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Pet Food: Feast or Fraud?

Karen Kelly Thursday, March 01, 2012

Does anyone regulate what goes into pet foods? The FDA is the ultimate guardian of pet food safety, while the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets forth detailed ingredient standards for the pet food industry. AAFCO is an association of U.S. and Canadian authorities “charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.”

Adhering to AAFCO  standards is voluntary unless required by State, Provincial, or local law, and the Association has no direct regulatory authority. The apparent conflict of what the FDA calls a “regulatory authority” with no authority to regulate is explained by this: Most states, to one degree or another, have laws based on AAFCO standards, and they’re enforced by the FDA and/or state and local regulatory agencies.[1]  Some manufacturers boast about meeting AAFCO standards, but the truth is, AAFCO standards aren’t very high. For example, a food with these primary ingredients meets AAFCO standards: Ground yellow corn, soybean meal, ground whole wheat, and corn syrup. In these first four ingredients there are no meat proteins, the grains are cheap substitutes for better ingredients, and the corn syrup should offend the sensibilities of any responsible pet owner. Corn syrup is there for one reason: The rest of the ingredients are unpalatable, and the kibble needs sugar to trick your dog into eating it. So, while the FDA and AAFCO have significant influence over what goes into foods, they can’t mandate good nutrition. As of March, 2012, the FDA is considering changing its view of how AAFCO defines allowable ingredients in animal feed. If the FDA’s plan goes ahead, it will change AAFCO’s process for identifying allowable ingredients.[2] Does my pet need an “ancestral diet?” Some pet food manufacturers claim their foods are formulated to provide an “ancestral diet.” Too often, their version of an ancestral diet is determined by the marketing department, rather than science. Some companies claim that only raw food meets the definition; others, dehydrated; and others believe a carefully formulated kibble or canned foot works just as well. Manufacturing claims beg the question: do today’s dogs and cats even need an “ancestral diet?” Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, research indicates that the ancestors of our dogs began splitting off from wolves about 145,000 years ago.[3] Their physical attributes, physiology, and behavior have evolved from both intentional and unintentional breeding, and an “ancestral diet” may not be well suited to the digestive system of a domestic breed. To some degree, the only things our modern pets have in common with ancestral wild dogs are the drive to scavenge, and, of course, unbelievably cute puppies and kittens. When humans came along, dogs began following them around, eating what they could scavenge, which in many cases, was, to put it bluntly, garbage.[4] Cats would stalk and kill what they could, except for fish, which, contrary to marketing claims, was rarely part of their ancient diet.[5]  Some dog food bags and cans have images of wolves, no doubt intending for us to imagine our poodle stalking a deer. It makes for better marketing than showing a Labrador retriever about to pounce on a refuse pile. Ironically, many of the manufacturers claiming they make ancestral diets buy their food’s vitamins from companies located primarily in Southeast Asia and Europe. That doesn’t mean their foods are unhealthy, but it certainly makes one wonder how ancestral dogs and cats made those long voyages.   Is it okay to change my pet’s food? Still today, some pet owners, and even some veterinarians, advocate keeping your dog or cat on one food brand and variety. This view is a remnant of the early days of commercial pet food manufacturing, when most companies made only one variety of food. Naturally, they wouldn’t advocate changing foods, since that would mean changing brands. In fact, research indicates that changing protein sources can be beneficial to an animal’s immune system.[6] Some dogs and cats, like our Scottish Deerhound, are picky, and we rotate through six or seven different foods each month. She has no problem tolerating different ingredients, but not all animals are so lucky.[7] If your pet has food sensitivities or allergies, you might need to stay with one food, or at least one protein type. Unfortunately, veterinary science hasn’t come up with a very accurate test for food allergies, so finding the right food can be a long and frustrating trial-and-error process. While changing foods, it often helps your pet adjust if you do it slowly, over seven days or so, gradually increasing the ratio of new to previous food. Adding probiotics and digestive enzymes can also help your pet’s digestive system during a transition. These can be purchased at some pet stores, or you can try using a dollop of unsweetened, plain yogurt in each meal. Is grain in my pet food bad? The scientifically precise answer is: That depends. The bigger question is: If there are large amounts of any grain, or for that matter, a large amount of potatoes or any other starchy ingredient, why are they there? There might be a perfectly good reason, or there might be the worst reason: some grains and other carbohydrates are sometimes used as relatively inexpensive substitutes for better quality ingredients. That is, they are there primarily for the benefit of the manufacturer, not your dog or cat.   One of the most disingenuous things a pet food maker can do is to load up a food with corn or other inexpensive ingredients, and through effective marketing, charge premium prices for it.  For example, here are the first four ingredients of a well-known dry food made by a company that charges a premium price for its food : Whole Grain Corn, Chicken By-Product Meal, Soybean Meal, Animal Fat. Those ingredients, in combination, can produce a sufficient amino-acid profile, but every one of them is an inexpensive alternative to better ingredients. Compare that list to this one, for a food that sells for the same price: Chicken meal, turkey meal, lamb meal, and brown rice.[8] Which would you rather feed your dog?[9]   In cheaper foods, grains are used for bulk and as a kibble binder.[10] The issue of grains will be addressed in a future column, but for now it’ll suffice to say that using grains as a primary source of protein is the mark of a food I won’t feed any of my pets. Here’s a quick way to check the nutritional efficiency of a dry food: Compare feeding guidelines. If Food A suggests feeding 2 cups a day for a 60 lb dog, and Food B suggests 4 cups, it’s because Food A is higher in calorie content, which almost always means the primary ingredients are better quality than those in Food B. It also means that Food A is probably more expensive than Food B, unless you compare the price per meal. Therefore, premium foods are often less expensive than cheaper foods. What’s the future for pet foods? Undoubtedly, there will be more variety and confusion for the consumer.  Manufacturers are competing to come up with unique pet foods. For example, California Natural recently came out with a Kangaroo and Lentil variety, and the first ingredient in one of Champion Pet Foods’ Orijen brand is wild boar. Manufacturers like to target market niches. Here are some new foods we may be seeing soon, each one created for a special purpoe: Party mix: Deer and Beer. Organic: Trout and Sprout. High Energy: Goat and Oat. Kosher: Fox and Lox. Breakfast: Puffin and Muffin. For cats: Mice and Rice. Chow Time! [1] Other countries may or may not have higher standards than the United States.  Canada and New Zealand are particularly careful about food regulation, both for humans and pets, although their labeling requirements aren’t as strict as in the U.S. [2] We’re waiting on more information about this issue. Once the FDA has decided what it’s going to do, we’ll cover it in a future column. [3] There are a few exceptions, such as Huskies and Malamutes, which, genetically speaking, are closer to wolves than most breeds.  [4] For a wonderful history of dogs, see Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz (New York: Scribner, 2009). [5] If we really wanted to feed our cats an ancestral diet, we’d buy hamsters and let them loose in the house. [6] Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, (Mark Morris Institute, 4th Edition). Some Vet schools use an edition of this book for their nutrition courses. For what it’s worth, most of the contributors have an affiliation with Hill’s Pet Nutrition. [7]  We cater to her every need, and it’s likely she has us completely bamboozled.  Thank goodness our other dogs are indiscriminate gluttons. [8] Meals made from specified meats, such as “turkey meal,” are concentrated sources of protein, and are found in many premium foods. If an ingredient list includes “meat meal,” stay away from it, since one can’t be sure what “meat” it contains. Also, any “by-product meal,” while safe for consumption, is a cheaper alternative to a protein-specific meal.  This topic will be taken up in a future column.   [9] Reading and understanding food labels can help you select the proper nutrition mix for your pet. Labels are complex and confusing; we’ll discuss them in next month’s issue. [10] That doesn’t means grains are evil, but they certainly have their limitations. A high grain or starch content should make one wonder in what other ways the manufacturer has cut corners on quality. About the columnist: Don Cutler is a Spokane-based freelance writer and independent researcher. He and his wife, Cyndi, own the Prairie Dog Pet Mercantile in Spokane. They have four dogs: two Labs, a Scottish Deerhound, and Rosie, the one-eyed wonder mutt. Don Cutler (First published in Northwest Pet Magazine, Spring 2012)

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