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Pet Food Politics: Know Where Your Dog's Food Comes From

BARK: Both of you have recommended that pet owners contact pet food manufacturers to get information about how their product is made and what it contains. But as so many of us learned during the recalls, manufacturers don’t always know where each ingredient comes from. People who did call were put on hold, hung up on or given incorrect information—innocently or not—as well as given partial information or “official corporate statements” that didn’t answer their questions. Add to that the fact pet food labels aren’t comprehensible to most people. So how do we make a decision about commercial foods?

Nestle: It’s not easy. But we saw plenty of companies—Castor & Pollux and Natural Balance, for example—going to a lot of trouble to make what they were doing transparent, have their products tested, source their ingredients and post this information on their websites. All pet food companies need to be hearing from pet owners who care about these issues.

BARK: It sounds like you consider consumer contacts as a form of training for the pet food companies rather than something that will result in useful information for the pet owner.

Nestle: Yes. The question is whether you believe what the companies say. What else can you do? No government agency is checking. The FDA is up to its ears in contaminated peanut butter and pistachios, and pet food is way down on its priority list. We need some public uproar. The FDA only does what Congress tells it to. Pet owners need to be in close touch with their congressional representatives.

BARK: Given the high percentage of people who have pets—including, presumably, congressional representatives—it’s interesting that so many people don’t seem to understand what an enormous consumer issue this is.

Nestle: That’s because it’s “just pets.” We hear that all the time when we talk about what we’re writing. Even my friends say, “I haven’t read Pet Food Politics. Why would I read a book about pet food?” or “Why are you wasting your time writing about dogs and cats?” I didn’t think it was a waste of time at all. What affects the pet food supply affects the human food supply, and vice versa. And people are very emotionally involved with their pets. We see this as a big plus.

BARK: And it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.

Nestle: Forty-three billion dollars a year, and pet food itself is $17 billion.

BARK: Can you give our readers a taste of what to expect when Feed Your Pet Right comes out next year?

Nestle: Mostly we tried to satisfy our curiosity. We wanted to know what ancestral wolves and cats ate and how they differed from modern dogs and cats. We wondered what pets ate before commercial pet food existed, so we went back to the earliest written records we could find. When did the pet food industry start? What did it look like in the past and what does it look like now? How is it regulated? What kinds of foods are on the market? How do you read their labels? What are different kinds of diets—commercial, home-cooked, raw, kosher, vegetarian—and how do they work? We also wanted to find out about related issues, like how veterinarians learn about nutrition and how ethicists view feeding experiments on dogs and cats. Our concluding chapter has recommendations for the FDA, manufacturers, veterinarians and pet owners about what they all need to be doing to improve the situation.

BARK: You’re typically very even-handed in your discussion of these issues. How do you think the different stakeholders—pet owners, veterinarians, pet food companies—are going to react to the book?

Nestle: We suspect that what you call our even-handedness will catch us in the middle on lots of issues. Although we ended up believing that dogs can be fed successfully in many different ways, we have plenty of critical things to say about the industry and veterinary nutrition training.

BARK: How so?

Christie Keith has covered canine health and welfare issues since 1991, is the lead science reporter for Pet Connection and writes the "Your Whole Pet" column.