Pet Food Lawsuits, Recalls, and Where Your Pet Food Comes From February 27, 2015 16:34

We have spent a lot of time this week answering questions about pet food safety, and our opinion on lawsuits and recent recalls, or lack thereof. In this week's blog we are going to compile the most pertinent information on this topic. I want to start by saying that our answer to the first wide spread pet food recall came several years before it drew national attention in 2007. Our answer came in the form of the development of our parent company in 2004, and the launch of our nutritional feeding trails for what would become Nature's Foundation Pet Foods.

Commercial pet food manufacturers have drawn heavy criticism from professionals vested in the wellness of companion and working canines since the mid 70s.Concurrent with the shift from family to factory farming, there were corresponding changes in the formulations of commercial pet food. Below I am going to share some of the ins and outs of the commercial pet food industry, and what you need to know to make safe choices for your pets. We at Buddy Gourmet adhere to the same regulations, hold the same licenses, and undergo the same inspection processes as all the biggest name pet food manufacturers. Let us explore where things may have gone wrong...

A surplus of food product not fit for human consumption....They really didn't want to feed it to livestock either...

Once upon a time canned pet food and human food were made in the same processing plants; both with nutritious ingredients . We have enjoyed working with some of the chemists who got their career starts formulating pet foods in the 60s. I remember specifically, one of them saying, "you know what the difference used to be between a tin of cat food and a can of tuna? The label." We have come a long way in understanding the nutritional requirements of companions, but it is a journey that is far from over, and we have taken some detours, by-products being one. 

It is important to understand that not all by-products are created equal. You have to take into consideration the preparation and source of ingredients. For example, "chicken meal" could be an acceptable ingredient (by a lot of people standards) as a high protein powder-form food additive and it might even contain a fair amount of muscle tissue. However, in the same factory there may be a generically labeled "meat and bone meal or animal by-product meal" containing diseased animals that have been transported without refrigeration and it may be mixed with euthanized zoo animals. By-products also don't come only in the form of animal, bone, and blood product (the questions during our inspection about our use of blood products can always be skipped and we are happy about that. Our inspector also appreciates not having to change his clothes before he drives back home.)

More commonly referred to as "fillers" there is a variety of agricultural waste being outlet-ted to pet food in the forms of corn or wheat as, corn gluten, corn meal, and wheat middlings. Even whole ground corn makes the list at times, but I assure you, this is not the delicious golden cobs you would be snapping up at the farmers market. Contaminated grain tops the list of culprits for many holistic veterinarians. Unacceptable levels of fungus and the toxins released by them as well as bacterial growth are some of the main reasons grain is sent for use in pet food instead of being processed for human consumption. 

Our commercial pet food industry provides the perfect answer to the question of what to do with Agricultural waste. In order for farmers to do well, their livestock must thrive and avoid illness. Live stock feed producers also have to contend with regulation that impacts animals being raised for consumption. To limit the spread of disease you cannot feed cows to cows, pigs to pigs, or chickens to chickens. Sadly, there is nothing that says you cannot feed dogs and cats to dogs and cats, but that is a topic for another day, preferably not after lunch.

There is little consequence when companion animals fail to thrive and sadly there are even benefits. Veterinarians make money, there is very little industry accountability, and people generally go on to purchase another animal. A small animal practice vet whom we work with in steady frequency fully admits that if pet owners got to the root of their dogs allergy issues instead of seeking constant treatment for symptoms, she would lose 30% of her annual income. Not many people would be willing to put that chunk of change on the chopping block. The lesson to take away here is to skip the by-products and understand that from bag to bag an ingredient with the same name does not mean they are equal. 

Wait... It sits there for how long?

So, after the your pet's food became an outlet for our country's unsavory agricultural by-products they had to keep it from rotting before it could be sold. Just how long does it have to stay fresh? On average, 24 months, and that is in unstable conditions such as temperature extremes and humidity variances. Keeping product fresh is no small feat, considering not much of it was any good before it went in to the bag. Kibble producers use a host of synthetic preservatives and as the industry calls them; anti-rancification additives. Over the past 4 decades we have seen many of the most common preservatives make their way on and off the FDA "Generally Recognized As Safe" list, either as they had been reformulated, or had new guidelines with revised parts per ml adjustments (meaning, they generally lower the quantity that is safe to consume). Several of these have been permanently removed and banned from use, even after a lengthy lifespan of use in the market place. We would be naive to think this couldn't happen again in the future.

So who's in charge here?

The bulk of oversight in agricultural feed production (this includes pet food- from seeds for your hamsters and birds, to canned products used for omnivores in zoos, and everything in between) is handled at the state level. Each individual state's department of agriculture has their own guidelines for sanitation, production, ingredient procurement, inspections, and labeling. Most states require you to register products for distribution, even if they aren't made there.

In light of a need for wide scale recalls, and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, the FDA has created a food producers database to help log complaints. All food facilities that produce pre-packaged products for the market place must register and maintain reporting. Outside of that, what is the FDA doing to protect your pet? - some experts say, not much. If you ask us, we will probably just blink and sit quietly, then let you make up your own mind.

 So who are the key players that set our nutritional standards? The FDA has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the AAFCO. Who are they? In their own words "The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies." (Taken from their website: www.aafco.org) They offer all of the VOLUNTARY guidelines for animal feed production. We do meet their guidelines, and proudly exceed them, but their standards were not our starting point for quality and safety.

Recalls, accidental or otherwise...

Part of our philosophy is "if it never goes bad, it wasn't any good to begin with". We have seen the plight of human food producers trying to balance health, safety, and consumer wishes. For example, a juice box company who did away with synthetic preservatives, but got a bad rap when a handful of juice containers developed mold in them. The battle between humans and bacteria/mold is age old. So we understand that even reputable companies may have a recall. After all, this is why we have the systems mentioned above in place to take swift action if a food contamination occurs. What happens though when chronic offense and complaints are ignored? The investigation of the 2007 pet food recall didn't just result in sniffing out moldy products, it uncovered something much greater; a deliberate contamination of food with melamine to increase protein content in laboratory testing.

Globally we have heard about dangerous substances making their way into baby formula as well. It wasn't until 2009 that much of the punishment was handed down to the bad actors behind so many pet illnesses and deaths. A handful of people were charged with various types of fraud, including money laundering and money wire fraud. The aftermath however, was not highly publicized and the public had moved on to concern about contaminated dog chicken jerky. The vast majority of the fault in the contamination didn't lie with the manufacturing companies, but the bulk by-product brokers. However, we think it is reasonable that periodic laboratory testing of incoming ingredients would have caught the problem. 

It is estimated that for any product category that requires government oversight less than 1% of consumers who have a complaint, illness, or even death (of a pet,or even loved one due to pharmaceuticals) file a report through the FDA. So when a lawsuit brings forward evidence impacting several thousand animals, we have to question the true expanse of the problem. 

The True Cost of Pet Food

We have to raise an eyebrow when people tell us how healthy their pet is; yet they are seeing the vet every other month for vomiting/diarrhea or their dog is having seizures; or they have been treating chronic skin and ear issues for 18 months. Those are not healthy dogs. We also cringe when people say, "oh, I'm shopping for a friend, I don't have a dog any more, mine died, he was old, he was 9". Sadly, they are generally talking about a Shi Tzu, and not a Great Dane. When you consider the quality per pound of dog food you are purchasing, you have to remember what else goes into that bag's bottom dollar. It covers the cost of ingredients, labor, licensing, packaging, advertising, transport and most importantly profit. Then you need to research how many of the issues you are visiting the vet for could be cleared up with diet. If you consider the cost difference between treating ongoing pet health issues with switching to a higher quality safe food, you would probably save enough money to purchase quality treats as well.

Now that we turned your world upside down, would you like to know what IS safe to feed?

There are some steps you can take to help ensure you are serving up a food that is nourishing your pal and not causing them health crisis. Your very first step is to read the label. If you don't know what something is, do a little research (that also means researching ingredients from more than one source) Use a critical eye when you are looking for the truth. Gather your information from trusted sources. From there, consider a company's track record. Do they have complaints? Do they import ingredients from other countries? Some pet food brands are so large that they don't even manufacture all their products themselves. Find out where the food is made, what is their track record. Did they let a box of hard hats go into a vat of puppy food and have it make it all the way to the big box pet store? (No, we didn't make that one up.) We like to use this as a comparison: if your local deli serves sandwiches on fresh bread and the bread started making people ill or even killed them, would you still go there to buy a muffin? We didn't think so. 

Additional Points of Interest

Some pet food manufacturers have been able to impede investigations into complaints about their products by claiming that detailed investigations threaten their right to protect their trade secrets. 

Not all foods are meant to be used long term. Many veterinarians are quick to place dogs on an unbalanced diet for the remainder of their life to treat a singular issue, like bladder stones for instance. These foods are often labeled "for interment use only". Pet parents owe their pups some additional research. There are often much more healthful alternatives. 

Do your own research - not just into what you should be feeding but also who some of the industry stakeholders are. Find out what role rendering plants, chemical producers, and other key player involvements are in your pet food company.