What's Really In Pet Food?
REPOSTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AMERICAN PET INSTITUE www.bornfreeusa.com
Get The Facts:
Plump whole chickens, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains, and all the wholesome nutrition your dog or cat will ever need.
These are the images pet food manufacturers promulgate through the media and advertising. This is what the $16.1 billion per year U.S. pet food industry wants consumers to believe they are buying when they purchase their products.
This report explores the differences between what consumers think they are buying and what they are actually getting. It focuses in very general terms on the most visible name brands — the pet food labels that are mass-distributed to supermarkets and discount stores — but there are many highly respected brands that may be guilty of the same offenses.
What most consumers 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. This waste includes intestines, udders, heads, hooves, and possibly diseased and cancerous animal parts.
The pet food market has been dominated in the last few years by the acquisition of big companies by even bigger companies. With $15 billion a year at stake in the U.S. and rapidly expanding foreign markets, it’s no wonder that some are greedy for a larger piece of the pie.
Nestlé’s bought Purina to form Nestlé Purina Petcare Company (Fancy Feast, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog, Dog Chow, Cat Chow, Puppy Chow, Kitten Chow, Beneful, One, ProPlan, DeliCat, HiPro, Kit’n’Kaboodle, Tender Vittles, Purina Veterinary Diets).
Del Monte gobbled up Heinz (MeowMix, Gravy Train, Kibbles ’n Bits, Wagwells, 9Lives, Cycle, Skippy, Nature’s Recipe, and pet treats Milk Bone, Pup-Peroni, Snausages, Pounce).
MasterFoods owns Mars, Inc., which consumed Royal Canin (Pedigree, Waltham’s, Cesar, Sheba, Temptations, Goodlife Recipe, Sensible Choice, Excel).
Other major pet food makers are not best known for pet care, although many of their household and personal care products do use ingredients derived from animal by-products:
Procter and Gamble (P&G) purchased The Iams Company (Iams, Eukanuba) in 1999. P&G shortly thereafter introduced Iams into grocery stores, where it did very well.
Colgate-Palmolive bought Hill’s Science Diet (founded in 1939) in 1976 (Hill’s Science Diet, Prescription Diets, Nature’s Best).
Private labelers (who make food for “house” brands like Kroger and Wal-Mart) and co-packers (who produce food for other pet food makers) are also major players. Three major companies are Doane Pet Care, Diamond, and Menu Foods; they produce food for dozens of private label and brand names. Interestingly, all 3 of these companies have been involved in pet food recalls that sickened or killed many pets.
Many major pet food companies in the United States are subsidiaries of gigantic multinational corporations. From a business standpoint, pet food fits very well with companies making human products. The multinationals have increased bulk-purchasing power; those that make human food products have a captive market in which to capitalize on their waste products; and pet food divisions have a more reliable capital base and, in many cases, a convenient source of ingredients.
The Pet Food Institute — the trade association of pet food manufacturers — has acknowledged the use of by-products in pet foods as additional income for processors and farmers: “The growth of the pet food industry not only provided pet owners with better foods for their pets, but also created profitable additional markets for American farm products and for the byproducts of the meat packing, poultry, and other food industries which prepare food for human consumption.”1
There are special labeling requirements for pet food, all of which are contained in the annually revised Official Publication of AAFCO.2 While AAFCO does not regulate pet food, it does provide model regulations and standards that are followed by U.S. pet food makers.
The name of the food provides the first indication of the food’s content. The use of the terms “all” or “100%” cannot be used “if the product contains more than one ingredient, not including water sufficient for processing, decharacterizing agents, or trace amounts of preservatives and condiments.”
The “95% Rule” applies when the ingredient(s) derived from animals, poultry, or fish constitutes at least 95% or more of the total weight of the product (or 70% excluding water for processing). Because all-meat diets are not nutritionally balanced and cause severe deficiencies if fed exclusively, they fell out of favor for many years. However, due to rising consumer interest in high quality meat products, several companies are now promoting 95% and 100% canned meats as a supplemental feeding option.
The “dinner” product is defined by the “25% Rule,” which applies when “an ingredient or a combination of ingredients constitutes at least 25% of the weight of the product (excluding water sufficient for processing)”, or at least 10% of the dry matter weight; and a descriptor such as “recipe,” “platter,” “entree,” and “formula.” A combination of ingredients included in the product name is permissible when each ingredient comprises at least 3% of the product weight, excluding water for processing, and the ingredient names appear in descending order by weight.
The “With” rule allows an ingredient name to appear on the label, such as “with real chicken,” as long as each such ingredient constitutes at least 3% of the food by weight, excluding water for processing.
The “flavor” rule allows a food to be designated as a certain flavor as long as the ingredient(s) are sufficient to “impart a distinctive characteristic” to the food. Thus, a “beef flavor” food may contain a small quantity of digest or other extract of tissues from cattle, or even an artificial flavor, without containing any actual beef meat at all.
The ingredient list is the other major key to what’s really in that bag or can. Ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. The ingredient names are legally defined. For instance, “meat” refers to only cows, pigs, goats and sheep, and only includes specified muscle tissues. Detailed definitions are published in AAFCO’s Official Publication, revised annually, but can also be found in many places online.
The guaranteed analysis provides a very general guide to the composition of the food. Crude protein, fat, and fiber, and total moisture are required to be listed. Some companies also voluntarily list taurine, Omega fatty acids, magnesium, and other items that they deem important — by marketing standards.
Pet Food Standards and Regulations
The National Research Council (NRC) of the Academy of Sciences set the nutritional standards for pet food that were used by the pet food industry until the late 1980s. The original NRC standards were based on purified diets, and required feeding trials for pet foods claimed to be “complete” and “balanced.” The pet food industry found the feeding trials too restrictive and expensive, so AAFCO designed an alternate procedure for claiming the nutritional adequacy of pet food, by testing the food for compliance with “Nutrient Profiles.” AAFCO also created “expert committees” for canine and feline nutrition, which developed separate canine and feline standards.
While feeding trials are sometimes still done, they are expensive and time-consuming. A standard chemical analysis may also be used to make sure that a food meets the profiles. In either case, there will be a statement on the label stating which method was used. However, because of the “family rule” in the AAFCO book, a label can say that feeding tests were done if it is “similar” to a food that was actually tested on live animals. There is no way to distinguish the lead product from its “family members.” The label will also state whether the product is nutritionally adequate (complete and balanced), and what life stage (adult or growth) the food is for. A food that says “all life stages” meets the growth standards and can be fed to all ages.
Chemical analysis, however, does not address the palatability, digestibility, or biological availability of nutrients in pet food. Thus it is unreliable for determining whether a food will provide an animal with sufficient nutrients. To compensate for the limitations of chemical analysis, AAFCO added a “safety factor,” which was to exceed the minimum amount of nutrients required to meet the complete and balanced requirements.
In 2006, new NRC standards were published; but it will take several years for AAFCO’s profiles to be updated and adopted, let alone accepted by the states.
The pet food industry loves to say that it’s more highly regulated than human food, but that’s just not true. Pet food exists in a bit of a regulatory vacuum; laws are on the books, but enforcement is another story. The FDA has nominal authority over pet foods shipped across state lines. But the real “enforcers” are the feed control officials in each state. They are the ones who actually look at the food and, in many instances, run basic tests to make sure the food meets its Guaranteed Analysis, the chart on the label telling how much protein, fat, moisture, and fiber are present. But regulation and enforcement vary tremendously from state to state. Some, like Texas, Minnesota, and Kentucky, run extensive tests and strictly enforce their laws; others, like California, do neither.
The Manufacturing Process: How Pet Food Is Made
The vast majority of dry food is made with a machine called an extruder. First, materials are blended in accordance with a recipe created with the help of computer programs that provide the nutrient content of each proposed ingredient. For instance, corn gluten meal has more protein than wheat flour. Because the extruder needs a consistent amount of starch and low moisture to work properly, dry ingredients — such as rendered meat-and-bone-meal, poultry by-product meal, grains, and flours — predominate.
The dough is fed into the screws of an extruder. It is subjected to steam and high pressure as it is pushed through dies that determine the shape of the final product, much like the nozzles used in cake decorating. As the hot, pressurized dough exits the extruder, it is cut by a set of rapidly whirling knives into tiny pieces. As the dough reaches normal air pressure, it expands or “puffs” into its final shape. The food is allowed to dry, and then is usually sprayed with fat, digests, or other compounds to make it more palatable. When it is cooled, it can be bagged.
Although the cooking process kills bacteria in the ingredients, the final product can pick up more bacteria during the subsequent drying, coating, and packaging process. Some experts warn that getting dry food wet can allow the bacteria on the surface to multiply and make pets sick. Do not mix dry food with water, milk, canned food, or other liquids.
A few dog foods are baked at high temperatures (over 500°F) rather than extruded. This produces a sheet of dense, crunchy material that is then broken into irregular chunks, much like crumbling crackers into soup. It is relatively palatable without the sprayed-on fats and other enhancers needed on extruded dry food.
Semi-moist foods and many pet treats are also made with an extruder. To be appealing to consumers and to keep their texture, they contain many additives, colorings, and preservatives; they are not a good choice for a pet’s primary diet.
Wet or canned food begins with ground ingredients mixed with additives. If chunks are required, a special extruder forms them. Then the mixture is cooked and canned. The sealed cans are then put into containers resembling pressure cookers and commercial sterilization takes place. Some manufacturers cook the food right in the can.
Wet foods are quite different in content from dry or semi-moist foods. While many canned foods contain by-products of various sorts, they are “fresh” and not rendered or processed (although they are often frozen for transport and storage). Wet foods usually contain much more protein, and it’s often a little higher quality, than dry foods. They also have more moisture, which is better for cats. They are packaged in cans or pouches.
Comparing Food Types
Because of the variation in water content, it is impossible to directly compare labels from different kinds of food without a mathematical conversion to “dry matter basis.” The numbers can be very deceiving. For instance, a canned food containing 10% protein actually has much more protein than a dry food with 30% protein.
To put the foods on a level playing field, first calculate the dry matter content by subtracting the moisture content given on the label from 100%. Then divide the ingredient by the dry matter content. For example, a typical bag of dry cat food contains 30% protein on the label, but 32% on a dry-matter basis (30% divided by its dry matter content, 100-6% moisture = 94%). A can of cat food might contain 12% protein on the label, but almost 43% on a dry-matter basis (12% divided by its dry matter content, 100-72% moisture = 28%). Dry food typically contains less than 10% water, while canned food contains 78% or more water.
Pet Food Ingredients
Dogs and cats are carnivores, and do best on a meat-based diet. The protein used in pet food comes from a variety of sources. When cattle, swine, chickens, lambs, or other animals are slaughtered, lean muscle tissue is trimmed away from the carcass for human consumption, along with the few organs that people like to eat, such as tongues and tripe.
However, about 50% of every food animal does not get used in human foods. Whatever remains of the carcass — heads, feet, bones, blood, intestines, lungs, spleens, livers, ligaments, fat trimmings, unborn babies, and other parts not generally consumed by humans — is used in pet food, animal feed, fertilizer, industrial lubricants, soap, rubber, and other products. These “other parts” are known as “by-products.” By-products are used in feed for poultry and livestock as well as in pet food.
The nutritional quality of by-products, meals, and digests can vary from batch to batch. James Morris and Quinton Rogers, of the University of California at Davis Veterinary School, assert that, “[pet food] ingredients are generally by-products of the meat, poultry and fishing industries, with the potential for a wide variation in nutrient composition. Claims of nutritional adequacy of pet foods based on the current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient allowances (‘profiles’) do not give assurances of nutritional adequacy and will not until ingredients are analyzed and bioavailability values are incorporated.”3
Meat or poultry “by-products” are very common in wet pet foods. Remember that “meat” refers to only cows, swine, sheep, and goats. Since sheep and goats are rare compared to the 37 million cows and 100 million hogs slaughtered for food every year, nearly all meat by-products come from cattle and pigs.
The better brands of pet food, such as many “super-premium,” “natural,” and “organic” varieties, do not use by-products. On the label, you’ll see one or more named meats among the first few ingredients, such as “turkey” or “lamb.” These meats are still mainly leftover scraps; in the case of poultry, bones are allowed, so “chicken” consists mainly of backs and frames—the spine and ribs, minus their expensive breast meat. The small amount of meat left on the bones is the meat in the pet food. Even with this less-attractive source, pet food marketers are very tricky when talking about meat, so this is explained further in the section on “Marketing Magic” below.
Meat meals, poultry meals, by-product meals, and meat-and-bone meal are common ingredients in dry pet foods. The term “meal” means that these materials are not used fresh, but have been rendered. While there are chicken, turkey, and poultry by-product meals there is no equivalent term for mammal “meat by-product meal” — it is called “meat-and-bone-meal.” It may also be referred to by species, such as “beef-and-bone-meal” or “pork-and-bone-meal.”
What is rendering? As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, to render is “to process as for industrial use: to render livestock carcasses and to extract oil from fat, blubber, etc., by melting.” In other words, raw materials are dumped into large vat and boiled for several hours. Rendering separates fat, removes water, and kills bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms. However, the high temperatures used (270°F/130°C) can alter or destroy natural enzymes and proteins found in the raw ingredients.
Because of persistent rumors that rendered by-products contain dead dogs and cats, the FDA conducted a study looking for pentobarbital, the most common euthanasia drug, in pet foods. They found it. Ingredients that were most commonly associated with the presence of pentobarbital were meat-and-bone-meal and animal fat. However, they also used very sensitive tests to look for canine and feline DNA, which were not found. Industry insiders admit that rendered pets and roadkill were used in pet food some years ago. Although there are still no laws or regulations against it, the practice is uncommon today, and pet food companies universally deny that their products contain any such materials. However, so-called “4D” animals (dead, dying, diseased, disabled) were only recently banned for human consumption and are still legitimate ingredients for pet food.
The amount of grain and vegetable products used in pet food has risen dramatically over time. Plant products now replace a considerable proportion of the meat that was used in the earliest commercial pet foods. This has led to severe nutritional deficiencies that have been corrected along the way, although many animals died before science caught up.
Most dry foods contain a large amount of cereal grain or starchy vegetables to provide texture. These high-carbohydrate plant products also provide a cheap source of “energy” — the rest of us call it “calories.” Gluten meals are high-protein extracts from which most of the carbohydrate has been removed. They are often used to boost protein percentages without expensive animal-source ingredients. Corn gluten meal is the most commonly used for this purpose. Wheat gluten is also used to create shapes like cuts, bites, chunks, shreds, flakes, and slices, and as a thickener for gravy. In most cases, foods containing vegetable proteins are among the poorer quality foods.
A recent fad, “low-carb” pet food, has some companies steering away from grains, and using potatoes, green peas, and other starchy vegetables as a substitute. Except for animals that are allergic to grains, dry low-carb diets offer no particular advantage to pets. They also tend to be very high in fat and, if fed free-choice, will result in weight gain. Canned versions are suitable for prevention and treatment of feline diabetes, and as part of a weight loss program, as well as for maintenance.
Animal and Poultry Fat
There’s a unique, pungent odor to a new bag of dry pet food — what is the source of that smell? It is most often rendered animal fat, or vegetable fats and oils deemed inedible for humans. For example, used restaurant grease was rendered and routed to pet foods for several years, but a more lucrative market is now in biodiesel fuel production.
These fats are sprayed directly onto extruded kibbles and pellets to make an otherwise bland or distasteful product palatable. The fat also acts as a binding agent to which manufacturers add other flavor enhancers such as “animal digests” made from processed by-products. Pet food scientists have discovered that animals love the taste of these sprayed fats. Manufacturers are masters at getting a dog or a cat to eat something she would normally turn up her nose at.
What Happened to the Nutrients?