This article first appeared on healthypets.mercola.com.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association's (WSAVA) mission, according to the organization's website, is "To advance the health and welfare of companion animals worldwide through an educated, committed and collaborative global community of veterinary peers."1 WSAVA has 113 member associations and over 200,000 member veterinarians worldwide.
WSAVA has a Global Nutrition Committee that provides recommendations for selecting pet foods, and recently, Ryan Yamka, PhD, founder of Luna Science and Nutrition and also the Guardian Pet Food Co. took an in-depth look at WSAVA's recommendations and found them lacking. He determined they provide a false sense of security to anyone offering pet food advice based on the association's criteria.
In a recent article for PetfoodIndustry.com, Yamka warns that the WSAVA recommendations "have significant gaps and need a major overhaul."2 He provides a rare and important insider's look at how the biggest players in the ultraprocessed pet food industry, along with the veterinary associations they support, set a global companion animal "health and welfare" agenda that has significant deficiencies relative to its stated purpose.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, Yamka is board certified in companion animal nutrition by the American College of Animal Sciences, is a fellow with the American College of Nutrition, has an extensive background in pet nutrition and multiple years developing, formulating and launching dog and cat foods as a senior executive with leading pet food companies.
One of the first things Yamka points out in his article is that the WSAVA website "highlights pet food industry partners based on their contributions." You can find a list of those partners at this link, and if you're a regular visitor here at Mercola Healthy Pets, you'll recognize a few of the usual suspects on that list.
Yamka does mention that WSAVA is more transparent than other similar associations in that it provides an easily accessible list of its industry partners and ranks them based on contributions. However, he points out that "it does leave some people scratching their heads why Nestle Purina and Mars Petcare would contribute in multiple tiers, versus just the parent company."
Full-Time Nutritionists Aren't Necessarily Formulators
WSAVA's recommendations are directed at veterinary teams to help them help their clients make "informed" pet food decisions. The first order of business, according to WSAVA, is to have pet food manufacturers' names and contact information on hand so that pet parents can call or write to ask a series of suggested questions, starting with "Do you employ a full time qualified nutritionist?"
I've long suspected this question is in part designed to push aside smaller pet food producers who hire independent nutrition consultants to formulate their products, but who don't have the resources or perhaps even the need to employ full-time nutritionists. Yamka makes the further eye-opening point that:
"WSAVA and similar groups will have you believe that simply having a nutritionist as full-time staff means the food is going to be safe and nutritionally adequate; however, it may not mean that nutritionist formulated and/or validated the foods.
If the nutritionist works in the sales, marketing or educational department making brochures and presentations for the company, then what is the value of having that person on staff from a food standpoint? None!"
I confess I never considered the possibility that "full-time qualified nutritionists" employed by big pet food might not even do the work of nutritionists for those organizations. Yamka continues:
"Asking the question, 'Who formulated the pet food currently in the marketplace?' is very different from, 'Do you employ a full-time nutritionist?' You will likely get a different answer based on how the question is asked. It's a fact that companies with huge portfolios often do not have nutritionists formulating all their foods from concept to what ends up in the marketplace.
Also, having a board-certified nutritionist as an 'advisor' for the company does not mean anything, either. What you really want to know is, 'Did a qualified nutritionist formulate the pet food from concept to delivery of the finished product that is on the shelf in the marketplace today?' Followed by, 'Is that the case for every one of your pet foods that exists in the marketplace today?'
This gives transparency into who is truly behind all the products. If a company has a nutritionist on staff and that person is not involved in the formulation, then asking whether the company has a staff nutritionist is irrelevant and can be misleading."
Nutrient and Digestibility Analyses Aren't Routinely Available
A question not on the WSAVA recommendations list involves analyzing the nutrient content of finished products. This omission has resulted in many pet food recalls over the years, for example, the explosion of recalls just last year for excessive levels of vitamin D in dog food. Every pet food producer should be able to answer the question, "What is your typical third-party analysis for all your foods?" says Yamka.
"In reality, many can't meet the criteria because most do not analyze their final products that end up in the marketplace, or at least not all of their products, for nutritional adequacy," he writes. "Why? Simply because it is not a requirement for a pet food to enter the marketplace, given the low barrier for entry.
Based on WSAVA guidelines, a pet food company only needs to provide a complete nutrient analysis for one formula in their portfolio to meet the nutritional criteria. Considering we're in the time of open-access journals and things called websites, WSAVA should be asking, 'Do you provide a complete AAFCO nutrient analysis for all your pet foods on your website?'
Also, WSAVA should want to know the quality of the pet foods by asking the simple question, 'Do you provide digestibility results for all your products on your website?' Then you would know the actual nutrient content of all the foods and would understand nutrient availability of the food as well. This is especially important when crude protein of kibble foods can range from 60 to 90%!
Nutrient analysis and digestibility results are not proprietary. If they were, then people would not be able to send a pet food to a third-party analytical lab and a digestibility study to get the answers themselves. Formulas are considered proprietary, nutrient analysis and digestibility are not — they are two very different things!
Any company that tells you otherwise either has a significant knowledge gap and/or a transparency problem. Both consumers and veterinarians have a right to understand the nutrient quality, availability and digestibility of pet foods they recommend and feed."
Company-Owned Production Facilities Aren't Dependably Safer
Another question on the WSAVA recommendations list is "Where are your foods produced and manufactured?" Presumably, pet food companies that operate their own manufacturing facilities have better quality control and food safety. However, as Yamka makes clear, this isn't always the case.
"In January 2019, Hill's Pet Nutrition issued three recalls (initial recall plus two significant expansions) tied to vitamin D toxicity in canned dog foods made in its own manufacturing facility in Topeka, Kansas," he writes.
"In November 2019, Hill's received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) citing the root causes of the issue being failure to obtain a certificates of analysis upon receipt of the vitamin premix from its supplier, failure to test, failure to evaluate against its specifications and subsequently failing to reject the vitamin premix containing excess vitamin D.
Ironically, these steps were required by Hill's food safety plan. Yet, FDA could not verify if corrective actions would work since Hill's was not following its own written procedures in the first place. Nor did the company identify the root cause in the failure to follow them (i.e., complacency, cost savings, could not wait for analytical results, etc.).
Other pet food companies, such as Evanger's Pet Foods, own their facilities, manufacture their own food, as well as food for other companies, and have been plagued with significant quality control, sourcing and legal issues. Have we forgotten about the pentobarbital issues? Clearly, owning the facility didn't prevent any of those problems."
Food Safety and QC Procedures Aren't Consistently Followed
"What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your ingredients and the end product?" is another WSAVA-recommended question we should be asking pet food manufacturers.
But as Yamka points out, just as WSAVA believes a "full time qualified nutritionist" equates to better pet food, it believes the same about documented quality control measures. However, situations like the Hill's and Evanger's recalls discussed above prove the fallacy of that assumption and provide evidence that "the fox is watching the hen house."
"What good are the procedures if you do not follow them?" asks Yamka. "That is not rhetorical; FDA literally asked Hill's that question! Now, if WSAVA asked, 'Do you have a third-party certification for quality control procedures and food safety?' then they would get a vastly different answer.
There are many third-party organizations that routinely audit and provide certifications for proper quality control and food safety procedures and documentation. More importantly, the certifications make sure companies adhere to them with yearly or bi-annual audits.
In fact, many co-manufacturers go through a third-party annual (or bi-annual) food safety audit similar to programs like Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute to receive a certification. If a company fails to meet the requirements, it loses the certification.
In short, the consumer does not have to trust that the pet food company or manufacturer is doing what it's supposed to be doing; instead, you should simply ask if they are actively credentialed. Many companies that do have third-party certifications (e.g., SQF, ISO, etc.) tout them on their websites.
I wonder how many of the companies that own their manufacturing facilities have third-party certifications? This is also not proprietary, so ask them! Lastly, if you search recalls on the FDA website, ironically most of them come from companies that own their plants."
Published Pet Food Studies Aren't Always Meaningful
The final WSAVA recommended questions Yamka addresses are "What kind of pet food research has been conducted?" and "Are the results of studies published in peer-reviewed journals?" He writes:
"WSAVA alludes to the fact that manufacturers who conduct and publish research in peer-reviewed journals are somehow superior. However, they seem to forget that research and published, peer-reviewed papers do not all equal good science.
Much of the research conducted by companies that WSAVA supports is for self-interest (e.g., product development) and also proprietary. Meaning, veterinarians and consumers are never able to truly review all data and results.
Ultimately, many companies publish meaningless studies and inadequate data that do not benefit the companion animal nutrition community as a whole. Conflict of interest is also a factor to consider.
Just because a pet food company is not publishing research, that's not a disqualifier for a pet food as long as the company is doing due diligence via analysis, food safety and having a qualified person and/or team behind the formulation."
Time for Greater Transparency, Fewer Conflicts of Interest
Yamka believes it's time for an overhaul of WSAVA's 2013 pet food recommendations, which may have been more valuable when they were published seven years ago than they are today.
"They should actually provide transparency into the pet food industry as a whole, not for a select few 'industry partners' who are not really as transparent as you may think when you rephrase the questions properly," he writes.
"Additionally, if these are in fact 'recommendations' based on important criteria for pet foods, should not all of Hill's canned dog products implicated in the vitamin D recalls come off the WSAVA-recommended list?
If WSAVA takes the time to update its recommendation guidelines with the criteria I've suggested here, it should consider involving people who do not have any potential financial gain, either from pet food sales or academic research funding."
Many Pet Parents Have Lost All Trust in the Industry
Thanks to the lack of transparency Yamka shines a light on, along with mislabeled products, deceptive marketing techniques, low-grade ingredients, too-frequent recalls, and generations of pets with chronic digestive issues, allergies and degenerative disease, it's no wonder so many pet parents are exploring homemade diets, fresh food diets made by smaller, transparent pet food producers, raw diets (some of which are sterile) and other alternatives to the dead, rendered, dubious, ultraprocessed feed-grade "fast food".
If you're among them, my advice is to search this website for more information on choosing the best diet for your pet. There are dozens of videos and articles here that can help you become more knowledgeable about pet nutrition so that you can make the best diet choices for your own dog or cat. You can also learn what real transparency in pet diets looks like by ordering the Truth About Pet Food 2020 List.
If you want to help change the deceptive practices occurring in the pet food industry, I recommend becoming a member of the Association for Truth in Pet Food, which is the only organization out there committed to holding the regulatory agencies and AAFCO accountable. You can also check this list for the pet food companies that have taken the ingredient transparency pledge.