A Deep Dive Into The Trendy—Often Troubled—Pet Food Industry
For the conscientious human companion of a cat or dog, a trip to the pet food aisle can be a bewildering experience. Over the past decade, the options have exploded. There are foods for different breeds; foods that promise to clean teeth and sharpen minds; foods that claim to be natural, organic, artisanal, or holistic. There are raw foods, gluten-free foods, and foods containing trendy ingredients like kale and chia. The packaging conjures idyllic farms, high-tech research labs, or the kind of hipster restaurant where bearded waiters wear denim aprons. Many shoppers are left to ponder whether they're being neglectful if they fail to provide their toy poodle with antioxidant-rich "superfoods."
The pet food industry has experienced its share of scandals and recalls—including a major one 10 years ago that spurred new safeguards—so greater attention to ingredients and sourcing is fine in theory. The question is: Do all these new trends serve anyone except the manufacturers?
Americans are spending more than ever on commercial pet food—driven, in part, "by the increasingly universal sentiment that pets are members of the family and deserve the best," according to a report Mintel issued last year on the billion pet food market. "While pet owners pay attention to price, they also look for food that most aligns with their own personal dietary preferences and beliefs."
Or, as Marion Nestle, author of the bookFeed Your Pet Right(cowritten with fellow nutritionist Malden C. Nesheim), puts it: "How you decide to feed your pets is going to be influenced by your emotional relationship with them. But whether that decision is going to make them healthier is another issue entirely."
The industry has learned to target the emotional side of that equation with a strategy known as "humanization." This gambit, in which pet products are designed and marketed to mirror human consumer trends, reflects some deep demographic shifts. More Americans are living alone (the percentage of one-person households rose from 17% in 1970 to 27% in 2014). Millennials are putting off marriage and childbearing, often opting to nest with a pet instead, and they're choosier about ingredients. Retirees are staying active longer than before. All these trends result in a larger portion of the population with the time, money, and inclination to treat dogs and cats like surrogate children.
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The fact is, however, that as much as you might benefit from forgoing gluten, your dog may not gain anything from the pricey, boutique, grain-free product beckoning from the shelves. In fact, you may be inadvertently depriving your pet of an ingredient she needs in favor of a more expensive one she doesn't. Here's how to tell the difference.
Scandal and Safeguards
First, it helps to know a bit of pet food history. Archaeologists theorize that when dogs were first domesticated, 12,000 years ago, they ate whatever they could hunt, scavenge, or beg from humans. When cats began sharing our homes, 2 or 3 millennia later, they subsisted mostly on mice. But by the 19th century, pets commonly feasted on stews containing mixtures of meat, grain, dairy, and seafood. Canned pet foods appeared in the early 1900s, and modern varieties of dry food became popular in the 1930s.
DECODING THE LABEL
If the product is labeled"complete and balanced,"no other food is needed for your pet to be nourished at a particular life stage.
Look for the statement "Animal Feeding Testsusing AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product name] provides complete and balanced nutrition." This indicates the food has been tested with animals.
Animal carcasses that are rendered (cooked to remove fat and water), dried, and ground are calledmeat or poultry "meal."
Animal digest, a material made by using chemicals or enzymes to break down animal tissue, is used as a flavoring agent.
Product descriptions on labels must follow AAFCO rules to describe ingredients. If the label simply says"beef,"that means at least 95% of the product weight is beef. The word"dinner"or"entrée"means the food contains 25% meat; the phrases"contains beef"or"meaty flavor"denote even less.
Ingredients are listed in order of individual amounts, but if several starches are mentioned, they may actually be one starch divided into two or more ingredients (known as"ingredient splitting") and, taken together, may outweigh the meat.
Dismiss"all natural"claims. The FDA has a rule about this label, but the guidelines are so vague that the term is essentially meaningless.
The notion of a "scientific" pet diet took hold in the '50s, after the National Research Council established minimum and recommended levels of nutrients for dogs in each stage of life. (The NRC didn't get around to cats until 1972.) Pets, it turned out, have different nutritional needs from humans and from each other. Dogs and cats, for example, make their own vitamin C; people don't. Dogs and humans synthesize niacin from the amino acid tryptophan; cats can't. Cats need more taurine than dogs do, and both tend to need more than their owners. Cats are carnivores, requiring several nutrients found only in meat; dogs, like humans, are omnivores, able to cobble together a diet from a wide variety of sources.
Today, most commercial pet food is labeled "complete and balanced," meaning that it's formulated to provide all the nourishment a dog or cat requires. This lab-bred promise of health and convenience, backed by state and federal regulators, has helped the US pet food industry grow into a billion-dollar juggernaut. The products lining pet food aisles bear hundreds of brand names, most of which are subsidiaries of a few giant corporations—led by Mars, Nestle Purina, JM Smucker, Colgate Palmolive, and Diamond. Often, the actual manufacturing is contracted out to other companies, known as co-packers. Co-packers, in turn, rely on suppliers, who often purchase nonmeat items from overseas sources.
This multilayered production system is overseen by a complex regulatory apparatus. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) translates the NRC's evolving standards into "model regulations" for pet food content and labeling, which have been adopted by most states. On the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine monitors contaminants, oversees labeling, and approves the safety of ingredients.
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The oversight process has never been seamless, and in 2007 the industry experienced a stunning meltdown. Customers began reporting that their cats had developed kidney problems after eating products made by Ontario-based Menu Foods—the top contract manufacturer of "wet" pet foods in North America. In March of that year, after alerting the FDA, the company launched the largest pet food recall in history: 60 million cans and pouches, encompassing 42 brands of cat food and 53 brands of dog food.
Thousands of cats and dogs perished or were euthanized, and FDA investigators eventually discovered that Chinese exporters were using melamine to disguise cheap flour as wheat gluten—a substance used in pet foods to add protein, among other purposes. (Melamine, normally found in plastics and fertilizer, can pass for protein because of its high nitrogen content.)
Though the melamine debacle fueled reforms—early-reporting networks to catch problems before they spread, tougher rules governing supply chains and manufacturing processes—about one to two dozen smaller recalls still occur each year, for problems ranging from salmonella contamination to fragments of plastic mixed in with canned filet mignon. In some cases, pets are sickened or killed by tainted products.
Such incidents aren't the only problems that worry critics of the pet food industry. A 2015 report by the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming, cataloged the concerns. Unlike human food, pet food is legally permitted to contain meat scraps from packinghouse waste and (as FDA regulations put it) "occasionally meat from animals that may have died otherwise than by slaughter." Rendering plants, which cook down carcasses into the ingredients known as meal, may sometimes toss in diseased cows or roadkill or—allegedly—euthanized cats and dogs. Indeed, researchers have found traces of sodium pentobarbital, a sedative often used for veterinary euthanasia, in some pet foods.
The report goes on to assail the industry's reliance on synthetic preservatives, dyes, and binders, which some studies have identified as possible carcinogens. It also charges that grains used in pet foods are often contaminated with potentially cancer-causing mycotoxins, or molecules produced by fungi.
But industry defenders counter that precautions are taken to keep pet carcasses out of meat meal; in fact, the same tests that turned up pentobarbital found no dog or cat DNA. (The source of the drug remains unknown.) The additives in pet food are FDA approved, and most studies show them to be harmless in the quantities normally consumed. Manufacturers say they check for mycotoxins and other contaminants.
John Kuczala/Getty images
Want to avoid store-bought kibble? There are raw and DIY options, though all raise concerns worth knowing about.
If you go raw, the FDA recommends taking commonsense precautions.
Keep raw meat frozen until ready to use, then thaw in the refrigerator or microwave.
Keep raw foods separate from others.
Wash hands, utensils, and working surfaces with hot, soapy water.
If you choose to make your own pet food, seek out recipes created by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist—or consult one. Dogs and cats require supplements (ranging from bone meal to vitamins and taurine) that vary according to size, age, and other factors. "Lots of veterinary nutritionists have online consulting services," says veterinarian Brennen McKenzie, "and most veterinary schools have nutritional departments that will formulate a diet for your pet's specific needs."
The life spans of cats and dogs have expanded over the past 4 decades, and many experts believe the concurrent rise in cancer rates (often cited with alarm by critics of commercial pet food) is the result of animals not dying earlier from other causes. The rendering plants may be unappetizing, but they pose minimal health risks, and anyone who's seen a dog gnaw on a carcass knows that animals have a different idea of what's appealing. And a diet based on scientific formulas may actually be more nutritionally complete than one scrounged in the wild. "Captive wolves live longer and stay healthier when they're fed commercial dog food," notes Brennen McKenzie, a veterinarian and past president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medical Association. "I've treated hundreds of pets who eat these diets, and they do just fine."
THE RECORD BREAKERS
Rachael McKenna/Gallery Stock
Which foods help pets live the longest? Science hasn't found the answers. But anecdotal evidence suggests that in combination with good genes and care, a variety of diets can succeed.
The oldest cat on record, a Texan known as Creme Puff, lived to 38 on a regimen that included dry cat chow, eggs, turkey bacon, broccoli, coffee with cream, and a little red wine.
The oldest dog, an Australian cattle dog called Bluey, spent his 29 years reportedly eating mainly kangaroo and emu.
The second-oldest dog—a Louisiana terrier mix named Max, who came within weeks of Bluey's record—subsisted on cheap kibble.
Making the Right Choice
So, then, how does a savvy and concerned owner make the best decision in terms of what to feed her pet? It's specific to your own animal, and finding out involves part common sense, part education, and part awareness of packaging lingo.
Don't be fooled by packaging that lists meat as the first ingredient; if several starches follow, they may outweigh the protein. Foods containing beef meal or poultry meal may have higher-quality protein than those containing the unspecified agglomeration called meat meal. If you're rightly concerned about additives, pesticides, and GMOs (and the impact of farming on the environment), look for the "certified organic" seal. And beware of logos meant to mimic that seal: The termall naturalmeans virtually nothing.
Also, spending more does not ensure you're getting the best product. Although "premium" foods are now the fastest-growing segment of the overall pet food market, there's often less to these products than meets the eye. Foods designed for specific age-groups must meet strict AAFCO requirements, but that's not the case for foods claiming to support vague health goals—a shiny coat, clean teeth, or enhanced alertness. Descriptions such asartisanalandholisticare likely to do more for owners' sense of virtue than for pets' well-being.
Whatever the benefits of kale and chia for humans, there's no evidence that they do anything special for pets. Pet foods labeled "human grade" aren't required to prove that people can safely eat them; in fact, the term has no official definition. Nor are boutique companies necessarily more trustworthy than mega-manufacturers. The big companies employ teams of specialists to oversee nutritional testing and quality control; smaller operations may lack such resources.
Although grains and vegetables aren't strictly necessary for dogs or cats, they can be a valuable part of the pet food mix, providing fiber and other nutrients, so don't put your dog on a gluten-free diet because you're on one. Myron Lyskanycz, CEO of Halo, Purely for Pets, a company that specializes in pet food made from whole ingredients, points out that even though his company makes grain-free foods, that won't work for every pet. Some experts say dogs with a lot of anxiety should have whole grains (like oats, which contain the calming amino acid tryptophan) in their diets, for example. If you think your pet has a diet-related health issue, ask your vet before changing its food.
There are other options for people who want to steer clear of standard kibble. Homeopathic veterinarian Richard Pitcairn, author ofDr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, argues that a home-cooked diet is inherently healthier. Australian vet Ian Billinghurst has gained a large following for his raw diet for dogs and cats, based on their evolutionary heritage as wild carnivores.
Advocates of such alternative diets often boast that their pets outlive their peers and have fewer illnesses, but there are no scientific studies that substantiate such claims. A 2009 survey of veterinarians, however, found that half had seen pets get sick from eating homemade foods (in part because some human staples, such as onions and grapes, can actually poison dogs and cats). And a 2013 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine reported that only 9 out of 200 pet food recipes found in books and online provided all essential nutrients.
Also, an FDA study of packaged raw pet foods found that 15 out of 96 samples tested positive for salmonella and 32 for listeria—a significantly higher rate than for cooked products.This approach requires extra care and caution. "I tell people there's some risk," McKenzie says of raw food diets, "but they don't have to be hysterical about it."
That's sound advice, no matter how you choose to feed your pet. Educate yourself. Then, when you're standing in that aisle, remember: Shop with your brain, not with your belly and not with your heart.
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