Today we are going to discuss nutrition related diseases to continue this series contributed by Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute. In Part 1 of this series we briefly introduced the subject matter and discussed the major players in the pet food industry. But as we have learned the trend to bigger doesn’t necessarily translate into better and unfortunately we learned, not that it would be anything new, that there are major differences between what pet owners think they are buying and what they are actually getting. Part 2 addressed in very general terms labeling basics, standards and regulations, while Part 3 focused on ingredients and Part 4 was subject to discussion of pet food manufacturing processes, various recall issues and the potential dangers with pet food. In Part 5 we talked in a brief summary about nutrition related diseases, which are affecting our pets these days in pandemic dimensions. This series focuses in very general terms on the most visible name brands, the pet food labels that are mass distributed to supermarkets and discount stores. However, just so that we are on the safe side, there are also many highly respected brands that may be guilty of the same offenses. What many pet owners to this day still don’t know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a convenient way for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered “unfit for human consumption,” and similar waste products to be turned into profit. In order for the consumer to make an educated decision it is necessary to learn, among many others considerations, how to read pet food labels to begin with.
Pet Food Industry Secrets
The 2007 Menu Foods recall brought to light some of the pet food industry’s dirtiest secrets.
Most people were surprised — and appalled — to learn that all Iams/Eukanuba canned foods are not made by The Iams Company at all. In fact, in 2003 Iams signed an exclusive 10-year contract for the production of 100% of its canned foods by Menu.
This type of deal is called “co-packing.” One company makes the food, but puts someone else’s label on it. This is a very common arrangement in the pet food industry. It was first illustrated by the Doane’s and Diamond recalls, when dozens of private labels were involved. But none were as large or as “reputable” as Iams, Eukanuba, Hill’s, Purina, Nutro, and other high-end, so-called “premium” foods.
The big question raised by this arrangement is whether or not there is any real difference between the expensive premium brands and the lowliest generics. The recalled products all contained the suspect ingredient, wheat gluten, but they also all contained by-products of some kind, including specified by-products such as liver or giblets.
It’s true that a pet food company that contracts with a co-packer can provide its own ingredients, or it can require the contractor to buy particular ingredients to use in its recipes. But part of the attraction of using a co-packer is that it can buy ingredients in larger bulk than any one pet food maker could on its own, making the process cheaper and the profits larger. It’s likely that with many of the ingredients that cross all types of pet foods, those ingredients are the same.
Are one company’s products — made in the same plant on the same equipment with ingredients called the same name — really “better” than another’s? That’s what the makers of expensive brands want you to think. The recalled premium brands claim that Menu makes their foods “according to proprietary recipes using specified ingredients,” and that “contract manufacturers must follow strict quality standards.” Indeed, the contracts undoubtedly include those points. But out in the real world, things may not go according to plan. How well are machines cleaned between batches, how carefully are ingredients mixed, and just how particular are minimum-wage workers in a dirty smelly job going to be about getting everything just perfect?
Whatever the differences are between cheap and high-end food, one thing is clear. The purchase price of pet food does not always determine whether a pet food is good or bad or even safe. However, the very cheapest foods can be counted on to have the very cheapest ingredients. For example, Ol’ Roy, Wal-Mart’s store brand, has now been involved in 3 serious recalls.
Menu manufactures canned foods for many companies that weren’t affected by the recall, including Nature's Variety, Wellness, Castor & Pollux, Newman's Own Organics, Wysong, Innova, and EaglePack. It’s easy to see from their ingredient lists that those products are made from completely different ingredients and proportions. Again, the issue of cleaning the machinery out between batches comes up, but hopefully nothing so lethal will pass from one food to another.
Another unpleasant practice exposed by this recall is pet food testing on live animals. Menu's own lab animals, who were deliberately fed the tainted food, were the first known victims. Tests began on February 27 (already a week after the first reports); animals started to die painfully from kidney failure a few days later. After the first media reports, Menu quickly changed its story to call these experiments “taste tests.” But Menu has done live animal feeding, metabolic energy, palatability, and other tests for Iams and other companies for years. Videotapes reveal the animals’ lives in barren metal cages; callous treatment; invasive experiments; and careless cruelty.
Although feeding trials are not required for a food to meet the requirements for labeling a food “complete and balanced,” many manufacturers use live animals to perform palatability studies when developing a new pet food. One set of animals is fed a new food while a “control” group is fed a current formula. The total volume eaten is used as a gauge for the palatability of the food. Some companies use feeding trials, which are considered to be a much more accurate assessment of the actual nutritional value of the food. They keep large colonies of dogs and cats for this purpose, or use testing laboratories that have their own animals.
There is a new movement toward using companion animals in their homes for palatability and other studies. In 2006, The Iams Company announced that it was cutting the use of canine and feline lab animals by 70%. While it proclaims this moral victory, the real reasons for this switch are likely financial. Whatever the reasons, it is a very positive step for the animals.
Finally, it is important to remember that the contamination that occurred in the Menu Foods recall could have happened anywhere at any time. It was not Menu’s fault; the toxin was unusual and unexpected. All companies have quality control standards and they do test ingredients for common toxins before using them. They also test the final products. However, there is a baseline risk inherent in using the raw materials that go into pet foods. When there are 11 recalls in 12 years, it’s clear that “freak occurrences” are the rule, not the exception.
A trip down the pet food aisle will boggle the mind with all the wonderful claims made by pet food makers for their repertoire of products. Knowing the nature of the ingredients helps sort out some of the more outrageous claims, but what’s the truth behind all this hype?
Niche claims. Indoor cat, canine athlete, Persian, 7-year old, Bloodhound, or a pet with a tender tummy, too much flab, arthritis, or itchy feet — no matter what, there’s a food “designed” just for that pet’s personal needs. Niche marketing has arrived in a big way in the pet food industry. People like to feel special, and a product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a general product like “puppy food.” The reality is that there are only two basic standards against which all pet foods are measured: adult and growth, which includes gestation and lactation. Everything else is marketing.
“Natural” and “Organic” claims. The definition of “natural” adopted by AAFCO 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. However, some companies are adept at evading the intent of both of these rules. For instance, the name of the company or product may be intentionally misleading. Some companies use terms such as “Nature” or “Natural” or even “Organic” in the brand name, whether or not their products fit the definitions. Consumers should also be aware that the term “organic” does not imply anything at all about animal welfare; products from cows and chickens can be organic, yet the animals themselves are still just “production units” in enormous factory farms.
Ingredient quality claims. A lot of pet foods claim they contain “human grade” ingredients. This is a completely meaningless term — which is why the 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 are passed by the USDA for human consumption, but there are many ways around this. For instance, a facility might be USDA-inspected during the day, but the pet food is made at night after the inspector goes home. The use of such terms should be viewed as a “Hype Alert.”
“Meat is the first ingredient” claim. A claim that a named meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) is the #1 ingredient is generally seen for dry food. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight, and raw chicken weighs a lot, since contains a lot of water. If you look further down the list, you’re likely to see ingredients such as chicken or poultry 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 chicken to weigh more than a great big pile of this powder, so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with very little “chicken” to be found. This has become a very popular marketing gimmick, even in premium and “health food” type brands. 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.
Special ingredient claims. Many of the high-end pet foods today rely on the marketing appeal of people-food ingredients such as 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. Such ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and are really a marketing gimmick.
Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely sophisticated over the last few years. It’s important to know what is hype and what is real to make informed decisions about what to feed your pets.
Stay tuned, in the final installment of this series we are going to provide some ideas as to what options you as a pet owner have, a fact sheet on “Selecting Commercial Pet Food” and an extensive reference guide for further reading on the subject matter.
Reprinted with permission from and contributed by Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute and reprinted with permission. © 2003-2009 - Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute - All rights reserved