Two key factors may explain the most recent, and unfortunate, pet food recall:
The use of low quality ingredients with inadequate quality assurance, and the over-processing of these ingredients, which renders the final food products hard to digest and minimally nutritious; and
The industry-wide practice of enormous batch production, which can lead to the inadvertent incorporation of contaminants, such as fungus or bacteria, into a huge run of widely disseminated end-products.
Let’s examine these two points in greater detail:
First, what is the problem with some of the ingredients used in a variety of the best known and most widely marketed brands of pet food. The ingredients in most mass-marketed pet food products are often of extremely low quality (think: how else could several pounds of pet food cost only a few dollars?). To understand this, you need to acquaint yourself with the ingredient lists, or “labeling language,” employed by large manufacturers. Once you’ve become familiar with industry jargon, you might actually be surprised that more food-related pathologies or fatalities haven’t been reported.
Many conventional pet foods contain ingredients which should not enter the ingredient supply chain to begin with. These may include a variety of slaughterhouse wastes, toxic products from spoiled foodstuffs, drug residues, heavy-metal contaminants, nutritionally useless fillers, added sugars, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives.
Most pet foods and food treats are composed of highly refined ingredients which may have undergone additional [over] processing. During manufacture, these ingredients may have been “cooked to death”; that is, high temperatures may have destroyed all enzymes, many vitamins, and a number of other nutrients that would otherwise be intact-and bioavailable-in the raw material. Feeding pets low-quality, conventional diets-particularly over the long-term-actually increases the need for nutrients to help the body both digest this food and eliminate the toxins contained in it. In older animals or animals with pre-existing diseases, these low quality foods may actually push the animals’ systems over the edge, leading to exacerbation of existing pathologies or even precipitating new ones. In addition, if a batch of food is contaminated-say, for example, by aflatoxin or another, perhaps indeterminate, contaminant-an already weakened animal might succumb due to a precipitous and often irreversible systemic breakdown (i.e., organ failure). Considering that the kidneys, along with the liver, are among the most important detoxification and elimination centers in the body, it isn’t surprising that these organs are the first to go when animals are exposed to contaminated food.
Most mass-produced animal foods (including pet foods and feeds for lifestock and laboratory animals) are manufactured to be competitively-priced, consistent in formulation, and to meet the minimum appropriate nutritional standards required by law to allow use of the terms “balanced” or “complete” in any description of a diet based on the foods. Unfortunately, the ingredients most commonly used are often the cheapest available in a fluctuating marketplace. For example, in the case of protein, corn or wheat gluten may be chosen instead of fish. As sources for carbohydrates, sugar, propylene glycol, high fructose corn syrup, or even waste products from human food manufacturing may be chosen over whole grain products. To supply needed fats, material rejected for human consumption is often used; this may include so-called “rendered” fats or even rancid fats (such degradation can often make fats toxic). Finally, as sources for fiber, everything from cellulose (including, in some cases, newspapers!) to peanut hulls to hair can be used instead of more nutritional-and costlier-forms of fiber, as they naturally occur, in vegetables, fruits or whole grains.
After reading the chemical nutrient analysis of a given food product, it’s not likely that you would learn much about the quality of the product or the kind of raw materials used to produce it. To really educate yourself, you need to read, and be able to understand, the ingredient list, which typically displays, in descending order, the quantity of each ingredient included in the product as a percentage of the total dry weight. So, for example, when the first ingredient listed is corn meal, this means that, by percentage of total dry weight, the amount of corn meal in this product is greater than that of any other listed ingredient.
The quality of a food product can be determined by the manner in which the ingredients are described on the label. For example, if an ingredient is listed in the same terms that you would use to describe that ingredient if it were on a typical shopping list, it is likely that this ingredient is on the “up-and-up.” However, if an ingredient is described in terms that a consumer would never use in a typical shopping list, you would do well to research the dubious term until you are satisfied that you know what is being described. More often than not, though, you’ll find that more obscure-sounding terms refer to ingredients that you wouldn’t want your animal to eat.
Here are some examples of ill-defined terminology:
“Chicken meat” – This is clear and easy; it is, of course, meat from chickens, which is often ground into so-called “chicken meat meal.” But be aware: unless the chicken is defined as “organic,” you’ll have no way of knowing if the chicken meal contains hormones or antibiotics. In any case, organic or not, “chicken meat” obviously refers to “real” food.
Now, if you read “poultry meal” or “poultry by-product meal,” this is an entirely different story. This ingredient, as described, cannot even be sourced back to a single animal species. As one ingredient supplier characterizes it on their website, “Poultry Meal/Chicken Meal/Feed Grade Poultry Meal are by-products from the poultry rendering industry. Poultry Meal and Chicken Meal are core components in many of today’s popular pet foods. These products are typically 65% Protein and 12-18% ash, depending on the pet food manufacturer’s specifications. Feed Grade poultry meal is a vital component in aquaculture feeding and other mixed feed rations. Feed Grade Poultry meal is typically a 60% protein product.”
What may be characterized as an “animal by-product?” Nobody, save perhaps the manufacturer, can give you a precise answer to this question. Animal by-products may include animal carcasses and parts of animal carcasses, manure and gut contents, ova, embryos and semen which are not intended for breeding purposes, blood, whole hides or skins, hooves and horns, shells, feathers, wool, hair and fur, and even catering wastes. Moreover, anything listed as “animal by-products” might even include high-risk components, such as materials suspected of being infected with transmissible diseases, the remains of animals used in experimental research, carcasses of zoo animals or pets, materials from diseased livestock, or even animals that have died on farms before slaughter.
“Soybean oil” – This label is easy to understand and describes something that you might even buy to use in preparing your own meals.
“Animal fat” – This is another one of those odd, collective ingredient, terms, similar to “by-products,” i.e., nobody (perhaps not even the food manufacturer) can trace the origin of this raw material. One animal food ingredient supplier summarizes what it is they produce and sell as “animal fat”: “Tallow, lard, chicken fat and other animal fats are the rendered by products of meat production. By rendering slaughter house waste into animal fat, the final fat product is more resistant to spoiling and has various industrial uses.”
The same company cited above describes the process of producing “Fish oil” and “Fish meal,”-both of which are also difficult-to-define terms-in the following way: “Fish oil is produced by a continuous and carefully controlled process where fish are cooked, pressed and fed to a separation stage where water, fish solids and the oil itself part company. The most efficient way to remove the oil from the fish carcass is to use both a decanter and a disc stack separator in stages. The water phase from the separators is fed to the evaporators where it is gently concentrated and added to the remaining press cake that will eventually be dried to form fish meal.”
Other, similarly ill-defined ingredients listed in categories, rather than specific, definable terms, are:
“Meals” (such as “pork meal” or “bone meal”), “animal digest,” “poultry by-product,” “digest,” “vegetable oil, ” “hydrolyzed animal and vegetable fat,” and “egg product.”
Aside from these extremely dubious ingredients, there are a variety of low quality ingredients which are by-products of human food production. Here are just a few examples:
“Wheat Middlings.” These are a by-product of the flour milling industry. Other by-products routinely added to pet foods and animal feeds are soybean hulls, gluten (the proteins found in certain grains), or predominantly “refined” ingredients, in which grains and seeds have been stripped of their most nutritious and health-supportive components.
Some of the health risks associated with ill-defined ingredients, or ingredient categories, are self-explanatory. The health risks associated with “food fragments,” though, are less obvious. But these risks become readily apparent once you do a little homework. For example, wheat gluten is associated with food allergies and the immune disorder celiac disease in humans. In people with a gluten sensitivity, gluten inhibits nutrient uptake and this coincides with additional disorders, including gastrointestinal symptoms, diabetes type I, infertility, anemia, and even rheumatoid arthritis.
The most obvious danger associated with the consumption of food fragments such as gluten is that neither our bodies, nor those of our pets, are designed to deal with isolated nutrients such as these. Animals may eat grains to varying, species-specific, degrees (e.g., dogs to a much lesser extent than rodents), but they never eat just the gluten or just the hulls. Most importantly, animals don’t naturally eat refined grains; quite simply, they didn’t evolve to do so. Here’s a simple rule of thumb that the educated pet owner and consumer alike can follow: Don’t feed your pet anything containing ingredients that appear to be out of their natural contexts. Here’s a frightening example of just this sort of “out-of-context” use of ingredients in the pet food industry: A number of respected, widely used, rabbit food products contain animal-derived ingredients. Now, as a matter simple common sense, you and I know that rabbits don’t routinely eat animal products (Monty Python and the Holy Grail aside). Nevertheless, as an inexpensive means of supplying protein, animal materials are commonly added to food products meant for herbivorous rabbits; doesn’t make much sense, does it.
As I see it, these are among the most serious problems with the majority of mass-produced pet foods available today. Cheap, by-product ingredients, collected from human food production, are combined to achieve the nutritional standards required for so-called “balanced,” or “complete,” foods, and food fragments are used as cheap substitutes for more expensive-and more “natural”-food ingredient sources (e.g., gluten as an inexpensive stand-in for costlier animal or plant proteins). To provide a source of fiber, isolated raw materials are too often added as substitutes for the fiber that was removed when refining the grains that have been included as a principal ingredient (pretty counterintuitive, eh?). Moreover, to achieve the required nutrient levels, isolated, and mostly synthetically produced, vitamins and minerals are used to replace natural food-based nutrients lost during refinement or through over-cooking. Increasingly, the bioavailability, usefulness, and benefits (other than cheap cost) of these isolates are becoming questionable.
To add insult to injury, in order to give pet foods a stable shelf life, preservatives are routinely added. Among these, the worst for your animal’s health are BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BTA (butylated hydroxyanisole), both of which have been associated with liver, kidney, and reproductive abnormalities, immune suppression, metabolic and behavioral disorders, increased fetal and neonatal mortality, decreased body weights of neonates, and, it is suspected, carcinogenic properties. Another common preservative, Ethoxyquin, has been linked to pre-cancerous lesions of the kidneys and liver, bladder dysfunction, and reproductive problems.
As I mentioned earlier, the particular combination of mostly unappealing and unhealthy ingredients is often processed in ways which destroy most of the few remaining natural nutrients contained in the raw ingredients. Extruding, baking, canning, and other commonly used high-heat processes degrade all enzymes and most vitamins, denature proteins (amino acids), and alter fibers, all of which renders the food even more alien to your pets’ bodies than any single ingredient alone. The end result is a nutritionally sparse blob of chemicals with very few bioavailable nutrients and some terribly out-of-context ingredients, all of which place a tremendous burden your pet’s system. The longer your animal eats this diet, the more his/her body will be challenged (producing and using most of its enzymes in the effort to digest and metabolize this food), and the more susceptible he/she will be to disease.
Finally, there are problems inherent in the mass-production of pet foods, most notably those associated with the sheer size of some high-volume production lines. Let’s get some perspective on scale here. I’m not talking about bags or barrels of ingredients, mind you; I’m talking about tanks and silos. Quality assurance in a mostly automated, large-scale, production facility is much more of a challenge than in facilities where more time and smaller scale allow people to oversee every step of the manufacturing process, from initial receipt and inspection of the raw ingredients to storage of the finished product. It’s simply a matter of scale – the bigger an operation, the harder it is to attend to every little detail. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see how a bad ingredient batch can contaminate tons of food. Considering the variability of some of the ingredients (remember my description of “animal by-products” or “rendered animal fats?”), it is entirely conceivable that some cases of contamination may never be traceable back to the original culprit.
Some time ago, Leopold Kohr, one of my great countrymen (and the brother of our family physician) famously said, “Small is Beautiful,” a phrase that, though too often forgotten or ignored, never loses its elemental truth.
Disclaimer: Although I am a trained biologist, I am not a veterinarian, and all conclusions are my own, and are drawn both from my research on manufactured foods and my personal experience with whole foods in the context of my family and home life.
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