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.