It wasn’t all that long ago that dogs were either fed table scraps or their meals were made for them. I know that my childhood dog ate what we did, or in my case, what I didn’t eat—she was always ready to catch the bits of meat I rejected. She lived to be almost 20 years old without ever tasting kibble or canned pet food. However, it can’t be denied that great strides in the field of animal nutrition have been made since that time, and that some of this advancement is thanks to the research performed by pet-food companies, and animal nutritionists and veterinarians.
For the majority of dog guardians, feeding dogs commercial food makes the most sense; it is not only convenient, but—if they select high-quality food made by companies with proven records of ingredient integrity—it provides their dogs with a generally wholesome diet. In fact, many people believe that they are doing the very best thing by feeding their dog “dog food” and not “human food.” You hear this time and time again. More than a decade ago, I recall going to dinner at the home of friends, both of whom are medical doctors; as they prepared our dinner, they were also assembling a crock-pot meal for their three Greyhounds. Sheepishly, I must admit that I thought, Now, why aren’t they feeding their dogs a good dog food? But they clearly knew something then that has taken time for others to understand: No matter how you define it, dog food is processed food. It is manufactured, meaning that it goes through many steps before it reaches the dog’s bowl. The more steps a food takes before it is consumed, the more likely it is that a production or delivery system failure will affect its quality.
In 1981, when Laura Cunningham wrote the article “Pet-Food Esthetics” for The New York Times, she noted that people spent $4 billion that year on pet food. When the Menu recall story broke in March 2007, the amount had risen to $16.1 billion (projected)—a four-fold increase. How has this happened? Has the country’s pet population increased proportionally in a little over 15 years?
Reliable statistics on pet ownership are hard to come by, but in 1988, the first year the American Pet Products Association conducted their pet ownership study, they found that 56 percent of U.S. households had a pet; their most current survey (2007) shows 63 percent of households owning a pet, a modest 7 percent increase. I bring this up because while the statistics of pet ownership might not be all that reliable, the tracking of total spending on pet food is. And it is huge.
March 16, 2007, may have marked the tipping point for the pet food industry, the day the general public began to question how pet food is manufactured and the reliability of the claims made regarding its wholesomeness and safety. One of the most important tenets of our social contract with our dogs is to provide them with food that’s good for them. Many dog guardians believed they were doing just that by feeding their dogs some of the products removed from the shelves by the Menu recall. Even people who have long been concerned about the pet food industry and who don’t feed their pets commercial food were surprised by the enormity of this recall. How could this have happened?
There are many reasons, starting with lax FDA oversight and the self-regulated, non-governmental nature of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets nutritional standards, label requirements and feed-trial protocols for pet foods. Many of its members come from state agriculture departments as well as from within the industry itself. The pet food market is controlled by huge multinational conglomerates, and five companies dominate: Nestlé (Purina, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog), Del Monte (Gravy Train, Nature’s Recipe, Milk Bone), MasterFoods (Mars’ Royal Canin, Pedigree, Sensible Choice), Proctor and Gamble (Iams, Eukanuba) and Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s Science Diet, Nature’s Best).