About 25 years ago I began formulating pet foods at a time when the entire pet food industry seemed quagmire and focused on such things as protein and fat percentages without any real regard for ingredients. Since boot leather and soap could make a pet food with the “ideal” percentages, it was clear that analytical percentages do not end the story about pet food value. I was convinced then, as I am now, that a food can be no better than the ingredients of which it is composed. Since this ingredient idea has caught on in the pet food industry, it has taken on a commercial life that distorts and perverts the meaning of the underlying philosophy of food quality and proper feeding practices. Is health reducible to which ingredients a commercial product does or does not have? As contradictory as it may seem to what I have just said, no it is not. Here’s why.
The official Publication of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) gives wide latitude for ingredients that can be used in animal foods. As I have pointed out in my book, The Truth About Pet Foods, approved ingredients can include*:
undried processed animal waste products
polyethylene roughage replacement (plastic)
hydrolyzed poultry feathers
hydrolyzed leather meal
poultry hatchery by-product
meat meal tankage
ground almond shells
(*Association of American Feed Control Officials, 1998 Official Publication)
Simultaneously, this same regulatory agency prohibits the use of many proven beneficial natural ingredients that one can find readily available for human consumption such as bee pollen, glucosamine, L-carnitine, spirulina and many other nutraceuticals. It would be easy to conclude that reason does not rule when it comes to what officially can or cannot be used in pet foods.
From the regulators’ standpoint, they operate from the simplistic nutritional idea that the value of food has to do with percentages and that there is no special merit to any particular ingredient. They deny the tens of thousands of scientific research articles proving that the kind of ingredient and its quality can make all the difference in terms of health. They also are silent about the damaging effect of food processing and the impact of time, light, heat, oxygen and packaging on nutritional and health value.
The 100% Complete Myth
Consumers are increasingly becoming alert to the value of more natural foods. Everyone intuitively knows that the closer the diet is to real, fresh, wholesome foods, the better the chance that good health will result. Unfortunately, people do not apply this same common sense to pet foods. Instead they purchase “100% complete” processed foods, perhaps even going the extra mile and selecting “super premium” or “natural” brands, thinking they are doing the best that can be done. They surrender their mind to a commercial ploy (100% completeness) and do to their pets what they would never do to themselves or their family – eat the same packaged product at every meal, day in and day out. No processed food can be “100% complete” because there is not a person on the planet who has 100% knowledge of nutrition. The claim on its face is absurd. Understanding this simple principle is more important than any pet food formulation regardless of the merits of its ingredients. Everything that follows will begin with that premise, i.e., no food should be fed exclusively on a continuous basis no matter what the claims of completeness or ingredient quality.
Genetics Is The Key
Pets need the food they are biologically adapted to. It’s a matter of context. Just as a fish needs to be in water to stay healthy, a pet needs its natural food milieu to be healthy. All creatures must stay true to their design. What could be more obvious or simple? For a carnivore the correct genetic match is prey, carrion and incidental fresh plant material, and even some fur and feathers, as well as the occasional surprise of unmentionables found in decaying matter. It’s not a pretty picture to think that “FiFi” with her pink bow and polished toenails would stoop to such fare, but that is precisely the food she is designed to eat. Since that is her design, matching food to that design (minus the more disgusting and unnecessary elements) is also the key to her health.
The Disease Price
We may prefer to feed a packaged, sterile, steam- cleaned, dried, farinaceous chunk cleverly shaped like a pork chop, but let’s not kid ourselves, that is not the food a pet is designed for….regardless of the claims about ingredients on the label making one think it is five-star restaurant fare. Pets may tolerate such food for a time, but in the end nature calls to account. The price to be paid is lost health in the form of susceptibility to infections, dental disease, premature aging, obesity, heart and organ disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other cruel and painful chronic degenerative diseases. Because our pets are not out in the rigors of nature where they would quickly succumb to such conditions and end their misery, they languish in our protected homes and under veterinary care that does not usually cure but merely treats symptoms and extends the time of suffering. That suffering begins with the way in which we are feeding our pets, not the ingredients in a supposed 100% complete pet food.
The Perfect Food
What is the solution? It is simple and something I have been preaching for the past 25 years. Return pets to their environmental roots. They need – daily – interesting activity, fresh air, clean water, romps in nature, lots of love, and food as close to the form they would find in the wild as possible. Fresh, whole natural foods fit for a carnivore and fed in variety are as good as it can get. Anything less than that is a compromise. Compromise the least if health is the goal. (Same principle applies to you and your family.) To get a packaged food as close as possible to that goal requires the right starting philosophy of feeding (described above) and the expertise to design and manufacture such foods.
Enter The Profiteers
Elements of these principles (often distorted or misunderstood) have been taken up by an endless line of pet food entrepreneurs. The low fat craze led to low fat pet foods. The high fiber craze led to high fiber pet foods. The “no corn, wheat or soy” craze led to no corn, wheat or soy pet foods. The “omega- 3” craze led to pet foods with fish oil. The “variety” craze led to pet foods supposedly offering variety. The “four food groups” craze led to all four bundled into a package. The “raw” craze has led to raw frozen pet foods. The list is endless and the race for pet owner dollars is at a fever pitch.
One can only feel sympathy for a concerned pet owner as they stroll along the huge array of pet food options in pet food aisles. Unfortunately, armed with only sound bites and lore they may have heard from a friend, breeder, veterinarian or on a commercial, they make choices that not only do not serve the health of their pet but may directly contribute to weakened immunity and disease.
The first thing consumers should keep in mind is the ideal diet for pets as described above. No packaged product regardless of its wild claims is ever going to equal that. The next best thing is to home prepare fresh meals. (Contact Wysong for recipes and instruction.) If that is not always possible, then products should be selected that are as close to the ideal as possible. (More suggestions below.)
Raw Frozen Pet Food Dangers
At first glance, considering the perfect feeding model I have described – raw, natural, whole – the best food may seem to be one of the raw frozen pet foods now clamoring to capture the “raw” craze. I’m sorry to say that some of these purveyors even use my books and literature to convince pet owners that their frozen products are on track. They take bits and pieces of good information and distort it into something that pretty much misses the point and misleads consumers. Also, these exotic frozen mixtures of ingredients of unknown origin, manufacturing and freezing conditions are most certainly not economical nor the best choice. They may, because of the water content and raw state, be outright dangerous.
Then there are claims about “USDA approved” ingredients, “human grade” ingredients and ingredients purchased right out of the meat counter at the grocery store. Again, at first glance – and superficiality is what marketers like to deal with – it may seem that such foods would have merit over others. But such labels only create a perception of quality. People would not consider the food pets are designed for in the wild – whole, raw prey and carrion – “human grade” or “USDA approved.” Because something is not “human grade” does not mean it is not healthy or nutritious. For example, chicken viscera is not “human grade” but carries more nutritional value than a clean white chicken breast. Americans think that chicken feet would not be fit for human consumption but many far eastern countries relish them. On the other hand, “human grade” beef steaks fed to pets could cause serious nutritional imbalances and disease if fed exclusively. Pet foods that create the superficial perception of quality (USDA, human grade, etc.) with the intent of getting pet owners to feed a particular food exclusively is not what health is about.
Pet Nutrition Is Serious Health Science
Pet nutrition is not about marketing and who can make the most money quickly. Unfortunately an aspiring pet food mogul off the street can go to any number of private label manufacturers and have a new brand made. These manufacturers have many stock formulas that can be slightly modified to match the current market trend. Voilà! A new pet food wonder brand is created.
Pet foods are about pet nutrition, and nutrition is a serious health matter. There is an implied ethic in going to market with products that can so seriously impact health. But the ethic is by and large absent in the pet food industry. Starting with the 100% claim and on to all the fad driven brands that glut the shelves, health is not being served. Nobody other than our organization is teaching people the principles I am discussing here. Instead, companies headed by people with no real technical, nutritional, food processing or health skills put themselves out to the public as serious about health … because that is what the public wants to hear and what sells. Never mind whether producers really understand or can implement healthy principles. The façade sells and selling is the game. Ingredients are important, true, but not less important than the expertise and principles of the producer who is choosing them, preparing, storing, processing and packaging them. Consumers place a lot of trust that nondescript processed nuggets are what consumers are being led to believe they are. Many a slip can occur between the cup and the lip. There are many slips that can occur between the cup of commercial claims and what ends up in the lips of the pet food bowl.
The consumer is not without guilt in this unfortunate – steady diet of processed pet food – approach to pet feeding. They want everything easy and inexpensive. They don’t want to learn or have to expend too much effort, and they want something simple to base decisions on like: “corn, wheat and soy are evil,” or “USDA approved,” or “human grade” or “organic is good.” They also want something for nothing and think they can get it in a pet food. People want prime choice meats, organic and fresh foods all wrapped up tidy in an easy open, easy pour package, hopefully for 50 cents a pound. They may even pay $1 or a little more if the producer can convince them about how spectacular their product is or how much cancer their pet will get if they choose another brand.
Are By-Products Evil?
In the processing of human foods there are thousands of tons of by-products that cannot be readily sold to humans. Does that make them useless or even inferior? No. Such by-products could include trimmings, viscera, organs, bones, gristle and anything else that humans do not desire. Should these perfectly nutritious items be buried in a landfill? As I mentioned above, while Earth’s resources continue to decline and people starve around the globe, should we feed our pets only “human grade” foods and let perfectly edible – and sometimes even more nutritious – by-products go to waste? How is that conscionable or justifiable for either the consumer or the producer?
Road Kill and Euthanized Pets
This shift to “human grade” for pet foods is partly due to a variety of myths that have gotten much stronger legs than they deserve. Lore has spread in the marketplace that road kill and euthanized pets are used in pet foods. I have never seen the proof for this outrageous claim and after twenty years surveying ingredient suppliers I have never found a supplier of such. However, fantastic myths easily get life and the more fantastic they are the more life they have. It’s the intellectually lazy way and what lies at the root of so much misery. Sloppy superficial thinking is what leads to racism, sexism, religious persecution and wars. People would like to think the world is sharply divided into right-wrong, good-evil, black-white. Marketers capitalize on this by trying to create such sharp distinctions for consumers to easily grab on to: human grade = good/all others = evil; organic = right/all others = wrong; rice = white/corn and wheat = black. Such simplistic and naïve distinctions are quick and simple for advertisers and salespeople to use to sway public opinion. But nobody stepping back and using common sense would ever think that something as complex as health could ever come from what is or is not in a processed bag of food. Reality is not black or white; it is in shades of gray. Grayness requires some knowledge, judgment and discernment before making choices. It’s a little more work but is what we all must do if the world is ever to be a better place and people and pet health are to improve.