This article first appeared on digitalmag.petproductnews.com.
If you own a pet, you need pet food, and there are plenty of options out there, but not all are created equal, according to industry insiders. Some industry insiders, such as co-owners of JustFoodForDogs, a maker of fresh, whole food pet diets, go as far as saying that the overall commercial pet food industry is downright dangerous. Their new book, "Big Kibble: The Hidden Dangers of the Commercial Pet Food Industry and How to Do Better by Our Dogs," addresses just this.
But is the criticism of commercial kibble that black-and-white, or are there nuances that may portray a different story? Pet Product News reached out to three industry insiders—including one pet specialty retailer and two executives from pet food companies—to get their take on what they see as the perceptions and realities within the pet food industry:
- B.C. Henschen, partner at Platinum Paws, a pet store and grooming salon in Carmel, Ind., and contributing writer for PPN.
- Melissa Van Vactor, vice president of sales at Bixbi, a pet nutrition company in Boulder, Colo., known for its Liberty and Rawbble dog food brands, available in dry, wet and freeze-dried formulations.
- Ryan Yamka, Ph.D., co-founder, COO and executive vice president of research and development at Guardian Pet Food Co. in Needham, Mass., maker of nutrient dense freeze-dried pet food and treats. Dr. Yamka, also founder of and an independent consultant with Luna Science and Nutrition, writes regularly about the pet food industry.
Pet Product News: A new book takes on the pet food industry. The title itself sums up the authors’ thoughts: "Big Kibble: The Hidden Dangers of the Commercial Pet Food Industry and How to Do Better by Our Dogs." Do you believe there are "hidden dangers" in the industry?
Dr. Ryan Yamka: I am not a fan of "fear mongering" when it comes to educating people about the pet food industry. I use the mindset of "I educate, I do not humiliate nor advocate" when talking about pet foods. Having said that, there are "hidden dangers" in all pet foods, regardless if it is human grade or not. Human grade does not give a company the green light to think or imply their foods are safe from pathogens like listeria or salmonella or high levels of vitamin D. Human-grade vitamin D at the wrong levels will kill dogs and cats just like feed grade.
B.C. Henschen: There is no doubt that there are problems in the commercial pet food industry. To verify that, all one would need to do is visit the FDA [U.S. Food & Drug Administration]’s website and look at the number of recalls related to pet food over the years. There have been major failures in pet food that resulted in the deaths of many pets.
Melissa Van Vactor: There are hidden dangers because, by law, processes and ingredients aren’t required to be specific in the way that helps consumers to really understand what the product inside the bag is actually made of. Many consumers don’t know the differences between feed-grade and human-grade ingredients. Many pet food packages have images of prime rib, racks of lamb or filet mignon on the front of the bag but contain nothing but feed-grade ingredients in the actual food. Consumers might think they’re feeding prime rib when really they’re feeding the leftovers of an animal carcass that was first used for human-grade products that have then been sold again and made into meat meal.
PPN: Some companies argue that "fresh" is better for pets, particularly using ingredients "fit for human consumption." What are your thoughts?
Yamka: Logically, this makes sense. Some kibble companies may cringe when I say that. However, we need to keep in mind that feeding fresh food or home-cooked food to dogs is nothing new. Ralston Purina introduced pellets in the 1920s and kibble in the 1950s. Prior to that, what were dogs eating? Certainly not kibble. I do not see the "fresh food" movement as something new. It is more like reinventing the wheel and going back to where we started before kibble was born. Having said that, saying products are made in a USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] facility using USDA ingredients doesn’t get you around doing the proper analytical, food safety and efficacy studies. Unfortunately, at this time there is a lack of peer-reviewed studies to support the anecdotal data; however, the Companion Animal Nutrition & Wellness Institute and the University of Georgia are investigating advanced glycation end products (AGEs) from high heat extrusion and their impacts on canine health. High levels of AGEs in humans have been linked to chronic diseases.
Henschen: Fresh and real foods are without a doubt better for our pets compared to overly processed highly cooked kibble. The problem with real foods is that many times consumers are not using a professionally prepared diet, and that can lead to a meal that is not complete and balanced or could have some contamination.
Van Vactor: Processed foods or foods that aren’t fit for human consumption aren’t held to the same standards as those that are approved for use in human foods. For example, by definition, feed-grade meat allows for products to include animals that may have died by disease. Fresh meat and ingredients are highly digestible (as shown by our digestibility studies) and are also held to a higher standard—something we think pet owners appreciate and want for their pets.
PPN: Do you feel there is a lack of transparency when it comes to dog food regulations?
Yamka: Yes, overwhelmingly. Not only just dog food regulations, but with the industry itself. Many people will be surprised when I say that many companies do not have third-party nutrient analysis on their finished products. The industry is required to "formulate" to meet the nutrient requirements. They are not required to prove it. Most do not even perform digestibility studies. If a company doesn’t analyze their foods or perform digestibility studies prior to launching their foods, how do they know it is safe or appropriate? What they are really doing is testing and validating their foods on people’s dogs that purchase the product, which is unfortunate, and there are no regulations to say otherwise.
Henschen: I do believe there is a lack of transparency in pet food regulations for consumers. A lot of the problems come from the fact that there is a weird private association stuck right in the middle of the government regulations, which poses many complexities for the consumer. For instance, if a consumer wants to see the definitions of the ingredients that are used in pet food, they would have to purchase the definition book from AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials]. Even though the ingredient definitions are set by local governments and then approved through the FDA, they remain the property of AAFCO.
PPN: About 60 percent of dog owners said that they are fearful of contamination or unsafe ingredients when choosing food for their dog, according to a 2018 study by Packaged Facts. How can pet food companies help consumers ease these concerns?
Van Vactor: Transparency, transparency, transparency. It is easy for companies who do the right thing when it comes to sourcing and testing to share that information with their customers. We share our digestibility studies, our heavy-metal testing along with our nutrient testing with any consumer who asks, and we publish the information on our website. When you’re doing the right thing from start to finish, it’s easy for your customers to feel confident in the information you’re sharing.