food & nutrition
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What Difference Does a Few Pounds Make?
People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing and a lack of energy—nothing to smile about.
Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in United States are overweight or obese—and, like canine waistlines, the numbers keep expanding.
“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”
By doling out diets high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, we’re making our dogs fat. Dr. Ward explains. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.
On top of poor nutrition, we’re giving our dogs too much. Most of us rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed our dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to our specific pets. We don’t know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.
And then there are the add-ons—biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps and on and on. APOP estimates that 90 percent of pet owners give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. They’re called treats for a reason.
“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, it’s overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”
There’s the rub. Weight control is not about winning beauty contests, at least not for most of dogs. It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.
“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.
A key to our dogs’ health is getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating any of the disease conditions that result from being overweight. Smart diet and consistent exercise not only saves your health care dollars and spares your dogs discomfort and suffering, it will probably extend their lives.
A 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your best friend. That’s the best treat of all.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Reading the label on a package of pet food can be an exasperating exercise. Although all labels must include certain elements, finding out where these items appear and what they mean can be difficult. Even skilled nutritional experts like Marion Nestle admit that reading a pet-food label “is no simple task…and hardly anyone can make sense of them.”
Another issue is how these elements are identified. Nutritional standards for the production of pet food are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This nongovernmental group is made up of state and federal representatives as well as people directly involved in the pet-food industry. This means that people who manufacture pet food have a voice in establishing not only pet-food standards but also most of the label requirements and feed-trial protocols. Though the FDA, a federal regulatory agency, sets rules for three of the label items, its oversight of pet-food production is still very limited. As we learned during the 2007 recall, the FDA could not order companies to recall products containing melamine-tainted ingredients. (Sadly, it still doesn’t have recall power.)
AAFCO’s Nutrient Profiles list the minimum amounts (and minimum is the operative word here) of nutrients required by pets. The group recognizes only two canine feeding stages: adult dog maintenance and “growth and reproduction.” So, unless they’re puppies or lactating females, all dogs fall into the “adult maintenance” category regardless of their age, health status or level of physical activity.
• Who it is intended to feed (i.e., dog or cat).
• Package weight (net).
• Name and address of the manufacturer.(Phone numbers and/or URLs are not required, but are good things to look for.)
• Statement of Nutritional Adequacy (guidelines that must be adhered to in order to label the food as “complete and balanced”). This is also where you’ll find out how the food meets these standards for nutritional adequacy: by calculation or by live feeding trials.
• Statement of Guaranteed Analysis (listing the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat in the food and maximum percentage of fiber and moisture; some companies also specify other nutrients). By the way, “crude” is not a quality statement; it refers to a specific method of measuring the nutrient. Carbohydrates are not included because they are not required in the diet of pets.
• Feeding directions, which are based only on the weight of the animal, so you might run the risk of over-or underfeeding if you follow them. Always monitor your dog’s weight and energy level.
• List of ingredients, identified in the order of “predominance by weight,” or weight before processing. This is important to note when you are comparing products with different moisture contents (see Dry Matter p. 67). Also, as explained by Linda Bren in an FDA Consumer newsletter, “Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products—when added together—may weigh more than the chicken.”
• The Animal Protection Institute points out that “a good rule of thumb to distinguish the major components of a food is to look for the first named source of fat in the ingredient list. Anything listed before that (and including it) makes up the main portion of the food. Other items, which may add flavor, function as preservatives or [have] dietary benefits (e.g. probiotics, vitamins and minerals),” are present in much smaller amounts.
• Calorie Statements (optional). AAFCO regulations say the listing for calories “shall be distinct from Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” If a calorie statement is on the label, it must be expressed on a “kilocalories per kilogram” basis. Kilocalories are the same as the calories. A kilogram is a unit of metric measurement equal to 2.2 pounds.
If yours is a one-dog household and your budget can tolerate the price differential, shop for smaller-sized bags, which make it easier to keep the food fresh. Also, look for bags lined with untreated aluminum foil. Do not remove the food from the bag, but rather, store the bag inside an airtight, metal container.
If you feed your dog canned food and don’t use an entire can in one meal, store the leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered container. Food left in an opened can (even one with a plastic lid) loses flavor.
Dogs thrive on variety. As Bren points out, “Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet-food products every few months. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn’t develop for some as-yet-unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet’s digestive system.”
If you are adding fresh or cooked ingredients to the meal (which many recommend), make sure you adjust the amount of commercial food to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
When in doubt, shop at small boutique or holistic pet stores. The owners and staff are usually more familiar with their products and can help you with your buying decisions.
Make sure you contact the food manufacturer if you have any questions about their products, either before or after buying it. Do not simply rely on the information from their websites.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Rewards with quality and goodness
Although treats are usually given in small portions (or ought to be!), make sure that you pay the same high level of attention to what’s in them as you do for all of your dog’s food. Look for organic, whole-food ingredients, including named meats, whole grains, lots of good fruit and/or vegetables and natural, food-based sweeteners (if they are used at all)—applesauce, honey or molasses, for example. Avoid by-products, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring and artificial preservatives. Look for individual portions that are easy to break into smaller bits.
Treats are often high in calories, so factor them in when thinking about your dog’s overall food intake. It is recommended that “treat substitutes” make up no more than 5 to 10 percent of a dog’s diet. If the calorie count isn’t listed on the label, find out what it is before giving them to your dog. Contact the manufacturer for calorie information if need be.
To keep bagged treats fresh—and make it a little more difficult for the diligent treat-hound to score—keep the bags sealed. If the seal doesn’t work (often they don’t), use heavy-duty zip lock–type bags or store them in glass or ceramic containers with tight-fitting lids.
Dogs love variety, and with the wide array of treats on the market, it’s easy to find a selection that will satisfy most co-pilots.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A better way to compare dog foods
When you compare different types of foods—canned, kibble, etc. or simply different brands—you need to keep in mind the moisture content so you can compare like to like. Use the dry-matter basis.
First, establish the amount of dry matter by subtracting the percentage given for moisture from 100 percent. If the moisture is given as 10 percent, the food’s dry-matter content is 90 percent.
Next, convert the protein found in the Guaranteed Analysis statement to a dry-matter basis by dividing its percentage by the amount of dry matter (calculated in the previous step). For example, if the protein is given as 26 percent, it converts to 28 percent on a dry-matter basis (26 divided by 90). If the moisture level had been, say, 30 percent, the dry matter content would have been 70 percent and protein would have been 37 percent (26 divided by 70).
You can do similar calculations for fat and fiber after converting their percentages to a dry-matter basis.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
An interview with Barbara Laino
Like many people who’ve turned to natural pet food, Barbara Laino initially experimented with a homemade diet out of frustration. Her first dog, Aurora, developed a type of irritable bowel syndrome that didn’t respond to traditional medicine. After Laino switched her from kibble, the Alaskan Malamute’s symptoms completely disappeared, and Laino was a convert. Now, 15 years later, she is a certified holistic health counselor and teaches classes on making nutritious food (for people and pets alike) at her organic farm in Warwick, N.Y. Laino shared her experiences with us between sessions of her popular workshop, “Making Homemade Dog and Cat Food.”
JoAnna Lou: Were you criticized when you started making your own dog food?
Barbara Laino: There’s a lot of pressure from veterinarians. They pretend that feeding a dog is a complex thing to do. When I first started making my own food, I felt cornered. I felt like I had to have all these numbers — milligrams of calcium, percentage of protein … Since then, I’ve realized that it’s really common sense. Feeding a dog is no more difficult than feeding a child.
JL: How do you ensure that you’re feeding a balanced diet?
BL: I’ve sent recipes to be tested for how well they meet AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] standards, but I don’t give it that much credence. Pet-food guidelines are the minimum of what a dog needs in order to stay alive. But I want my dog to thrive and be happy and healthy for a long time!
Think about the Great Dane and the Chihuahua. There’s such variation in dogs. These feeding guidelines don’t take size difference into consideration, not to mention place of origin. With northern breeds, for instance, I focus a lot on zinc because they’re coming from a thousand years of eating fish and seaweed. It all comes down to the individual.
JL: Across individuals, what do you consider to be the foundation of a good diet?
BL: Variety. I believe much of the recent food allergy problem has developed from feeding the same thing every day. Yet, this is probably one of the most controversial parts of the homemade diet. Somehow it has reached the point that people are scared they can’t balance their dog’s food properly.
JL: In addition to this fear, many people avoid homemade pet food because they are concerned about handling raw meat. Do you recommend cooked diets in these cases?
BL: Yes, I do. I think people get hooked on the raw concept, but it’s not all about raw. Whatever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s boiling chicken breasts or grinding raw chicken necks … any time you’re preparing food using fresh ingredients, it’s going to be a thousand times better than what you’re getting from kibble.
JL: The popularity of organic food has exploded in recent years, but it doesn’t fit everyone’s budget. How important is it to use organic ingredients? BL: Organic is a great thing, along with grass-fed meat, which is even better than organic. Most premium dog food is not certified organic and, considering how expensive [those foods] are, it’s actually cheaper to buy organic ingredients and make your own dog food. With chicken, it’s even more important to buy organic to avoid the genetically modified soy that makes up the bulk of non-organic chicken feed. However, if you can only afford to buy non-organic ingredients, it’s still much better to make your own food.
JL: Are there ways that people can incorporate aspects of a homemade diet without completely converting to it?
BL: Definitely. In my workshop, I have a list of foods that people can add to their dog’s meal. I tell them to stick it on the fridge as a reminder. You can take a scoop of good kibble and combine it with carrots, honey or a whole egg. Another one is canned salmon, which is super-easy and convenient. If you do nothing else, add a little canned salmon to your dog’s kibble every day. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do.
[Not all dogs tolerate all foods. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly and adjust based on what works for your dog. When in doubt, consult a holistic veterinarian.]
JL: You teach workshops on preparing healthy food for both humans and canines. Do you find a connection between the two?
BL: Dogs are pack animals; there’s a social process to food with wild dogs. When you’re sitting at the table and not sharing with your dog, there’s a disconnect. Our dogs want to be part of a pack and have the social connection of eating together. I just think it makes a lot of sense.
JL: Dog food has gone from table scraps to commercial kibble to feeding natural food and becoming more involved in the process. How have you experienced this in your work?
BL: Nowadays, people want the experience of making their own food, including meals for their pets. In my workshops, people are coming in who are less concerned with the nutrition specifics and just want to make their dog a really nice meal. I got into this because my dog was sick, so it’s cool to see people with healthy dogs who just want to do this differently now. And they’re finding that it’s enjoyable, ethical and feels good.
Click for some of Barbara Laino's homemade recipes.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Surprises from the grocery shelf
In part one of this article, we asked the rhetorical question: “If you’re going to feed your dogs ‘people’ food, shouldn’t you feed them something that’s actually good for them?” and answered it with a list of 10 healthy, easily obtainable options straight from the shelves of your local market. As promised, here are 10 more “easy pieces” for your consideration. (Part One can be found here.)
8. Wheat Grass
9. Turnip Greens
10. Nutritional Yeast
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tainted kibble affects both people and pets
In early April, Diamond Pet Foods initiated a recall in response to 14 cases of human salmonella poisoning linked to handling their kibble. At first only a few brands were included, but the list has been steadily growing in the last month. Now the recall has spread to other companies who manufacture products in the same plant, like WellPet.
I feed my pups Taste of the Wild, which was only recently added to the recall. It’s frustrating because Diamond Pet Foods initially claimed the food was safe, but then later included it in the recall.
Diamond Pet Foods and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are only reporting the 14-person salmonella outbreak, but stories of sick pets have been emerging online.
One woman in California reported that her dog is suffering from acute liver failure that she believes is related to the Taste of the Wild recall. So far she has spent over $3,000 on veterinary care and she’s not alone. Others are in a similar predicament and are having a hard time getting information from Taste of the Wild.
Sadly recalls seem to be a regular occurrence these days. Feeding a good kibble is no longer about just finding a food with quality ingredients. Now you have to be worried about the track record of a company and the manufacturing plants that they use. I’m starting to think that making my own pet food is the only way that I can be truly confident in the meals I put in my dogs’ bowls. In talking to my friends, I know I’m not the only one contemplating a switch to fresh foods or homemade diets.
Are you planning on changing your dog’s food as a result of the recall?
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A Guest Editorial
March was a rough month for us vets. Monday morning, the 19th, dawned to a deluge of frantic calls demanding answers. Um…what was the question? Most of us didn’t even know…yet.
I was asked questions like, “How do I know if my dog’s food is on the list?”, “What kind of tests does he need?” and the worst: “Is she going to die?”
It’s hard enough to say “I don’t know” under normal circumstances. This version went more like, “I have absolutely no clue.”
As one of my colleagues said, “I felt so stupid coming into work on Monday after a blissful weekend of … family time knowing absolutely zero about the recall. My clients probably thought I was a horrible vet.”
But how was this off-duty vet to know? So you understand, vets received no special notice before the announcement—made, by the way, on a Friday. As all news people know, the last day of the week is when you release an item you’d prefer to bury, not one you need to broadcast.
At this point, we know more about the now-infamous pet food recall that spawned the frenzy. Yet most vets on the ground continue to have more questions than answers regarding the toxins found in the affected pet foods, the pattern of exposure to our patient population, the practical considerations of treating this intoxication (poisoning by a toxic substance) and the reporting mechanisms required to aid in their investigation.
Where are the emails and bulletins from the pet food companies? Why has no helpful clinical information been provided to the distributors? Why were so many vets (busy reading their journals instead of watching the weekend news) blasted that Monday morning without so much as a warning?
Vets are hard-working people. We toil long in our lives, laboring to keep our animals comfortable and healthy—and yet things like this still happen. It comes as a blow, then, when all of our expertise and our acumen, channeled purposefully in the task of helping pets, yields the potential for their death and disease instead.
Sure, the pet food recall has shown us all how little we know about our food supply. Whether it goes into our pets’ food bowls or onto our own plates, we’re far less informed than we ever thought possible. But vets? We’re supposed to know about these things. People depend on us. Pets rely on our insider’s knowledge.
But, after the recall, we vets now understand how tenuous a grasp we’ve had on the information we get from pet food companies. We’ve trusted, just as you’ve trusted, in the veracity of their statements, in the wholesomeness of their foods, in their commitment to quality.
So, as a vet, I’ve got to confess that I’ve never felt more frustrated…and betrayed…and outraged.
My patients? In at least one obvious case, they’ve suffered. One chronically ill patient seemed to start feeling funny the Thursday before the recall. We prescribed her usual medications instead of requiring hospitalization. By Sunday, she was in acute renal failure after eating recalled pet foods for the previous month. Would a day have made a difference? Perhaps.
Any way you look at it, the time lapse in reporting the contamination was deplorable.
I can understand that some pet foods outsource their production. I can even understand purchasing contaminated grain unknowingly, but I cannot forgive the failure to report immediately the possibility of toxicity—to the public at large and to the vets they enlist to help sell their products.
How about one simple fax to every vet in the country? That’s not as hard to do as it sounds. They certainly know how to get to us when it comes to selling their food.
It’s bad enough that the manufacturer bought contaminated grain from a supplier. It’s bad enough everyone in the know sat on their hands for a month. Did they also have to display their disregard for pets so flagrantly as to fail to provide proper support for the vets who recommend their foods and to the people who feed those foods to animals they care for?
As a vet, I feel terrible. But however you see it, the pet food companies are directly to blame for the widespread mishandling of this crisis. These companies need to get serious about our pets. Better yet, if they don’t care enough to understand their importance, they should get out of the pet business altogether.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Mealtime surprises from the grocery shelf
If you’re going to feed your dogs “people” food, shouldn’t you feed them something that’s actually good for them? Here are some healthy, easily obtainable options straight from market shelves that can be added to spice up your pup’s regular fare. There are, of course, a few cautions to keep in mind. First, none of these items by themselves constitutes a “complete and balanced” meal, and if your dog has health or weight issues, check with your vet before introducing them. Next, considering that many dogs are willing to eat almost anything they find, they can be surprisingly fussy about new things in their food bowls; start with a small portion to see if it’s a go … or no. And finally, always introduce new foods gradually. Look for 10 more “easy pieces” in the next issue.
3. Sweet Potato
10. Swiss Chard
*The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors the levels of mercury and industrial chemicals that end up in fish, both fresh- and saltwater; updates regarding contamination are readily available.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Her latest book, What to Eat, inspired her work in progress, What Pets Eat. She and her partner, Malden Nesheim, PhD, professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University, are currently conducting research for this book. We’re pleased to announce that both have agreed to serve as Bark’s nutrition editors, and we begin with an introductory Q&A.
Nestle & Nesheim: Happy to. What to Eat evolved in response to complaints that people were totally confused about how to make food choices. We see the pet food marketplace as just as daunting—so many products, so many health promises and so much contradictory information. We think we can bring some common sense and clarity to the discussion and base what we say on real research. Plenty of studies provide useful information about what pets need to eat. Just as with human diets, there are many different ways to meet nutritional needs. Every one of them—commercial food, home-made food, table food, dry food, wet food, raw food—can work well if done properly, and “properly” isn’t all that hard to do.
B: What are the similarities between dog and human nutrition? While it is said that dogs have metabolisms similar to ours, there are those who believe that dogs are carnivores, while humans are omnivores—doesn’t this affect food requirements for our two species?
N&N: It’s no surprise that dogs and humans have quite similar food needs. We both need the same nutrients to support growth and health, and our digestive systems work to process food in much the same way. This similarity is undoubtedly one of the reasons dogs and humans have gotten along so well for thousands of years. Modern dogs have evolved to be more omnivorous and do well on the foods we typically consume—the healthier foods, of course. Just because dogs can eat junk foods doesn’t mean they should.
B: How closely aligned are the human food and pet food industries? Is the level of control and oversight the same?
N&N: The best-known pet food brands pretty much all belong to big-time companies that make foods or other products for humans. Nestlé (no relation, by the way), Mars, Colgate, Procter & Gamble, Del Monte and Wal-Mart dominate pet food sales in the United States. But the systems for regulating human and pet food differ in some ways. The FDA regulates human foods through its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, but it regulates pet foods through its Center for Veterinary Medicine. This means that pet foods are covered by the rules that govern food for farm animals, not people. States have their own regulations for feed control and these also apply to pet foods. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act applies to both human and pet foods, but not in the same way. Labels are one obvious place where the rules for human and pet foods differ.
Historically, the states have been more involved in the enforcement of animal feed regulations than has the FDA, except in the area of feed additives. But Congress has just tucked legislation about pet foods into the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, signed into law in September. This requires AAFCO—the Association of American Feed Control Officials—and the pet food industry to set processing and ingredient standards for pet food labels and to develop a system for identifying and monitoring illnesses associated with the foods. Let’s hope they do this, and soon.
B: How are the two industries linked? It is said that pet food is actually made from the “scraps” left over from the production of human food; do you see it this way?
N&N: That is certainly one way to look at it. The National Renderers Association estimates that 25 percent of rendered products left over from processing cattle, pigs and chickens for human food goes into pet foods in the form of meat- and bone meal or poultry by-product meal. Brewers rice is composed of broken and cracked rice grains that are not sold on the human market. Soybean meal is what is left after soy (“vegetable”) oil is extracted from soybeans. The animal feed industry—including the pet food industry—uses the materials that remain after production of many human foods, among them sugar, alcohol, beer, and flour as well as cattle, pigs and chickens. Many of these materials contribute nutrients—vitamins, minerals, protein—or energy that dogs can use.
B: In your writing, you warn against a “nutrient-by-nutrient approach to food” because it “takes the nutrient out of the context of the food.” What do you mean by that?
N&N: Whenever we see advertisements for specific vitamins, we know that marketing departments must be hard at work. Dogs, like humans, require more than 40 separate nutrients to grow, reproduce and stay healthy. They, like us, need every one of them. No pill can provide them all, so it’s best to get them from food. Most foods contain a great many nutrients, but in different proportions. So the best way to get all the nutrients is to mix and match food intake—eat a variety of foods from different groups (as we were taught in the third grade). Commercial dog food takes care of having to worry about the mixing and matching by putting a bunch of different ingredients in one can or pellet. But the nutrition principles are the same.
B: What do you see as the biggest trend in nutrition and eating?
N&N: We see two trends: one good, one not so good. The good one is heading toward better quality products—natural, organic, whole, unprocessed and locally grown. The not-so-good one is heading toward eating more food, more often, in more places, and taking in far more calories than are used up in activity. It’s pretty obvious that both trends apply to dogs as well as people.
B: The “Slow Food” movement and other eating-local movements seem, to some, to apply only to the upper echelon of consumers—do you think it is possible to feed all consumers and their pets good, fresh, nutritious foods without using industrial food products? Does food have to be mass-produced and/or processed to be affordable? Convenience and affordability—what other factors dictate food choices?
N&N: You’ve asked lots of questions here. Let’s start with the one about elitism. We view what’s happening with food these days as coming close to being a social movement based on classic democratic principles—of the people, by the people, for the people. Social movements have to start somewhere and some of the most important ones—women’s suffrage, civil rights and environmentalism leap to mind—started with the elite. Today, organics are the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. The laws of supply and demand suggest that as the supply of organics increases, prices will fall. This is already happening.
The issues of mass production and affordability are complicated and depend on federal farm policies, among other arcane matters. Those who grow corn get billions in federal subsidies, and corn was really cheap until we started growing it for fuel. That’s why corn appears as an ingredient in so many pet foods. That’s also why so many people want farm policy changed. The Farm Bill [known in Congress as the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007] was up for renewal in 2007. At the time of this writing, it did not look as though Congress would be brave enough to make significant changes in it, so advocates are already gearing up for the next round in 2012.
As for what dictates food choice: Price and convenience matter a lot, but so does perception. That’s where advertising comes in. We will have a lot to say in our book about the way pet foods are marketed. For human foods, environmental factors—portion size, proximity and peer pressure, for example—strongly influence caloric intake. But as a pet owner, you have complete control over your dog’s food environment.
B: When you take into consideration the number of companion animals in this country, do you think that commercial diets are the most pragmatic way to meet their feeding needs? Is a pet food revolution underway?
N&N: We think pets can be fed very well on diets prepared at home if owners provide a variety of healthful foods that include the needed nutrients (a multivitamin supplement is also a good idea). The “if” in that statement requires some knowledge and thought. Commercial pet foods are popular for precisely the same reason convenience foods and fast foods are popular: You don’t need to spend much time, effort or thought to open a can or a bag of dog food. We see a growing movement of pet owners who want to be more involved with their dog’s diet, just as there is a growing movement of consumers who want to know more about what’s in their food and where it comes from. We think both trends are great.
B: In many of your books, you take on the food industry—a huge business in this country. What impact do you think industry lobbyists have in setting U.S. nutrition policy? Are you seeing a similar impact on the pet food industry and the way its “standards” are set? As for regulatory standards, how similar are they in the two food sectors?
N&N: As Food Politics describes, every food company has its own lobbyist or trade association to protect its interests and make sure no government agency imposes regulations that might encourage people to eat less of its products. But the human food industry is a trillion dollar a year business (half spent on food prepared or served outside the home). Pet food’s $15 billion or so is dog biscuits in comparison to revenues from human foods sold by companies like Nestlé or Wal-Mart. As we learned from the Menu Foods recall, the regulatory standards in the two sectors are similar in some ways. One of them is crucial: The FDA can’t order recalls. It can only politely request voluntary recalls. We suspect food lobbyists like it that way.
B: What have you learned about AAFCO and how nutrition standards are established for companion animals?
N&N: AAFCO describes itself as a nonprofit group of officials or employees of state or federal agencies charged with regulating animal feed. It operates through committees that work on such matters as labeling, ingredient definitions, model feed laws and enforcement. A committee recommends standards for pet foods, usually by appointing an expert group made up of government, academic and industry representatives. Currently, AAFCO is reexamining its standards in light of the recent National Research Council report, “Nutritional Requirements of Dogs and Cats.” AAFCO committees also work closely with advisory groups that consist of representatives from industry groups. The industry participates in AAFCO deliberations but does not have a vote.
B: You have remarked that the pet food and human food sectors are remarkably similar in the way the foods are marketed (claims for health, disease prevention and aging), but there is much less transparency in composition and ingredients in the pet food industry. Have you been able to actually understand and deconstruct the ingredients by simply reading a pet food label?
N&N: Yes, with a little help from some great books on food ingredients. Pet food labels are supposed to display the name of the food, the manufacturer, what the product is for, how its nutritional adequacy has been determined, feeding directions and the list of ingredients in descending order of amount in the food. The ingredient present in the greatest amount comes first. The labels also are supposed to give the guaranteed analysis for moisture, crude protein, fat and fiber. The ingredient list is usually very long, but only the first few ingredients—maybe just the first five or six—really matter. The rest are unpronounceable flavor and texture additives, vitamins, and minerals that go on and on and make the list seem daunting.
Some of these additives do not contribute nutrients but are there to make the products taste better (flavor additives, “digest”), stick together (montmorillonite, bentonite), keep the fat from running (beet pulp, tomato pomace) and appear more acceptable to owners (caramel color). The infamous recalled “wheat gluten” (which was really melamine-laced wheat flour) was supposed to be there to thicken gravy but also to contribute protein. Additives all have a purpose in commercial dog food formulas. They are all approved by the FDA or are considered “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS). Whether they constitute “junk” depends on point of view. Our preference is to reserve the term “junk” for pet treats that provide calories but are not required to meet nutritional standards.
B: As has been evidenced by the public response to the latest food recall, pet lovers are increasingly aware that they must know more about the food they feed their companion animals. Are you interested in hearing from our readers with questions they might have as you investigate the pet food industry?
N&N: Yes! We would love to hear from readers about what they want to know. We will make certain we get those questions answered in our book, if not sooner.
B: Many of us would also like to better understand the link between the industry and the role that veterinarians play in directing our pets’ dietary regimes. What kind of information can our readers provide you to help in that phase of your work?
N&N: We know enough about medical education to know that doctors know hardly anything about nutrition. The same is true of veterinarians. Most veterinary colleges teach nutrition only minimally, meaning that veterinarians get their nutrition information from pet food companies. We would love to hear from veterinarians about the nutrition problems they encounter in their practices and the ways in which pet food companies transmit information about how to treat these problems. We would love to hear from pet owners about what veterinarians tell them about dog feeding, which commercial products they recommend, whether they sell foods in their offices and what kind of nutrition education they provide. We are delighted to have this forum and would like to make it as useful as possible for Bark readers.
Marion Nestle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Malden Nesheim, at email@example.com. Their most recent book, Pet Food Politics, is now available from the University of California Press.
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