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.
Bark: In What to Eat, you set out to tell us how to make sensible food choices for ourselves; in your new project, What Pets Eat, are you hoping to do the same for our pets? Could you say more about what you mean by “sensible food”?
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?