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Dog Food and Canine Nutrition with Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim

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.

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