How Commercial Pet Foods are Made: The Risks & Impact of Packaged Pet Foods
A wet snout, big gazing eyes, and a frantically wagging tail – something that all pet parents live for. We love our pets, often more than anything or anyone else in the world. Our whole world revolves around our furry friends. We obviously work very hard so our dogs and cats could have a comfortable life. And we take every possible measure to ensure no harm comes to them, ever. We give them a loving home, a comfortable bed, and the best of food to feed on (or at least we think so!)
We buy the most popular brand of pet food for them. It’s advertised heavily and everybody we know seems to recommend it, so it must be good, right? Wrong! Most commercial pet foods and their reality are far from ideal. And yet we pet parents seem to trust them for our baby’s nutrition – a catastrophic mistake.
Let’s try to understand how commercial pet foods are made and what makes them a poor choice for our darling dog or cat.
Reasons Why We Rely on Packaged Pet Food
- Balanced Nutrition for the Dog or Cat – We want to give our pets, the best nutrition that we can. We want them to eat healthily, and we think a bag of kibble is the right way to go! At least, that’s what is advertised to us.
- It’s Convenient – Pet foods are convenient, they’re time-saving and who doesn’t want to save time in this fast-paced generation. Of course, we would love to cook for our sweethearts, if only the boss wouldn’t call the morning meetings that early. Commercial pet foods are quick & easy for us, simple!
- Our Pets Loves It – Our pets seem to enjoy the dry kibbles or the hideous gravy that comes out of those packets. They always come back begging for more.
- The Vet, Trainer or Pet Store Recommended It – My vet or dog’s trainer swears by this brand of pet food. Even the guy at the pet store strongly recommended it. Then it must be good, no?!
History & Development of Pet Nutrition
Before domestication, the ancestors of our dogs and cats would prey on smaller animals, or scavenge on the waste from the human settlements. After adopting them for work and companionship, people began to care at least in part for their nutritional needs. Our pets evolved, and so did the need for specialized nutrition. Mostly, because the diets had to now accommodate their special needs based on breed or vocation.
The changing approach towards Pet Nutrition dates back at least 3,000 years. There are numerous mentions in ancient literature that talk about what our pets must feed on. Although, the common households continued to share their food with their pets until the late 1800s. The dogs and cats were part of the family and fed on whatever the owners could spare for them.
In 1860, an English businessman James Spratt created the first ever ‘dog biscuit’ using beef blood, wheat flour, and vegetables. Consequently, Spratt’s Patent Limited became the first commercial dog food manufacturer. The first canned dog food, “Ken-L Ration” was introduced in 1922. Its main ingredient was horse-meat, sourced from the deceased horses in World War I. A growing middle-class and upcoming kennel clubs resulted in massive success for pet food companies.
By the end of WWII, pet food sales had skyrocketed. Food giants such as Quaker Oats & General Foods had started entering the market. Commercial pet foods became one of the most profitable ways to dispose of by-products of the meat and leather industry.
The packaged pet food industry will be worth $98Bn worldwide by 2022, dominated by global FMCG giants like Mars, P&G, Nestle, among others.
The Modern Pet Food Manufacturer
Meet Bob, he’s a modern-day pet food manufacturer. While Bob’s friends think he plays with puppies and money all day, real life is a little different for him. Like any other businessman, Bob has to face many challenges at work every day.
The Current Challenges of the Pet Food Industry
Some of Bob’s obvious challenges include:
- Growing Competition – With new players entering the market each day, life is difficult for Bob. It’s a constant struggle to ensure that his product survives the ever-growing competition.
- Increasing Costs – Everything is getting expensive – raw material, packaging, workforce, and even advertising. Everything except Pet Foods. While the manufacturing costs are increasing, Bob cannot increase the prices of his products. He has to cater to price-sensitive customers in a competitive market.
- Huge Distribution & Sales Overheads – Bob has to ensure every pet-shop stocks his products and even recommends them to his customers. Even the vets and trainers don’t endorse for free. Bob has to share a big chunk of his revenues to make it happen. Not to mention, increasing competition also increases these costs.
- Wastage, Spoilage & Pilferage Costs – Food products are sensitive. Sun, rain, rodents or even time can result in a big loss. Bob has to account for these too.
The Ugly Truth of Pet Foods
To tackle these challenges, Bob does what all businessmen in his position would do. He decides to go aggressive on sales. He promises bigger commissions to pet-shops and professionals endorsing his products. He also packages his food in fancier, shinier bags and uses aggressive advertising to lure more customers.
He also plans to reduce the cost of manufacturing and losses due to spoilage. This is achieved by cutting corners and employing the use of:
- By-products – Instead of fresh meats, Bob uses by-products like offals, hides, bones, hooves, beaks, nails, feathers, and even hair of animals – anything that the meat and leather industry throws out – for his pet food. He also considers using dead animals – those that die of diseases or during transport to slaughterhouses. These come cheaper than meat and still provide nutrition on paper. He cleverly calls them something like “chicken meal” or “meat derivative” so the customers wouldn’t notice that the meat has been replaced with a cheap substitute.
- Food Fillers – Bob sells his food by weight, so it’s in his interest that the pet eats more. But he doesn’t want to make it too expensive for the customer either. So he decides to use food fillers to add bulk to the food. He resorts to cornmeal, grain husks, sugarcane fiber, peanut shells, and other byproducts of the food processing industry as a filler for his product.
- Flavors & Colors – Bob wants to make his product visually-appealing for his customers. So he adds colors to his product. Red pellets for meat, green pellets for veggies, and so on. He must also ensure that his product is palatable and that pets like his food. Rendered fats, synthetic flavors and even taste enhancers such as sugar and MSG are added to the food. These get pets addicted to the food, so much that they’ll refuse to eat anything else if the customer decides to switch the brand.
- Preservatives & Stabilizers – Bob has to ensure that the meat byproducts (some of which are partly decomposed already) and fats added to the food are shelf-stable. He wants his product to be able to survive hot and cold temperatures, moisture and time. This is achieved by adding preservatives to the food. A mix of synthetic and natural chemicals are used to reduce oxidation and biological activity within the bag. This ensures longer shelf life and maximizes cost. He can now transport his food to longer distances and ask retailers to stock more food, for longer.
The Research, Regulations, and Reality of Commercial Pet Food Industry
You must have noted that not once did Bob talk about product innovation or even the health impacts of the pets that eat his food. As sad as it sounds, there hasn’t been much innovation or development in the field of pet nutrition in recent years. It’s important to understand that any research requires funding. And the only folks funding research around pet nutrition and pet foods are the pet food companies. Now Bob wouldn’t want to fund any study that may hurt his revenues. Would he?
There are also little to no regulations on the manufacture and sale of pet foods. Organizations like AAFCO and FEDIAF do have guidelines for pet food manufacturers, but they’re more or less toothless. In countries like India, there are absolutely no regulations on what’s sold in the name of food for dogs & cats. And even if there are, defaults attract virtually no penalties. Which means Bob can make and sell anything to our pets, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Sadly, Bob is not the only one. Most commercial pet food manufacturers, distributors and even the professionals recommending such food have no empathy towards our pets. They continue to flood the markets with nutritionally-dead products under the aegis of global brands. Processed pet foods are known to contain toxins such as aflatoxins, heterocyclic amines, acrylamides, and even PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in some cases. There are numerous reported cases of dogs and cats falling sick due to consumption of adulterated and otherwise poor quality pet foods.
Every year, the FDA issues close to 30-35 pet food recalls in the US alone. These recalls are issued for reasons like a nutritional mismatch, toxic contamination or adulteration. The UK and other European countries too issue several recalls due to poor quality and safety issues. In 2016, a major canned pet food brand was recalled for the presence of euthanasia drug. This should tell something about the risks involved with commercial pet foods.
How Kibble & Processed Food Affect our Pets
Chronic degenerative diseases, auto-immune diseases, allergies, kidney, pancreatic and liver disease are all rampant within pets feeding on commercial pet foods. Many independent reports have linked processed pet foods to cancer. Pets who do not develop any acute symptoms of poisoning from pet foods, still exhibit early aging and untimely deaths.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) are phenolic compounds often added to pet foods to preserve fats from turning rancid. BHT is also advertised as a dietary supplement for use as an antioxidant. Both are classified as carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). Ethoxyquin, another common preservative is shown to have similar properties to Agent Orange, a poison used during the Vietnam War.
Red 40, a dye commonly used to color the kibble red is known to cause lead poisoning. Yellow 6, the dye is found to cause adrenal gland and kidney tumors and contains small amounts of many carcinogens. Blue 1 and Blue 2 are known to cause brain tumors.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is used in many pet foods as a flavor enhancer. It’s usually disguised as “Brewer’s Yeast” or “Natural Flavoring” on the labels. MSG has been linked with sudden cardiac deaths and excitotoxic damages. Excitotoxins such as MSG can cause sensitive neurons to die. Cocaine-like addictive effects of MSG have also been recorded.
A study conducted by Dr. Gerard Lippert and Dr. Bruno Sapy on over 500 domestic dogs in Belgium revealed that pets who fed a processed diet (kibble or wet pet food) had a shorter life expectancy. These pets died up to 32 months sooner than pets who fed on a balanced homemade or healthy commercial diet.
If all pet foods are bad, what do we feed our pets?
Not all pet foods are equal. While there are many like Bob, there are others that truly care about what goes into their product, and its impact on the pets that eat it. But as responsible pet parents, the onus lies on you to conduct due diligence while choosing your baby’s diet.
While selecting pet food for your furry baby, consider the following things:
- Real Food is the Best – Food must look, smell and taste like food. Most kibbles and canned pet foods are far from appetizing. However, years of advertising has made us believe that they’re better than fresh meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. If you can prepare a balanced diet from fresh ingredients at home, there’s truly nothing better than that. If not, look for an option that doesn’t feed by-products, cheap fillers and toxic chemicals to your dog or cat.
- Read the Labels Carefully – While selecting a pet food, read the nutrition labels clearly. Although pet foods are not mandated by Indian law to list the ingredient and nutrition data on the pack. But those that truly care (or have to comply with import/export laws) usually have a label. Before buying a product, look for its ingredient list and check for suspicious items. If something doesn’t sound like food, ask the pet shop owner or simply Google!
- Do Your Research – Before you finalize the pet food for your darling, check its reviews. Also check for recent recall notices issued on the brand. If you’re still not confident about your choice, call up the food manufacturer’s helpline and clarify your doubts. Leave no stone unturned to ensure that your dog or cat gets a healthy and nutritious diet.
- Consult the Professionals (with Reasoning) – When your trainer or groomer recommends a pet food, ask them (politely) why they think it’s the right choice for your pet. If a vet recommends a food for your dog or cat, find out what distinguishes the product from the rest. Your vet should be able to address concerns on the quality of ingredients used, nutrient balance and the food’s clinical results.
- Don’t Go for the Cheapest Product – While there is no guarantee that an expensive product delivers superior quality and nutrition, the cheaper ones are usually worse. If a product is available for, say 100 rupees a kilo, think about how much they would have actually invested in the food. Remember, even the cheaper products have to spend on distribution, sales & advertising.
- Measure Results Periodically – Your responsibility as a pet parent doesn’t end at selecting the pet food. Every pet is different and may respond differently and unexpectedly to a food product. Every few months, while your pet is on the diet, conduct routine checks with a vet. Simple bloodwork and stool sample can tell you volumes on how your pet’s body is performing. It can also help you identify any diseases or deficiencies early on and facilitate a correct and accurate prognosis.
Your pet and his health are precious. Do not compromise on them by blindly opting for ‘the popular option’. Evaluate all available options carefully, and make a calculated buying decision. It’s for your baby’s safety and health, after all. We wish you happy pet parenting, and your pet a long and healthy life!
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