We grew up with Lassie or Wishbone or Martha. Likely, we followed the adventures of Clifford or Mr. Peabody or Scooby Do. Maybe we cried for Old Yeller and Marley, rooted (and got a bit teary) for Skip, marveled at Hachi.
And, of course, fiercely loved the dogs in our own lives.
Then, when it came time to feed them, we turned to the brands we'd grown up with, the brands that promised us strong and healthy bones, that promised us the right blend for puppies, for young dogs, for senior dogs, the brands that promised us that we'd be doing right by our dogs by feeding them this product.
But that was all marketing. Most commercial dog food does not contain what you think it does. It is not the good, not the healthy. It is anything but.
To begin with, how does "kibble" get that way? Through a process called rendering, and it ain't pretty. The raw animal material that goes to the rendering plant is likely to be a mixture of slaughterhouse waste and euthanized livestock, but it could well contain also some combination of dead zoo animals, dead-on-arrival poultry, road kill, or euthanized dogs and cats from animal shelters. And then to this lovely stew of "dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters, and other facilities" is added "fats, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and stores" (Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy)
That's what the big brands don't tell you.
Completely aside from the ethics—and the ick factor—none of this is healthy. Animals that have been euthanized will likely be infused with pentobarbital, the anesthetic used to put them down. And this raw material, overall, will be categorized as "feed grade," rather than human grade. This means that the material to begin with is of a form and quality so low that it could not appear on our tables. It means that this material is allowed to contain far higher levels of toxins (such as the mycotoxins produced by mold) than would be acceptable in the food we eat. It also means that throughout the production process, this material can be treated and stored in ways that you and I would not consider safe. The raw animal material and by-products can be left to sit, for example, for hours unrefrigerated, even in warm conditions. The result, in human-grade production, would be considered contaminated. In the pet food industry, it's just another day on the production line.
And that really just scratches the surface. Let's not forget chemicals and preservatives. Levels higher than would be allowable in human food? Check. Chemicals considered so dangerous that they're illegal in human food? Check. Oh, and how about other contaminants, like "excreta"? (Yes, it's just what you think it is.) Check.
The bottom line is that most commercial dog food is made as cheaply as possible, with ingredients that would never pass muster in a kitchen for humans. These rendered materials are stamped "unfit for human consumption." And they are treated that way, all along the production line until they arrive at your pet's dish.
OK, so what about wet dog food?
Sure, wet dog food looks (and maybe smells) more appealing, but make no mistake, it's still produced as cheaply as possible, it still starts with many of the same feed-grade materials, ingredients you'd never place on your own table. And it still may well contain a whole host of other undesirable elements: the same potential toxins, the same chemicals and preservatives, the same permissible levels of excreta.
Wet dog food might skip the rendering, but these canned meals are not much better.
Premium, natural, organic, human-grade
You'd think you'd be home-free with a dog food labeled "premium" or "natural." Surely, "organic" dog food should be safe.
Well, unfortunately, not really.
"Premium" and its variants ("ultra premium," "super premium," "gourmet") amount to little more than marketing terms. There are no requirements for products so labeled to contain different ingredients or higher quality ingredients. A manufacturer can slap this label on any product without the need to pass any tests, meet any qualifications. Manufacturers use it because it sounds good.
For "natural," the advisory body for manufacturers of pet foods, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), does have a standard. AAFCO defines pet food labeled "natural" as food with ingredients only from plant, animal, or mined sources. According to the definition, foods so labeled cannot be highly processed and they cannot contain chemically synthetic ingredients (artificial flavoring, preservatives, or coloring). Sounds pretty good.
Until you look a little more closely. Here's the full of "natural":
A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes.
Let's unpack that.
- Unprocessed ingredients from any of these three sources are "natural." This is how most of us would intuitively interpret the word. So far, so good.
- Ingredients from any of these three sources that have been physically processed, heat-processed, rendered (see above), purified, extracted, hydrolized (chemically decomposed in a reaction with water), fermented, or that have undergone enzymolysis (chemical decomposition with enzymes) are also "natural."
This is a lot of tampering — with rendering still part of the process. The end result of ingredients exposed to these processes is not what anyone in the general population would term "natural." This is more like the opposite of natural.
- The ingredients have not been produced by, or subjected to, a chemically synthetic process. Sounds good.
- The ingredients do not contain any additives or any chemically synthetic processing aids "except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices."
Um, okay, so these "natural" ingredients might in fact contain some chemicals. Not so natural.
For "organic," there are no regulations yet specific to pet food. Until those are developed, AAFCO follows the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). So that pet foods claiming to be organic must meet the regulations in place for human food. If a pet food has been certified as organic, it will display the USDA organic seal on its package and it must contain 95% organic ingredients.
However, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSP), in its report to the NOP over the labeling of pet foods as organic, has said: "We recognize that these requirements will present challenges for pet food manufacturers, especially sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients in the non-organic fraction of the products."
At last we come to human-grade.
There is no official definition of the term from AAFCO. Their stance is that the term is false and misleading, that in order for a product to be able to advertise itself as human grade, "all ingredients must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations," so that, in other words, a person could actually sit down and legally — and safely — be served this food.
That's a tall order, and it's no wonder that few commercial pet foods can meet it. Truly human-grade pet food would be cooked fresh in small batches, with real ingredients, and no processing.
The short reach of AAFCO
To add to all of this, AAFCO establishes guidelines, but it does not "regulate, test, approve, or certify" pet foods. They establish nutritional standards, but it is the responsibility of the pet food companies, they say, to formulate their products so as to meet the standard.
And it is the responsibility of the state feed control officials to see that pet foods are correctly and uniformly labeled — in accordance with state regulations, which may or may not follow AAFCO recommendations, with language and an interpretation that may differ across states.
Labels, the bottom line
In the current environment, labels don't mean a whole lot. The situation is complex and convoluted. Some terms mean nothing, with respect to regulation. Others are so broad and vague as to be nearly meaningless. And maybe nobody's checking them either.
The bottom line is that the only thing on the label you can trust is that little square marked "Nutrition Facts." That's the only government-regulated portion of the packaging, the only source of truth in food packaging. And even there, the information is not always as clear — or honest — as it might be.
So when buying food for your pet, ignore the fancy labels and go directly to the ingredients. For the most part, you're not going to like what you see.
What's the solution?
You can stick to the very few commercial brands that do put out a quality product. These won't be perfect, but they'll be safer than most.
You can cook for your pet, just as you do for yourself and the rest of the family. But you'll need to avoid foods that are not safe for dogs: onions, garlic, raisins, grapes, macadamia nuts, dough. And of course, no chocolate or alcohol. And you'd do well to add a canine vitamin and mineral supplement, to be sure your dog is getting the appropriate nutrition.
Or if you live in New York City, you can use PetPlate. And leave the (very human-style, human-quality) cooking to us. Your dog's dinner will be every bit as safe and healthy as your own.
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