How Do You Feel About Pet Food Corporations in 2010?

It’s only been 3 years since the massive pet food recalls of 2007 but anytime is a good time for a refresher.  I’ve already blogged quite a bit on things I learned due to the recalls, including:

  • My thoughts at the one year anniversary of the pet food recalls
  • Why the AAFCO stamp of approval is worthless
  • The similarities between the pet food and peanut butter recalls
  • A list of things I think are worth avoiding in pet food
  • The only product I can recommend

Basically, I was left with a strong feeling of distrust after learning about the widespread pet food industry practices which resulted in the deaths and tragic illnesses of thousands of pets in this country.  That feeling remains as strong as ever because the pet food companies didn’t say, “This is unacceptable!  We’re going to do a complete overhaul and come back with new, transparent practices that will restore consumer confidence.”  Far from it.  What they said was more along the lines of,  “Circle the wagons boys!  Consumers are daring to ask questions.  Screw that!”

As far as I know, not one significant thing in the practices of the pet food industry as a whole has changed for the better since all those pets suffered and died.  Therefore, the potential for a recurrence is plausible to my mind.  And indeed, we have regularly seen pet food products recalled, though on a smaller scale, in the years since.  Granted, recalls are going to happen, but the reasons that they happen and how they are handled by the pet food companies  are very similar to 2007.  There have been a few isolated cases where I thought recalls were handled well – for example Orijen – but the large corporations still deny problems, rely on secrecy and employ the “proprietary information“, duck and cover business model.

Overall, I would say my opinion of pet food corporations has changed little since 2007.  How about you – do you feel things in the pet food industry are better, worse or about the same?

Nuh-uh ABC News!

An ABC News article on home cooked meals for pets vs. kibble contains a couple of misleading statements by my interpretation. Regarding the major pet food recall of 2007, ABC says:

Dozens of dogs and cats died as owners learned about the tainted dog food, most of which was imported from Chinese manufacturers.

Firstly, “dozens” is misleading because it makes it seem like the total number of dead pets as a result of the melamine tainted food was less than the thousands who likely died. Secondly, although the melamine tainted ingredients were imported from China, the toxic pet food itself was largely manufactured in the U.S., using the poisoned ingredients. No one should feel automatically “safe” buying a pet food just because it wasn’t made in China.

As far as so-called regulation goes, ABC notes:

Gallagher and Thompson [from the Pet Food Institute] didn’t dispute some of [Dr. Richard] Pitcairn’s claims of byproducts that were sometimes found in food, but pointed out that the commercial industry is regulated — a stamp of approval not guaranteed with home cooking.

Again, misleading to my mind because the “regulation” of the pet food industry is done by AAFCO and it’s by no means an independent, third-party “stamp of approval” for pet food products. Further, of course there is no guarantee that home prepared diets are 100% complete and balanced – whether you are feeding humans, pets, or weevils. That doesn’t mean they’re unsafe.

AAFCO – The Pet Food Industry Fails to Regulate Itself

The National Research Council (NRC) has traditionally set the standard for nutrient requirements for dogs and cats with their publications. The NRC recommends feeding trials in order to determine if a food is truly “complete and balanced”. I don’t have a degree in animal nutrition but that makes sense to me. How else can it be determined that a pet food is nutritionally adequate unless it is actually fed to pets over a period of time and the health of those pets monitored? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has another idea: chemical analysis.

In the early 1990’s, AAFCO dropped the NRC guidelines and established their own nutrient profiles based on the formulas of 3 generic pet foods with which they conducted feed trials. The idea being that as long as pet food manufacturers followed one of those 3 formulas, there would be no need for more feed trials. What was so wrong with the NRC requirements? To my mind, nothing. I use them myself. By disavowing the NRC standards, AAFCO could ignore the very expensive recommendation for feed trials and simply give a Nutritional Adequacy stamp to any food which passed their chemical analysis.

Again, I’m a layman but does chemical analysis tell us how biologically available any nutrients are for pets? Or how digestible they are? I don’t see how that information could be determined in the absence of feed trials. For example, chemical analysis tells us that cereals, the main ingredient in most pet foods, have many nutrients. It does not tell us however that pets are unable to fully utilize the nutrients in cereals. These nutrients are biologically unavailable to pets. And since cereals make up the main part of commercial diets, it is at best misleading for AAFCO to label these foods as “complete and balanced”.

AAFCO Speaks for Themselves

From AAFCO’s website Q & A:

Regarding the use of downer cattle and other such animals in pet food, AAFCO says meat by-products may include “materials from animals which died by means other than slaughter” – which I interpret as animals who may have been too sick and/or diseased to survive the trip to the slaughterhouse – and are ok for use in pet food as long as the materials have been rendered according to “regulations to destroy any potential microorganisms”. In other words, AAFCO says your pet food may contain bits and bobs from animals suffering from cancer, BSE (Mad Cow Disease), or any other unknown lethal illness or condition. And the carcass from said animal may have been rendered some days after the animal actually died. Yum.

Regarding the wholesomeness of pet food ingredients, AAFCO subtly reminds consumers that it’s “Buyer beware” out there, stating that even though a food is AAFCO certified as complete and balanced, “the specific nutrients may be assembled from a variety of ingredients. If consumers have a preference for certain ingredients, they should review the ingredient list to
determine if their preferences are being met.” In other words, if you don’t study the ingredients list on every bag or can of pet food you purchase, don’t blame AAFCO if it turns out you’re feeding your pet icky stuff. Tip: The healthful looking whole foods often pictured on the front of the bag or in the television commercials do not necessarily represent the ingredients used to manufacture the food inside the bag.

I’m leaving this question and answer intact as I think it illustrates the double speak and spin AAFCO seems to be so fond of:

7. Does most of the protein come from scrap and byproducts left over from human meat processing?
The animal proteins used in feeds are frequently, but not exclusively derived from the production of human food.

Couldn’t they simply have answered YES?

In summary, is the AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy statement on a pet food label actually worth anything? “The nutritional adequacy statement, the ingredient list and feeding directions will provide the consumer with the best estimate of the nutritional value and correct use of the product.” Yes, you read that right: best estimate. As we saw over and again during the massive pet food recall of 2007, companies don’t actually know what ingredients are in their pet foods. The ingredients list on the label, which AAFCO tells us it’s our job to study, is just an estimate. To my mind, AAFCO’s position is: It’s your responsibility as a pet owner to know the ingredients of the food you feed to your pets. And you can’t really know the ingredients because what’s listed on the pet food label is only an “estimate” of what was actually used to make the food. So good luck and don’t blame us if your pet develops health problems and/or dies due to nutritional deficiencies and excesses, or if you just plain fed him toxic food.

From the minutes of AAFCO’s 2007 meeting as posted on their site, it is evident that AAFCO, the Pet Food Institute (PFI), the National Renderers Association (NRA) and other industry insiders are extremely resistant to the request of Veterinarian groups to include calorie statements on pet foods. Wouldn’t calorie statements be helpful to consumers? Many people are already familiar with studying and comparing calorie statements on human food labels so it would be easy for them to transfer this knowledge to pet food labels. And it would give consumers another tool with which to compare products by revealing one more bit of information. Further, since obesity in pets is such a widespread problem, calorie statements on labels would allow consumers to more accurately calculate how much food to feed rather than relying on the currently printed vague guidelines for feeding amounts. So why are pet food industry insiders so resistant to this request? Could it possibly be related to:

The costs involved in determining caloric content?
The potential for owners to feed less of their products once they know the actual calories being fed?
The possibility that owners may abandon their previously purchased brands in favor of brands better suited to their pets’ needs according to the calorie statements?
The possibility that some owners may abandon commercial pet foods in favor of a home prepared diet consisting of ingredients and calories completely determined and controlled by the owner?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, “AAFCO has no legal mandate“. Well, maybe they should.

Recommended Reading: Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets – The Healthful Alternative by Donald Strombeck, DVM, PhD

Downloadable pdf pamphlet from the NRC on canine nutrient requirements

Downloadable pdf pamphlet from the NRC on feline nutrient requirements