Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Pet Food Dilemma

Part One: Commercial Pet Food

In March, 2007, Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of pet food sold under dozens of brand names. As the story unfolded – and as a continuous trickle of new products were added to the recall list – a great deal came to light about the way pet foods are manufactured in the 21st century.

First, how many of us knew that companies ranging from Wal-Mart to Hills and Eukanuba farmed out the manufacture of their foods to a third party?

Second, how many of us knew that the ingredients in pet and human foods today come from all over the world, shipped in vast quantities from innumerable sources? This makes inspection and quality control impossible to maintain with any degree of certainty.

Third, why have so many pet food companies have been bought up by conglomerates that previously focused on the manufacture of human foods? The answer: What was once a waste stream (in the “expense” column) is now converted to a product stream (in the “income” column) as the by-products of human food production become pet food ingredients.

Fourth, why did Menu Foods delay 2 ½ months after it began receiving complaints that its food was tainted, before starting to issue recalls? And why did the CEO of Menu Foods sell 12,700 shares of his own stock in the company 2 ½ weeks before the recall? (Note that Menu Foods stock fell 45% in value the day the first recalls were announced.)

Fifth, why did all official sources continue to claim the “death toll” was only 17 animals when all other surveys and estimates put the number in the thousands?

The answer to all of these issues is the same: To maximize profit and to minimize exposure to lawsuits.

Part Two: Homemade Pet Food

It seems there should be a simple answer to the problem: Quit buying pet food. Make it at home from wholesome ingredients instead.

But it’s not simple at all. Americans tend to eat a wide range of foods – often in a rather random fashion – and we survive but we are often far from optimally nourished. We tend to take in an excess of calories, saturated fats, etc., and inadequate amounts of fiber and certain vitamins and minerals. The result is a number of diseases that could be avoided with better nutrition.

Our animal companions have very different nutritional needs from humans. If we feed them the same selection of foods we eat ourselves, the result will far worse for them than it is for us.

The most widely accepted standards for dog and cat nutrition are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO sets standards as to the amount of each nutrient that should be in a commercial dog or cat food in order for it to be labelled as “nutritionally complete.” Although I have a lot of quibbles with these standards, they’re the best we’ve got. Any homemade food should provide well above the AAFCO minimums for every nutrient on the list (without getting too close to the maximums, where known).

I have heard several veterinary nutritionists express dispair about homemade diets because it is so very hard to come up with – and stick to – recipes that meet AAFCO standards. More than one nutritionist has lamented what’s known as “nutritional drift.” That is, the caregiver follows the recipes diligently for the first few months, then starts to get more relaxed and inaccurate. Over time, the recipes “drift” away from their original balance to the point where the animal is seriously malnourished.

Having made all my dogs’ food for the past 5 months, I can attest to the fact that it takes a very large time commitment. And a diligence bordering on obsession, to avoid nutritional drift. I measure, weigh, calculate, label, wash, re-wash, and go through my vitamin-mineral checklist twice with every batch of food I make. And the batches are small – just enough for about two days – to avoid uneven mixing of ingredients and supplements. The entire time, I try to maintain mindfulness, so that the biggest ingredient is Love. My training in Traditional Chinese Medicine convinces me that the intention to feed well, to nourish my animals so that they thrive, makes the food actually do more for their health than if I were to cook absent-mindedly or in a rushed, stressed state of mind.

Part Three: The Dilemma

Most people want to feed their animal companions the best food possible, but don’t have the time or persistence to make food properly at home. What should they do? I am at a loss when my clients ask for food recommendations.

What do YOU do? Now that the shock of the pet food recalls has past, yet we still see new dog treats and dog toys getting recalled due to heavy metal or other contamination, how do YOU feel about buying commercial products for your beloved critters? Do you cook your own? Have you found a small company that you are confident is doing a good job making dog and cat food? Have you decided to go back to what you were feeding before the recalls began? Do you feel safe???