With more attention being paid to the issues surrounding the safety and provenance of the foods humans eat, and with award-winning investigators like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle writing insightful books on the topic—what Pollan refers to as the “Age of Nutritionism”—it is no wonder that consumers were questioning the way they feed their dogs well before this latest recall scandal. In an article in The New York Times Magazine (1/28/07), Pollan points out that a “potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists’ lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus in on quantifying the nutrients they contain.” This point is underscored when one reads a label on a bag of kibble or a can of pet food and tries to understand exactly what the ingredients or nutrient sources are.
Bear in mind that most of the ingredients in pet foods are at the low end of the food chain; they come from whatever remains of the animal (be it chicken, pig or cow) not deemed fit for human consumption. These “parts”—heads, feet, bones, blood, beaks, lungs, ligaments—are either used for pet food or are converted for poultry and livestock feed, or even fertilizers. The consumer does not know the quality or source of the ingredient because it certainly doesn’t appear on the label, and few consumers know the difference between whole meat, meat by-product or meat meal. (For a detailed discussion, see Patrick in resources.)
Quality of the ingredients should be at the heart of this discussion of pet food. Nutrition is certainly important, but as Marion Nestle, PhD, nutritionist and author of What to Eat, says, “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food…” All of these factors are also important in our consideration of what and how we feed our dogs. Nutrient-by-nutrient thinking obscures the message that what we feed our dogs is more than an assemblage of ingredients, nutrients and additives, it is food—and it needs to be safe. But somehow we became convinced otherwise, afraid to step beyond the dictums promulgated by the pet food industry. Convinced that preparing our dog’s food ourselves, home cooking or supplementing a kibble diet with some of the “dreaded” table scraps would result in an unbalanced diet. Many of us feared that feeding anything other than commercially prepared food would harm our dogs.
As Christie Keith, who has written extensively on the subject, notes, “There is a lot of wiggle room in formulating a diet for your dog. Canines are, overall, rather forgiving nutritionally. That’s part of their success as a species.” So those of you who want to venture beyond the foods you have been using and either switch brands or perhaps prepare meals (cooked or raw), take heart. There are good alternatives—not only are there a few good commercial pet foods, but there also are easy-to-follow recipes, and even professionally formulated recipes devised by veterinary nutritionists (see resources). We’ll continue to write about healthful alternatives in future issues, as well as well as examining and analyzing the pet food industry’s practices and standards.