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—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.
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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 four companies dominate: Nestlé (Purina, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog), Del Monte (Gravy Train, Nature’s Recipe, Milk Bone), MasterFoods (Mars’ Royal Canin, Pedigree, Sensible Choice, Iams, Eukanuba) and Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s Science Diet, Nature’s Best).
What seemed the most surprising to consumers was that some of the “premium” brands, such as Iams, Hills and Nutro—beneficiaries of greater consumer confidence—like the others, don’t always produce their own food. Instead, their recipes and “formulas” are jobbed out to contract manufacturers, companies like Menu Foods, Diamond and Doane, who actually make the foods and purchase raw ingredients in cost-saving bulk. This is a much cheaper way of producing the food because each brand doesn’t have to invest in expensive manufacturing equipment themselves. Which is how wheat gluten (a low-quality protein source) appeared in so many products, under so many different brands (co-packers like Menu also make store-brand pet foods for Wal-Mart and Kroger, among others).
So what is a responsible dog caregiver to do?
We will take a closer look at the issues we face as we make our pet food-buying, or feeding, decisions. We decided to interview the leading authorities, people who questioned commercial pet food industry practices years before the subject caught the public’s attention. Donald Strombeck, DVM, PhD and professor emeritus, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, spoke candidly to us about his viewpoints on pet nutrition and offered opinions on food safety and the industry’s lack of regulatory control.
It should be noted that during his long career, Dr. Strombeck did research for Ralston Purina, so his forthrightness on these matters was especially welcomed. It should also be noted that, though research has advanced what we know about nutrition, ingredients and additives since Dr. Strombeck wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets, his book still serves as an excellent reference. Ann Martin, a tireless advocate, has investigated everything from the ugly side of rendering plants to the challenges that consumers have in understanding pet food labeling. She has been a thorn in the side of the industry for over 10 years, ever since she wrote the book Food Pets Die For. We present this historic overview to give context to problems that have long been known to exist in the industry and, we hope, to suggest ways to affect changes.
Increased regulation and scrutiny of pet food manufacturing are truly important. Consider this news item: In a USA Today story (4/9/07) it was noted that the FDA “inspects only about 1% of the imported food it regulates … and the agency’s resources, compared with its vast mandate, are minuscule and shrinking.… Last year, the FDA had 640 food inspectors, more than 25% fewer than it had in 2003.” (And this at a time of heightened concern about national security!) There is no doubt that something must be done about this, but it is also no wonder that the safety of pet food does not top the agency’s agenda. Not only that, but even if there had been FDA inspectors checking the Chinese wheat gluten shipments, they would not have inspected for melamine because it was not considered toxic.
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.
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.
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. 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.