It's a dog-eat-dog world in the pet food industry—in some cases, unfortunately, quite literally. Although the natural foods trade has made strides during the past decade to help raise consumers' awareness concerning our food sources, the public has been much slower to translate that awareness to concerns about food for animal companions. Weak federal regulations for pet food labels make it difficult for a natural foods retailer to weed out the false claims by pet food manufacturers.
Although some stories of pet-food processing plants are reminiscent of meat-packing plants described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), thankfully it seems as if the pet-food paradigm has begun to follow the human one. "People think of their dogs and cats as part of the family," says Burton Miller, DVM, a holistic veterinarian and director of animal health at Nature's Answer Pets in Hauppauge, N.Y. "They want health for their pets in much the same way as they want health for their children."
Miller suggests that, while natural pet foods currently account for a relatively small segment of the overall pet food industry, more pet owners are demanding higher-quality products.
Michael Gagliardi, president of Integrated Pet Foods in Exton, Pa., agrees with Miller's assessment of the changing market. "Just 15 years ago, grocery stores represented 95 percent of all the pet food sold," says Gagliardi. "Today, that number is below 60 percent. The premium market went from just 1 percent of the market in the early '80s to more than 30 percent today. People want quality for their pets, and if they can't find it in the conventional stores, they'll go somewhere else for it."
According to American Demographics, there are an estimated 53 million dogs and 59 million cats in the United States, creating an annual market for pet food between $5 billion and $7 billion. There's money to be made in feeding our animal companions.
Natural foods retailers are faced with the daunting task of discerning nutritional value in a blizzard of marketing hype. When it comes to pet products, many store buyers find themselves outside their areas of expertise. What is the healthiest way to feed a pet? What constitutes "natural"? How do you distinguish between a product whose higher price is dictated by marketing costs from ones that are using higher-quality processing and ingredients?
Veterinarians disagree on the answers to those questions, but the general consensus is that the closer the pet's diet comes to what it would eat in the wild, the better.
"An ideal situation," explains Stacy Hershman, DVM, owner of Natural Vets for Pets in Nyack, N.Y., "is feeding your pet a homemade, unprocessed diet of raw meat and vegetables." The advantage of a raw diet, she says, is that pets get the natural protein, moisture and enzymes that are often lost in the cooking, processing and preserving stages of pet food manufacturing. Many consumers, however, have trouble finding the time to prepare fresh meals for themselves, much less for their pets, and so they are left trying to find the healthiest premade food available.
Several manufacturers have answered the call, each with its own philosophy of what's best for your customers' pets. "The main thing that separates natural pet foods from the conventional ones is the inclusion of chemicals or chemical preservatives [in the latter]," says Jeremiah Davis of Natural Life Pet Products in Girard, Kan. Preservatives, such as BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin, dramatically improve a product's shelf life but eliminate that product from the "natural" category. The premium brands use natural preservatives such as vitamins C and E, which are more expensive and usually allow for no more than a one-year shelf life.
A second line of differentiation is the quality of meat, vegetable and grain products used. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, which oversees product labeling and ingredient regulations for pet food, is ambiguous when it comes to its definitions and lenient when it comes to its allowances, explains Gagliardi. "The premium brands that are sold in the natural foods stores go well beyond what is considered '100 percent complete and balanced' [by AAFCO]." For instance, meat in some conventional products may come from what is referred to in the industry as the four D's—animals that are disabled, diseased, dying or dead before they reach the slaughterhouse.
The definition of animal by-products is another sticky point for many pet food manufacturers. By-products can refer to any part of the animal. Pet food that includes heart, liver, kidneys or bone is considered acceptable by veterinarians. But other ingredients, such as feathers, beaks, feet, teeth or hooves are not acceptable. Because of the definition's broad allowances, the term by-product is negative, so many premium manufacturers avoid it. Instead they list the specific animal parts used.
Including by-products doesn't necessarily disqualify a brand from being natural. The Auckland, New Zealand-based company Country Pets works on the widely accepted philosophy that dogs and cats are carnivores in the wild, and that a natural product should mimic a natural diet. "By-product is a very emotional term," explains Richard Osborn, the company's president. "We're talking about what is natural for a dog to eat. You can make natural cyanide. That doesn't make it safe to ingest cyanide. Dogs don't go out and graze with the sheep—they hunt the sheep. They don't eat corn, grass, rice or wheat any more than they eat hooves or horns. They eat meat."
Although Osborn admits that a raw meat diet would most benefit a dog, he says it is important to weigh nutritional value against safety. By blanch cooking and freezing its lines of dog food, Country Pets makes its products safe for delivery, while maintaing most nutritional content.
Shawn Messonnier, author of The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats (Prima Publishing, 2001) and veterinarian at Paws & Claws Animal Hospital in Plano, Texas, stresses the importance of learning to understand labels when choosing a pet product. "You need to look very closely," Messonier says. "If there is concern, call the manufacturer and ask specific questions."
An example of the vagaries of pet food labels is "product splitting." Even though it might look promising that a product offers lamb, chicken or beef as the first ingredient on its label, if the next three ingredients are various types of grains, the product might have more grain by weight than meat, explains Messonier. Another example of a potentially misleading claim is "no added preservatives." This statement does not necessarily pertain to the raw materials supplier who may have used any number of chemical additives or preservatives in basic ingredients.
The poor quality of many conventional, inexpensive pet food brands can, during a pet's life, be a serious detriment to an animal's health. Chronic diarrhea, skin disease, bladder infections and possibly cancer can be linked to the toxic or unsanitary constituents in low-grade products.
Experts agree that the only way to be 100 percent certain of the ingredients and processes that go into a pet food is to make it yourself from farm-raised and organic products—an idea outside the scope of most natural foods retailers as well as consumers. Beyond that, explains Hershman, look for organic, human-grade ingredients; make sure there is more meat than filler; be cautious of animal by-products; and, above all else, don't be afraid to ask the manufacturer questions.
"Each line of pet food has its own selling points," agrees Davis, "and each pet has its own individual needs. The best [a retailer] can do is try to find the widest array of options at the highest nutritional value."
Josh Dinar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 96-97
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 96
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 97