well they should. More to the point, as Jennifer Edwards says, “I’m pregnant; I would really be upset if I were to be exposed to salmonella. It goes beyond protecting our animals—we have to protect our people as well.”
If ever there was a reason to look at the big picture, this is it. We have only one food supply, and it should be safe for both humans and animals. This is, and ought to be, the standard that foodsafety regulators, the food industry and we—the consumers—need to meet.
*A Bravo! company spokesperson told me that the product that tested positive had been tested by a third-party inspector before leaving the plant and had a negative-contamination finding. In an unusual step, the FDA allowed that point to be included in their recall statement.
News: Guest Posts
Should food that has been genetically modified be labeled?
Last November, California became the first state to put the issue on the ballot. Proposition 37, the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” called for such disclosure on the labels of some raw and processed foods sold in stores. It also prohibited them from being advertised as “natural.” And it didn’t give dog chow a free pass.
Although the measure targeted human consumers, the California Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law applies to both human and animal foods. So any pet food with a detectable level of genetically engineered content would also have to note on its label, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
That would mean a lot of new label text in the dog food aisle. Over 90 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 85 percent of its corn is genetically modified, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crops, modified to resist pests or withstand high doses of weed killer, are common in processed foods such as cereals and dog food.
But even with strong consumer support, the label law failed to pass. The organic industry and other advocates were outspent by biotech companies led by Monsanto—the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds—and the food industry, including Big Dog Food. Nestle, owner of Purina PetCare Company and Mars, the maker of Nutro and Pedigree dog food, donated funds to help defeat it.
The Pet Food Institute and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council argued that the label requirements would increase costs for farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike. Heated editorials appeared on Petfoodindustry.com.
“Putting scary sounding labels on pet food packaging will likely mislead consumers and impact their purchasing choices,” states a “No on 37” Campaign flyer.
In one ad by the campaign, a befuddled-looking man held up a slab of meat and a pet food canister. The line read, “So dog food would need a label but my steak wouldn’t?” The ad aimed at exemptions in the law that might confuse consumers; in this case, that processed beef dog food would be labeled but beef from animals fed genetically engineered crops wouldn’t.
Label supporters say that, given the prevalence of genetically modified ingredients and the scale of the industrial supply chain, a label that covers many of these foods is a good start (for example, dog food with beef which may contain bioengineered ingredients, such as vegetable oils).
Some dog owners already consider mainstream pet food, with its uniform nubs of dry kibble or wet mush, mere canine junk food; fast, convenient, and nutritionally questionable. But are those genetically modified morsels unhealthy in other ways?
The science is inconclusive. A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA altered by the insertion of genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. The traditional means—plant breeding—allows desired traits to be cultivated, or unwanted effects to be eliminated, over time. Gene-splicing also shortcuts the long process of adaptation and evolution that occurs between food and consumers,
The FDA has ruled that these foods are “substantially equivalent to conventionally produced foods,” and does not safety test them. Unless they contain a known allergen, there is only a voluntary consultation process with developers, who conduct their own testing. But scientists say that the potential for creating new allergens and toxicants in bioengineered foods is there. At the same time, corporate patent rights over seeds limit independent researchers’ ability to study them.
California’s failed initiative calls labels “a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.” Dog owners may agree. How would anyone know if genetically altered foods are triggering disease in dogs? Shouldn’t vets know what the pets they attend to are eating?
One thing is clear: it isn’t over. Several states are now working on proposals for their own label laws.
Editor's note: Starting in 2018 Whole Foods will be labeling GMO foods. And even Wal-Mart has been looking at labeling as well.
Copyright © 1997-2017 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc