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January/February 2004
What’s Really in Pet Food?

A Report by the Animal Protection Institute

Plump whole chickens, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains, and all the wholesome nutrition your dog or cat will ever need.

These are the images pet food manufacturers promulgate through the media and advertising. This is what the $12.5 billion per year U.S. (roughly $30 billion worldwide) pet food industry wants consumers to believe they are buying when they purchase their products.

While manufacturers may appear to have the best interests of your companion animals at heart, they are generally more concerned about their stock prices and bottom lines. This may be especially true of pet food manufacturers owned by large, diversified, multinational parent companies. What this means for you is that if an inexpensive ingredient is available to replace a costlier one, many companies will make the substitution to save money. A few companies pride themselves on their “fixed formulas,” meaning that they always use the same ingredients. This may be good... if the ingredients are of acceptable quality to begin with.

What most consumers don’t know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a market for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered “unfit for human consumption,” and similar waste products to be turned into profit. This waste includes intestines, udders, esophagi, and possibly diseased and cancerous animal parts.

The majority of pet food companies in the U.S. are subsidiaries of major multinational companies with one, Nestlé, controlling about a third of the U.S. industry and a fifth of the global market. (Alpo, Fancy Feast, Friskies, Mighty Dog, and Ralston Purina products such as Dog Chow, ProPlan, and Purina One), Del Monte (9 Lives, Amore, Gravy Train, Kibbles-n-Bits, Nature’s Recipe), Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s Science Diet Pet Food). Other leading companies include Procter & Gamble (Eukanuba and Iams), Mars (Kal Kan, Mealtime, Pedigree, Sheba, Waltham’s), and Nutro (Natural Choice and Max Cat/Dog Food).

From a business standpoint, this is an ideal relationship. The multinationals have increased bulk-purchasing power; those that make human food products have a captive market in which to capitalize on their waste products, and pet food divisions have a more reliable capital base and, in many cases, a convenient source of ingredients.

There are hundreds of different pet foods available in this country. And while many of the foods on the market are similar, not all companies use poor quality or potentially dangerous ingredients.

Although the purchase price does not always determine whether a pet food is good or bad, the price is often a good indicator of quality. It would be impossible for a company that sells a generic brand of dog food at $9.95 for a 40-lb. bag to use quality protein and grain in its food. The cost of purchasing quality ingredients would be much higher than the selling price.

The protein used in pet food comes from a variety of sources. When cattle, swine, chickens, lambs, or other animals are slaughtered, the choice cuts such as lean muscle tissue are trimmed away from the carcass for human consumption. However, about 50 percent of every food-producing animal does not get used in human foods. Whatever remains of the carcass—bones, blood, intestines, lungs, ligaments, and almost all the other parts not generally consumed by humans—is used in pet food, animal feed, and other products. These “other parts” are known as “by-products,” “meat-and-bone-meal,” or similar such terms found on pet food labels.

The nutritional quality of meat and poultry by-products, meals, and digests can vary from batch to batch. James Morris and Quinton Rogers, two professors with the Department of Molecular Biosciences, University of California at Davis Veterinary School of Medicine, assert that, “There is virtually no information on the bioavailability of nutrients for companion animals in many of the common dietary ingredients used in pet foods…Claims of nutritional adequacy of pet foods based on the current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient allowances do not give assurances of nutritional adequacy and will not until ingredients are analyzed and bioavailability values are incorporated.”

Meat and poultry meals, by-product meals, and meat-and-bone meal are common ingredients in pet foods. The term “meal” means that these materials are not used fresh, but have been rendered. What is rendering? Rendering, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “to process as for industrial use: to render livestock carcasses and to extract oil from fat, blubber, etc., by melting.” Rendering separates fat-soluble from water-soluble and solid materials, removes most of the water, and kills bacterial contaminants, but may alter or destroy some of the natural enzymes and proteins found in the raw ingredients. Meat and poultry by-products, while not rendered, vary widely in composition and quality. The protein in a meal containing a large amount of bone may be poorly digestible and fail to provide adequate nutrition, even though chemical analysis will reveal an acceptable amount of amino acids.

Flavorings and Filler
Restaurant grease has become a major component of feed grade animal fat over the last 15 years. This grease, often held in 50-gallon drums, may be kept outside for weeks, exposed to extreme temperatures with no regard for its future use. “Fat blenders” or rendering companies then pick up this used grease and mix the different types of fat together, stabilize them with powerful antioxidants to retard further spoilage, and then sell the blended products to pet food companies and other end users.

These fats are sprayed directly onto extruded kibbles and pellets to make an otherwise bland or distasteful product palatable. The fat also acts as a binding agent to which manufacturers add other flavor enhancers such as digests. Pet food scientists have discovered that animals love the taste of these sprayed fats. Manufacturers are masters at getting a dog or a cat to eat something she would normally turn up her nose at.

The amount of grain products used in pet food has risen over the last decade. Once considered filler by the pet food industry, cereal and grain products now replace a considerable proportion of the meat that was used in the first commercial pet foods. The amount and type of carbohydrate in pet food determines the amount of nutrient value the animal actually gets. Dogs and cats can almost completely absorb carbohydrates from some grains, such as white rice. Up to 20 percent of the nutritional value of other grains can escape digestion. The availability of nutrients in wheat, beans, and oats is poor. The nutrients in potatoes and corn are far less available than those in rice. Some ingredients, such as peanut hulls, are used for filler or fiber, and have no significant nutritional value.

Two of the top three ingredients in pet foods, particularly dry foods, are almost always some form of grain products. Pedigree Performance Food for dogs lists ground corn, chicken by-product meal, and corn gluten meal as its top three ingredients. 9 Lives Crunchy Meals for cats lists ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, and poultry by-product meal as its first three ingredients. Since cats are true carnivores—they must eat meat to fulfill certain physiological needs—one may wonder why we are feeding a corn-based product to them. The answer is that corn is a much cheaper “energy source” than meat.

Standards for Ingredients
Pet food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by the AAFCO. These standards were formulated in the early 1990s by panels of canine and feline nutrition experts. A food may be certified in two ways: by meeting AAFCO’s published standards for content (“Nutrient Profiles”), or by passing feeding tests or trials. While most researchers agree that feeding tests are superior in assessing the nutritional adequacy of a food, clinical experience as well as scientific studies have confirmed that even foods that pass feeding trials may still be inadequate for long-term maintenance. Also keep in mind that the standards set only “minimums” and “maximums,” not “optimums.”

What can the feeding of such products do to your companion animal? Some veterinarians claim that feeding slaughterhouse wastes to animals increases their risk of getting cancer and other degenerative diseases. The cooking methods used by pet food manufacturers—such as rendering, extruding (a heat-and-pressure system used to “puff” dry foods into nuggets or kibbles), and baking—do not necessarily destroy the hormones used to fatten livestock or increase milk production, or drugs such as antibiotics or the barbiturates used to euthanize animals.

Commercial pet foods and some pet food ingredients have been implicated in a number of diseases in companion animals. Allergic skin disease, obesity, food intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic ear infections, cystitis (bladder inflammation), bladder and kidney stones, certain heart diseases, pancreatitis, feline hyperthyroidism, hip dysplasia, canine mammary cancer, bloat, and diabetes all have nutritional factors that are suspected or known to play a role in inducing or perpetuating these diseases. Thus, it is crucial that we, as caregivers, pay close attention to what we are feeding our animals and how they are reacting to the food.

One potential problem with commercial pet food is pesticide residues, antibiotics, and molds contained in pet food ingredients. Meat from sick animals may be loaded with drugs, such as penicillin and pentobarbital, some of which are known to pass unchanged through all the processing done to create a finished pet food. Between 1995 and 1999, there were two major recalls of dry dog food by different manufacturers due to mold contamination of grain ingredients. Some fungal toxins are very dangerous. The second recalled food killed more than 20 dogs.

One of the biggest problems with commercial foods is the processing they undergo. Meals are rendered (cooked) at moderate to high temperatures for hours. Extruded foods pass through a steam heat/high pressure device that allows them to “puff” into kibble shapes when they come out of the machine. Even though they move through the extruder quickly, the extreme conditions may alter or damage some nutrients.

Pet food manufacturers are aware of these factors, and most add sufficient extra vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to compensate for losses in the manufacturing process. However, because the AAFCO profiles set only minimums for many nutrients, tests have shown that some minerals may be added to the food in excessive amounts.

Selecting a Commercial Pet Food
Commercial pet food is a great convenience for busy caregivers. You want the best for your companion animals, but with a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from, how do you decide what’s best for your companions?

The most reputable manufacturers of “superpremium” and “natural” foods agree with holistic veterinarians and other experts that the very best diet for your animal companion is one that you make yourself.

For those of us who rely, partially or entirely, on commercial foods for our animals, API has prepared a checklist to use in selecting a good-quality diet.

Our extensive research has revealed that the pet food industry is extremely secretive. Manufacturers will not disclose very much information about the sources of ingredients, how they are processed, their quality control standards, or, in some cases, even where the food is made. So, this checklist gives you, the consumer, the best chance of selecting the best foods among the choices available.

Pet Food Shopping Checklist
• When selecting a commercial food for your animal companion, make sure the label has an “AAFCO guarantee,” preferably one that references “feeding tests” or “feeding protocols” rather than Nutrient Profiles.

• Never buy a food containing “by-product meal” or “meat and bone meal.” These rendered products are the most inexpensive sources of animal protein. The contents and quality of these meals can vary tremendously from batch to batch, and are not a reliable source of nutrition for your animal.

• In general, avoid foods that rely on by-products as the sole source of animal protein. By-products consist of organs and parts either not desired, or condemned, for human consumption. An occasional can of by-product-based food may be okay, since, in the wild, carnivores do consume the whole prey including the organs, but these foods are not acceptable as a steady diet.

• Look for a named meat or meal (“lamb” or “chicken meal,” for example, instead of the generic term “meat”) as the first ingredient.

• Avoid generic or store brands. These may be repackaged rejects from the big manufacturers, and generally contain cheaper—and consequently poorer quality—ingredients.

• Unless specifically recommended by your veterinarian, avoid “light,” “senior,” “special formula,” or “hairball formula” foods. These foods may contain acidifying agents, excessive fiber, or inadequate fats that can result in skin, coat and other problems.

• In general, select brands promoted to be “natural.” While they are not perfect, they may be better than most. Several brands are now preserved with Vitamins C and E instead of chemical preservatives (such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate). While synthetic preservatives may still be present, the amounts will be less.

• Check the expiration date to ensure freshness.

• When you open a bag of dry food, give it a sniff—if there is any rancid odor at all, return it immediately for an exchange or refund.

• Store dry pet food in a sealed non-porous container (a large popcorn tin is ideal) in a cool, dry place. Canned food is best removed from the can and refrigerated in a glass or ceramic container.

Pet Food Label “Rules”
• The 95 percent Rule: If the product says “Salmon Cat Food” or “Beef Dog Food,” 95 percent of the product must be the named ingredients. A product with a combination label, such as “Beef and Liver for Dogs,” must contain 95 percent beef and liver, and there must be more beef than liver, since beef is named first.

• The 25 percent or “Dinner” Rule: Ingredients named on the label must comprise at least 25 percent of the product but less than 95 percent, when there is a qualifying “descriptor” term like “dinner,” “entree,” “formula,” “platter,” “nuggets,” etc. In “Beef Dinner for Dogs,” beef may or may not be the primary ingredient. If two ingredients are named (“Beef and Turkey Dinner for Dogs”), the two ingredients must total 25 percent, there must be more of the first ingredient (beef) than the second (turkey), and there must be at least three percent of the lesser ingredient.

• The three percent or “With” Rule: A product may be labeled “Cat Food with Salmon” if it contains at least three percent of the named ingredient.

• The “Flavor” Rule: A food may be labeled or “Turkey Flavor Cat Food” even if the food does not contain such ingredients, as long as there is a “sufficiently detectable” amount of flavor. This may be derived from meals, by-products, or “digests” of various parts from the animal species indicated on the label.

This is an edited version of the Animal Protection Institute’s eye-opening investigative report, “What’s Really In Pet Food,” and FAQ sheet, “Selecting a Commercial Pet Food.” To read the report in full, print FAQ sheets, or learn more about API, visit Reprinted with kind permission.

Iams Dishes Out Pain and Suffering

Anyone who chooses to buy commercial “pet” food for their companion animals should be aware that many of the popular manufacturers conduct cruel tests on dogs and cats.

For nearly 10 months, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) conducted an undercover investigation in a laboratory contracted to perform nutritional research for Iams. What PETA’s investigator witnessed and was able to capture on hidden camera would outrage any caring individual: dogs gone crazy from confinement to barren steel-and-cement cells; dogs left on a paint-chipped floor after having their vocal chords severed and part of their leg muscles hacked out; dogs who were sweltering in scorching heat and shivering in bitter cold; sick dogs and cats languishing in their cages, neglected and left to suffer with no veterinary care.

PETA is encouraging people with animal companions to boycott Iams products until Iams stops hiring laboratories. More than 30 companies (many of which offer vegetarian dog and cat foods), such as Evolution Diet, Harbingers of a New Age, Natural Life Pet Products, Petguard, Veterinary Nutritional Formula, and Wysong Professional Diets, conduct humane testing. A complete list of forward-thinking companies that do not test on animals can be found on PETA’s website For more information, please also see “Cruelty in Iams Contract Laboratories” in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of IMPACT Press: (
—Courtesy of Heather Moore and Peter Wood, PETA

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