Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pet Food Isle: Magic Kingdom or an Empire of Smoke & Mirrors? Part 1 Introduction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed when shopping for pet food in the super market? Walking down the pet food aisle sometimes can be quite mind boggling.
Phrases like “Plump whole chicken, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains” combined with high resolution pictures of the cutest puppies you have seen resting in the greenest lawn and stud dogs so perfect that they leave any AKC Champ behind are an image publicized by pet food manufacturers through media, advertising and food packaging. They want you to believe that they offer all the wholesome ingredients in the only food your perfect dog will ever need. For an obvious reason: Everybody wants a slice of the $16.1 billion a year pie This is the quite impressive market generated by the 63% of the US households owning a pet and being home to 75+ Million dogs.
With all the wonderful claims made by pet food makers for their endless assortment of products, knowing the ingredients certainly helps sorting out some of the more outrageous claims. But this is only part of it. What is the truth behind all the marketing hype? How realistic are these claims? Are there hidden dangers? Who are the real players in this market? All these questions are pieces in a puzzle you need assemble yourself. Knowing the answers means knowing the differences between what you as a pet owner think you are buying and what you end up getting.
Today’s pet diets are a far cry from the variable meat based diets eaten by their ancestors. Unfortunately this shows in an enormous increase of diseases attributed to these diets. To name just a few, urinary tract, kidney and dental diseases, obesity, chronic digestive problems, heart disease, cancer, allergies are becoming an increasing problem mostly associated with commercial pet food. With last year’s recall with its 17,000 reported sickened animals and a 20% death rate still fresh on our minds, it is clearly a serious issue. As a responsible owner you owe it to your pet that you make well informed dietary decisions on your it’s behalf.
What are all these claims we are talking about? Let’s start with the “Niche Claim”. Whether you have an indoor active or outdoor low energy dog, a medium Shepherd, a maxi Poodle or a mini Schnauzer, puppy 9 or 10 months old, adult 6 years old or senior large, medium or small breed, they got you covered. Your dog needs to loose weight or you want to put some meat on his bones? Bad breath, age related behavioral disorders, vegetarian, stool too loose or too firm or itchy feet? Don’t worry and rest assured: There is a food, which was designed just for your special dog’s personal needs. Say “Hello” to niche marketing. What started out as simply “dog food” turned into “dog food for puppies, adults and seniors” and from there ended up with hundreds of specific formulations available today. Really specific? We all like to feel special, and a product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a general product like plain and simple “puppy food.” Reality is, there are only two basic standards against which all pet foods need to be measured: Adult and growth, which includes gestation and lactation. Everything else is marketing, it is as simple as that. Too simple? Look at nature: Do wolf puppies eat different than their parents or grand parents? Is a “quiet” dingo surviving by eating the same prey his “active” brother hunted down? I rest my case.
Next, the claim of being “Natural” and “Organic” The AAFCO adopted definition of “natural” is very broad, and allows for artificially processed ingredients that most of us would consider very unnatural indeed. The term “organic”, on the other hand, has a very strict legal definition under the USDA National Organic Program. But beware, some companies are trying to get around the intent of both of these rules and are, intentionally misleading and distracting from the actual product. As an example they use terms such as “nature” or “natural” or even “organic” in their brand name, whether or not their products fit the definitions.
With regards to the claim about “AAFCO approved ingredients” I’d like to mention that so are (no joke!) dehydrated garbage, hydrolyzed feathers, hair and leather meal, 36 chemical preservatives, peanut skins and hulls, ground clam shells and antibiotic and chemotherapeutic pharmaceuticals. I guess, there is no need to complete this list.
Here’s a good one: “Made from free range animals”. That may be true, but it still had to be processed by drying, dehydrating, extruding, heating and many more tortures. So much indeed that it was robbed of all its original healthy elements. Consequentially it then had to be fortified with synthetic vitamins, minerals etc. to turn into a 100% complete and balanced chemical potpourri, sometimes also called “Natural Pet Food”.
A lot of pet foods in their ingredient quality claims contain “human grade” ingredients. To make it short: This is a completely meaningless term, which is why pet food companies get away with using it. The same applies to “USDA inspected” or similar phrases. The implication is that the food is made using ingredients that passed the USDA for human consumption, but, as with every rule and regulation, there are many ways around this. If you want to see it for yourself, next time you’re in the pet food isle, stop by at the human meats isle too. Check out the prices for “your” meat and compare them to your pet food prices. Needless to say, there is no T-bone steak or pork chop in your dog food. This in itself isn’t bad. In the wild the wolf eats the pheasant complete with its guts, head and feet and seems to be doing quite alright. Just don’t get mislead and consider the human grade claims a sign to be alert.
“Meat is the first ingredient” is a claim common and generally seen with kibble. Ingredients, according to AAFCO rules, have to be listed on the label by weight. Raw meat, due to its high water content weighs a lot. If you look further down the list, you’re likely to see ingredients such as meat by-product meal, meat-and-bone meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, or other high-protein meal. Meals have had the fat and water removed, and basically consist of a dry, lightweight protein powder. It doesn’t take much raw meat to weigh more than a large amount of this powder, so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with very little “meat” to be found. A very popular marketing gimmick and since just about everybody is now using it, any meaning it may have had is so watered down that you may just as well ignore it.
Many high end pet foods today rely on the appeal of people food ingredients like fruits, herbs, and vegetables. However, the amounts of these items actually present in the food are small; and the items themselves may be scraps and rejects from processors of human foods, not the whole, fresh ingredients they want you to picture. Due to their minimal presence, such ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and are most often just a marketing gimmick.
Finally, my favorite is the “we are different claim”. It tempts me to ask: If that is so, why was your product recalled in 2007?
The bottom line about these and countless other claims not mentioned here: Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely sophisticated over the last few years. It is up to you to differentiate what is hype and what is real. Stay tuned for my conclusion following soon.

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