As pet owners, many of us go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to caring for our animal family members. This is especially true when it comes to pet food. When I’m purchasing pet food, I read labels. I try, in my limited way to understand what “meat by-products” are. I hang out on the internet and look up terms. I quiz veterinarians when I can. However, I now know that I took too many things at face value. After all, if it says “complete and balanced” on the front of the bag, then it must be so, right?
Nope. Not necessarily.
Pet food regulations and standards are enforced by the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to Born Free USA. As such the CVMhas set some standards, and one of these is the proper listing of ingredients. Another organization, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), doesn’t regulate pet food, however, it does provide model regulations and standards that are followed by pet food manufacturers. Nevertheless, what’s on the label can often be very different than what’s actually in the food.
The numbers game
Manufacturers have to follow a number of labeling requirments, including:
- The 95% rule. This applies when the ingredients are mainly derived from animals–beef, pork, fish, or poultry, Born Free notes. As such, it must constitute at least 95% of the product’s total weight, or 70% excluding water used for processing. This type of diet isn’t a well-balanced diet for dogs and cats and it fell out of favor for a number of years. Now it’s becoming popular again as consumers are becoming more interested in providing their pets with higher quality meats. Companies are now offering 95%-100% canned meats as supplemental feeding.
- The 25% rule. In this case, one or more ingredients are equal to 25% of the weight of the product (minus water that’s used for processing,) or at least 10% of the dry matter weight. Flowery terms like “dinner,” “platter,” “entree,” or “formula” must also be used. A combination of ingredients can also be mentioned on the front of the product label, but each of these ingredients must comprise at least 3% of the product weight (once again, minus water for processing). The ingredients must be listed in descending order according to weight.
- The “With” rule. Ingredients can appear on the label as long as each constitutes at least 3% of the total weight of the product, minus water weight. It just has to contain the magic word: “with” as in “with real beef.”
- The “flavor” rule. This is a sneaky rule that really bugs me. The pet food can be labelled a certain flavor as long as the ingredients “impart a distinctive characteristic” to the food, Born Free reports. Beef digest, or extracts from cattle tissues, or even artificial flavors may be used. Actual meat in the form of beef might not even be used at all. If that isn’t sneaky, then I don’t know what is.
What you don’t know can hurt your pet
The pet food industry serves as an extension of human food and agriculture industries, Born Free notes. As such, pet food makes it easy for these industries to profit from putting some pretty questionable things in your pet’s food.
- Slaughterhouse offal.
- Diseased and cancerous animal parts.
Only about 50% of every food animal is used for human consumption, so the leftovers–known as “by-products”– are used for pet food, animal feed, fertilizer, industrial lubricants, soap, rubber and a variety of other products, according to Born Free. Lungs, livers, unborn baby animals, fat trimmings, ligaments, and spleens are among the parts used.
Until the late 1980’s, the National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences set the nutrition standards that the pet food industry followed. These standards were based on purified diets and as such, required feeding trials for foods that claimed to be “complete” or “balanced.” However, the pet food industry, which hauls in more than $15 billion annually, found these trials to be restrictive and expensive. AAFCO designed methods for chemical analysis, although feeding trials still take place occasionally.
Chemical analysis, however, isn’t suitable for determining if the food contains enough nutrition or is easily digestible, Born Free reports. To compensate for this, AAFCO created a “safety factor,” meaning that the nutrients added would exceed the minimum amount needed to meet the complete and balanced requirements.
Much of this was spurred by a huge corporate feeding-frenzy. Nestlé bought Purina and formed Nestlé Purina Petcare Company. Then Del Monte purchased Heinz, and not to be outdone, MasterFoods, which owns Mars, followed that up by buying Royal Canin.
The pet foods manufactured by these companies include:
- Fancy Feast.
- Mighty Dog.
- Tender Vittles.
- Meow Mix.
- Gravy Train.
- Nature’s Recipe.
- Milk Bone dog treats.
It’s been a win-win situation for corporations but not for our pets. The best brands of pet food don’t use by-products. You might see phrases such as “super premium,” “natural,” or “organic” on the label, and these brands usually have more than one type of meat on the label, according to Born Free. These are still not pieces of meat that the average person would consume. When it comes to poultry, for instance, bones are allowed, so this means that the food may primarily consist of the spine and the ribs–minus the pricey breast meat. Instead, what’s included is the tiny amount of meat still left on the bones.
However, these aren’t the only unattractive items found in your pet’s food. Dry food, for instance, has to have a long shelf-life, and as such, it’s full of preservatives. The effect of these on our companion animals has not been studied well. Some, like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propylene glycol, and ethoxyquin have barely been studied at all. These are antioxidants, and there’s little information on their toxicity or safety regarding continual use in pet food. Propylene glycol has been banned for use in cat food because it causes anemia in cats. It is still used in dog food however.
Ethoxyquine is the most worrisome of these preservatives. Like BHA and BHT, it has been linked to cancer. Monsanto, which manufactures ethoxyquine, provided questionable studies regarding its safety and had to conduct a more rigorous study. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto found no significant toxicity in its product. Nevertheless, the CVM requested that manufacturers reduce the level of ethoxyquin by half, Born Free reports. Many vets and some critics of the pet food industry say that ethoxyquin is a major cause of infertility, skin problems and disease in dogs, while others maintain that it’s perfectly safe. This preservative has never been tested for safety in cats and yet it’s found in veterinary diets for dogs and cats.
Then another disturbing problem was discovered. Rumors had been flying for years about pet food manufacturers using dead cats and dogs in the pet food. So the FDA conducted a study to seek out pentobarbitol, which is the most common drug used to euthanize pets. They found it. The FDA also conducted sensitive tests to detect cat or dog DNA, which it didn’t find. Nevertheless, the scrutiny flushed out industry insiders, who then admitted that euthanized pets and roadkill were used in the manufacture of some of their products in past years, Born Free reports.
While the pet food industry maintains that this is a thing of the past, our pets are subjected to all sorts of harmful products in the food we give them and there’s not much information about how this impacts them on a daily basis. Is a daily dose of ethoxyquin good for your cat? Probably not.
Keep your pet safe and healthy
Here’s a few recommendations from Born Free:
- When purchasing food, make sure the label has an AAFCO guarantee. It should reference “feeding tests” or “feeding protocols,” rather than “nutrient profiles.”
- Don’t purchase food containing “by-product meal,”or “meat and bone meal.” These are rendered products and they are the most inexpensive sources of animal protein. This means that thecontents and quality can vary widely from one batch to another. Frankly, they aren’t a reliable source of nutrition for your animal friend.
- Don’t purchase generic or store brands. They might be repackaged rejects from larger manufacturers and they will likely include cheaper and poorer quality ingredients.
- Select brands that are promoted as “natural.” While they are far from perfect, they are still better than most. Many now use vitamins C or E as preservatives, and that’s certainly an improvement over chemical ones like BHA or BHT.
- Avoid brands that are touted as “light,” “senior,” “special formula,” or “hairball formula.” These foods may contain excessive fiber, acidifying agents, or poor quality fats that aren’t particularly good for your pet. This can result in skin or coat problems.
- Check the expiration date to make sure that the food is fresh.
- Feed your pet more canned food than dry food. Canned food has more protein and less grains than dry food. Contrary to popular belief, dry food does not clean teeth. It’s not essential for cats or dogs, and canned food should make up at least 50% of a cat’s diet. This is important so that their kidneys don’t become overworked. Cats with a history of bladder problems or kidney disease should not be fed dry food.
To keep our animal companions safe, it seems that we have to keep several steps ahead of the pet food industry, and although it may seem challenging, it’s definitely possible. Pets brighten our world and give us so much, and this makes the challenge worthwhile.