Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, is one of America’s best-known critics of food safety and nutrition. The author of Food Politics and What to Eat as well as a popular columnist and blogger, she is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. In 2007, she and her partner, Malden Nesheim, PhD, professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University—both of whom are Bark contributing editors—turned their attention to the pet food industry. The result is Nestle’s book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the story of the melamine pet food recalls, and the book they wrote together, Feed Your Pet Right, due out next year. Christie Keith recently spoke with Nestle and Nesheim to find out what they’ve learned about pet food during the last two years, as well as what they see as the relationship between pet and human food safety and nutrition.
BARK: Marion, you’ve frequently said that everyone, whether they have pets or not, should care about pet food because “there is only one food supply.” I think that’s counterintuitive for some people. Could you elaborate?
Marion Nestle: Pets eat the same foods we do—they may eat different parts, but the sources are the same. The pet food recalls were a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with our food system. They made it obvious that food for pets and food for people are inseparable. Taking it a step further, the pet food recalls made the discovery of melamine in Chinese infant formula completely predictable.
BARK: At the time of the recalls, we talked about how few manufacturers (of both pet and human foods) realized that many of their ingredients were coming from a single source, and that many consumers were surprised to find out so many foods were made by the same company (Menu). Did that surprise you, too?
Nestle: We were stunned. We had no idea that a company we had never heard of made 95 brands of pet foods for most of the major companies. And the fact that all those brands—from Ol’ Roy to Iams—were made at one plant? What a revelation. But look how it prepared us for this year’s peanut butter recall, which is the same situation all over again: One company makes an ingredient that goes into thousands of products. The companies making these products have no clue where their peanut butter comes from because they get it from a broker. That’s our food system.
BARK: I was surprised to hear that you’ve come to believe commercial foods are not as bad as you thought they were going to be—that most animals “do fine” on commercial diets. And yet, the American Veterinary Dental Society says 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the age of three. It’s estimated that something like one in five adult dogs (double that for senior dogs) has arthritis, and there’s a high rate of obesity in dogs and cats. So I wonder if it’s really defensible to say that most dogs in America “do fine.”
Malden Nesheim: One problem is that we don’t have anything to compare to what’s happening now. We found data on the average age of dogs coming to veterinary practices; generally speaking, they are getting older. But what does that mean? Does that mean the dogs are living longer, or that more people are taking animals to veterinarians? We just don’t know.
Nestle: And it’s not for lack of trying. We tried really, really hard to find the kind of statistical information we needed to make a good judgment about trends in pet health, but we couldn’t. We have no idea whether oral disease is getting better or worse and couldn’t even find out whether dogs are living shorter or longer lives now. The data simply don’t exist. And we are dismayed by this.
BARK: So if that’s the case, and we can’t really say with authority that most animals “do fine” on their commercial diet, what advice would you give people trying to decide if the food they’re feeding their dogs is one on which they are thriving?