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?
In the next few issues of Bark, we will be taking a closer look at the issues we face as we make our pet food-buying, or feeding, decisions. Because Bark is a bimonthly publication, we can’t be a source for late-breaking news, but luckily, outstanding work is being done by many other organizations and bloggers and we urge you to track the information being provided by these resources online. (See resources.)
We decided to start our series by speaking with two of 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.
We also opened space for a guest editorial by Patty Khuly, DVM, a Florida veterinarian who provides a perspective on how she and most of her colleagues were blindsided by the recall, and remain ill-informed by Menu itself. (As this issue goes to press, hearings are scheduled in Washington to investigate this matter, and it is hoped that Sen. Durbin and his committee will be calling for much-needed 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.