The truth about cat and dog food

Deadly toxins recently discovered in pet food raise the question: What, exactly, is in those bags and cans of processed meal we pour into Buster's dish every day?

Published May 24, 2007 11:01AM (EDT)

Dick Van Patten eats dog food. At least, that's what the former "Eight Is Enough" actor will have you believe in publicity stunts for Dick Van Patten's Natural Balance Pet Foods, the company to which he hitched his falling star back in 1989. A tour of the company's Web site features photos of Van Patten, smiling stiffly alongside such celebrity notables as former 'N Sync singer Lance Bass and ex-"Baywatch" actress Traci Bingham, dipping their spoons into colorful cans of Natural Balance Eatables for Dogs!

Call me crazy but it's going to take a lot more than an endorsement from Hollywood's B-list to convince me to dig into a can of dog chow, and I suspect I'm not alone in that sentiment. In fact, given recent events, more than a few pet owners are wondering whether we should even be feeding pet food to our pets.

The mass media has certainly been on a pet food diet in the past few months, thanks to the reporting frenzy surrounding Menu Foods' recall, beginning in March, of more than 100 brands of pet food. The tainted products, which allegedly killed or sickened thousands of dogs and cats, ranged from cheap Wal-Mart store brand Ol' Roy to high-end labels such as Iams and Eukanuba.

This isn't the first big pet food recall to come down in recent years. In December 2005, more than 100 dogs died of liver failure after eating food manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods. The products contained corn tainted with aflatoxin, a toxin released by a naturally occurring crop fungus. Aflatoxin should have been detected at any number of testing points along the way from cornfield to finished product, says Donald Smith, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. "For some reason, something didn't happen in the testing process," he notes.

Unlike the aflatoxin outbreak, the latest recall involved chemicals that no one knew to look for. The products produced by Menu Foods contained wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, a flame retardant and component of some plastics. Earlier this month, government officials reported evidence that the foods may also have contained cyanuric acid, a chemical often found in swimming pools. The chemicals apparently triggered kidney failure in dogs and cats that ate the tainted foods.

The Chinese companies that produced the wheat and rice proteins allegedly spiked the products with chemicals in an attempt to dupe buyers; high in nitrogen, the chemicals made the products appear to contain more protein than they actually did. It's safe to say that American pet food manufacturers didn't intend for melamine to wind up as an additive in their kibble. "The problem was a toxin," says Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at the Ohio State University. "If you put arsenic in someone's tea, it's not the tea's fault."

Maybe not, but the recalls have served to highlight vulnerabilities in the manufacturing of processed foods -- both pet and human foods. Weaknesses in pet food regulation may have contributed to the recalls, says Smith. Or, he says, it may have been a matter of luck that this time, the melamine ended up in the dog's bowl and not your own. "This has been a canary in the mine," he says. "It's a wake-up call."

Pet owners like Melissa Hull, a small-business owner in southern Maine, have certainly taken notice. Hull admits she and her husband "were definitely aware of potential scary things" in their cat Smokey's commercial pet food, even before the recall. But the incident drew new attention to the fact that so many pet food ingredients originated on the opposite side of the globe, in countries like China that "have no FDA," she says. "It definitely opened our eyes to just how poor the quality is."

Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut introduced legislation to upgrade the country's food safety system, both for humans and their pets. Among other things, the legislation would give the FDA authority to order mandatory food recalls and would establish uniform federal standards for pet food. As it stands now, pet food falls into something of a regulatory gray area.

Most states follow pet food guidelines published by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. These regulations touch on everything from labeling to contaminant testing to nutritional requirements. But the guidelines are only suggestions, and AAFCO itself has no regulatory authority. "Most of the routine day-to-day pet food regulation is performed by the states," explains AAFCO Pet Food Committee chairman David Syverson, and state laws and enforcement programs vary. At the federal level, the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine requires that animal feed be "pure and wholesome" and "safe to eat," but there's currently no requirement that pet foods have FDA approval before they hit store shelves.

Another weakness, Smith points out, is the lack of a federal agency to monitor outbreaks of illness or disease in pets. The Center for Veterinary Medicine has received thousands of complaints from pet owners who believe their dogs and cats were poisoned by melamine. But tracking disease, Smith says, isn't part of the agency's mandate. Even if it were, it simply doesn't have the budget to do it. "We don't have an equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control in companion animals," he says.

While pets may not have their own CDC, they do have a place in our hearts. Sixty-three percent of U.S. households own cats or dogs, and people drop more than $15 billion each year on pet food. They're a loyal bunch, says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute, a lobbying group that represents the manufacturers of 98 percent of the dog and cat food produced in the United States. According to Ekedahl, Pet Food Institute surveys found that consumers are more loyal to their pet food brand than to any other products in the supermarket, with the notable exception of soda.

So what, exactly, is in those cans and bags we pet owners buy so loyally, month after month? "Protein is really the most important ingredient in the nutrition of a carnivore," says Jean Hofve, a Denver veterinarian and former official liaison to AAFCO. But not all protein is created equal, and therein lies the problem.

Consider that checkerboard classic, Purina Dog Chow. Ingredient No. 1 is ground corn, followed by poultry byproduct meal, animal fat and corn gluten. Purina Cat Chow is similar, with poultry byproduct, corn meal and corn gluten taking the top three spots on the ingredient list. Real meats like chicken, beef or lamb are nowhere to be found. "There aren't enough high-quality ingredients to make all the pet food sold in this country," Hofve says. "Somebody is using the crap."

Traditionally, much of the protein in pet food comes from animal byproducts. The pet food industry nicely parallels the human agricultural industry, providing a convenient way for food producers to use up the spleens and bones and chicken feet that American consumers don't have the palate for. Even diseased and dying animals are allowed in pet food, as long as they're processed in such a way to destroy any microorganisms, Syverson says. All of those myriad pieces and parts end up as appetizing ingredients like "poultry byproduct meal," "meat-and-bone meal," and "animal digests."

Pet food is also a handy way for meat processors to get rid of brains and spines from cows and sheep -- the parts with a high risk of housing prions, the rogue proteins that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. While such parts are banned from human foods and from animal feed intended for cows and other ruminants, they're A-OK for the family pet. No dog has ever been diagnosed with a mad cow-like disease, but as many as 90 cats in the U.K. are known to have contracted feline spongiform encephalopathy. Most of those cats are thought to have snacked directly on raw scraps from butchers, and according to Syverson, the FDA considers the threat to American cats "minimal."

The good news for pets and owners is that animal byproducts in pet food may not be as gruesome as feared. For years the pet food industry has been, well, dogged by persistent rumors that meat from horses and from euthanized cats and dogs finds its way into pet food. "They do not use horse meat," Ekedahl says, and "as a condition of membership, [Pet Food Institute members] affirm that none of their rendered material will contain cats and dogs. The public just wouldn't stand for it."

So we're probably not feeding cats and dogs to our cats and dogs. Of course, a quick glance at the ingredient lists of that Dog Chow (and most other major brands) reveals that much of the protein doesn't come from animals at all. "Glutens and soybeans and rice protein concentrate -- those are cheap substitutes for real meat," Hofve says. "Protein is the most expensive ingredient, and it's the one that's going to get shortchanged."

Hofve takes issue with grain-based pet foods for nutritional reasons. But she also notes that, whether it's a coincidence or not, most of the major pet food recalls have been associated not with the poor-quality meat byproducts used in pet food, but with grains.

In the case of melamine, the contaminated grain products slipped across the border undetected. The 2005 aflatoxin contamination, on the other hand, involved corn grown on American soil during an unusually wet and fungus-prone summer. According to Ekedahl, most of the meats and grains used in pet foods are produced in the U.S. But "there are some ingredients that come in from overseas, because that's where they're available," he says.

Certain vitamins and additives are generally imported. The amino acid taurine, for example, is almost exclusively produced in China. Taurine is an essential additive for cats; they must get the amino acid from their diet or risk suffering blindness and heart damage. Other ingredients, particularly vegetable proteins, are also frequently imported. "Take wheat gluten -- that's not an inexpensive ingredient," says Ekedahl. "The primary availability of wheat gluten is in China, and we get a very fine product from China."

But Cornell's Smith points out that availability and price go hand in hand. In fact, he says, U.S. producers of wheat gluten "have not been working at full capacity because they've been outbid by foreign suppliers." Despite the recent scandal, Ekedahl says most pet food manufacturers plan to continue doing business with those foreign companies. "For the most part, they have great confidence and long-term relationships with their suppliers," he says.

Pet food manufacturers have been running scared since the recent recall. A spokesman for Natural Balance Pet Foods said the company, besieged by calls, had stopped speaking to the media. Repeated phone calls to other major manufacturers, including Purina, Procter & Gamble (the makers of Iams), Hill's Pet Nutrition and Menu Foods were not returned.

To be fair, even those critical of the major pet food manufacturers, such as Hofve, admit the melamine contamination was something of a fluke. No one tested for it because no one expected it to ever turn up in food products. Most American pet food manufacturers generally "do a pretty good job of testing," she says. Human foods are recalled much more frequently than are pet foods, she notes. "When I started looking at pet food, I became really afraid about what was going into pet food, but I was even more afraid about what goes into human foods," she says.

While pet food may not be uniquely vulnerable to contaminants, however, cats and dogs themselves may be more sensitive to them. Our pets are usually a lot smaller than we are, and they eat the same thing day after day. "Because we eat a lot of different foods, toxins that come in are diluted," Hofve says. "If we ate one thing all the time like most pets do, we'd be in a lot more trouble. Variety really is the spice of life, and our pets should eat variety too."

Hofve practices both traditional and holistic veterinary medicine for cats. She's convinced that the ingredients in most commercial pet foods are harming our animals, contributing to conditions such as diabetes and obesity. "The amount of carbohydrates and the quality of the protein [in most commercial diets] are damaging to health over time," she says. "Our pets are carnivores."

AAFCO's Syverson acknowledges that proteins aren't entirely interchangeable. Lamb and wheat gluten contain different sets of amino acids. But along with the glutens and the bone meals, commercial pet foods contain additives (such as the taurine imported from China) to ensure that they are "complete and balanced," Syverson says. That's good enough for him. The Syverson family dog lived to age 18 on an inexpensive diet of grain-and-beef-byproduct kibble.

Buffington, the Ohio State veterinarian, also believes that most pet food is nutritionally complete. "Many people are concerned about ingredients. I think those concerns are misplaced," he says. He suspects that some dogs and cats, like some humans, may have genetic predispositions to certain diseases. In pets as in humans, those diseases may be "unmasked" by something in the environment or the diet. But American pets being fed sufficient quantities of commercial pet food are hardly malnourished, he says. "From a nutritional point of view, deficiencies are nonexistent [in pets] in North America."

With disagreement even among vets, it's no wonder many consumers resign themselves to buying the same old bags of pet foods time and again. A trip down a supermarket's pet food aisle is a lot like a trip down the cereal aisle -- dozens of choices, Technicolor packaging, and big, bold marketing claims. You can find pet foods that minimize hairballs, keep your cat's urinary tract squeaky clean, or protect your pooch with vitamin-packed spinach and beets.

It goes without saying that Rover and Tiger aren't selecting their own food. Health-conscious humans stocking up on blueberries and pomegranates for their antioxidant punch naturally want to do good by their furry family members. Yet any given ingredient -- carrots, for example -- only needs to make up 3 percent of the pet food's total weight for the phrase "with carrots!" to appear in colorful block letters on the front of the bag.

"Many companies will put a token amount of vegetables in to have a label presence," says Peter Atkins, president and co-founder of Natura Pet Products, one of a growing number of small "holistic" pet food producers. "Does it do anything for the dog or cat? The answer is no."

While ingredients like antioxidants probably are beneficial in high enough quantities, "most haven't been fed in trials to understand what effects they have," says Quinton Rogers, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. "There is so much faddism in human food as well as pet food," Rogers says. And despite the bevy of health claims listed on pet food labels, only two FDA standards for pet foods actually exist: growth formulas for puppies and kittens, and maintenance formulas for adults. "Everything else is fluff and marketing," Hofve notes.

Don't tell that to Natural Balance's Dick Van Patten or to Natura Pet Products' Peter Atkins, who whips out an analogy of his own to describe the difference between average pet food and small niche brands like his. "It's like buying a Hyundai or buying a Mercedes," Atkins says. "You can get basic nutrition or you can get top-of-the-line holistic nutritional support."

For pet owners who want nothing but the best and have money to burn, top-of-the-line nutritional support may be out there. But let's face it. The average American doesn't have a great record of questioning the ingredients in his own food (Olestra, anyone?), let alone those in his pet's.

A wild cat might not eat oats and wild dogs may not crave corn, but after thousands of years of domestication, our pets aren't truly wild. A feral cat might subsist on birds or chipmunks, but it probably won't sleep on your feet or live to age 20. "There have been a lot of cats and dogs raised on various pet foods their whole lives, without any observable problems," Rogers notes.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. McDonald's now serves salads, after all, and the $15 billion pet food industry, too, may have to change if customers demand it. Although the Menu Foods scandal is only the latest in a line of recalls, its size and scope have placed pet foods on the public's radar screen. "This is a catharsis for the industry," Atkins predicts. "At the end of the day I think it will be for the better; we'll take a real strong look at where ingredients originate and make sure companies are vetted and ingredients checked very thoroughly."

Hofve hopes the latest recall will force change, but she's skeptical that the government will put its money where our mouths are. The entire annual budget of the FDA is around $2 billion; only a fraction of that is spent on inspecting the foods eaten by people and their pets. Food safety hasn't been a priority for the feds, Hofve says, yet the recent outbreak of toxins in pet food "is nature's way of saying: Pay attention."

By Kirsten Weir

Kirsten Weir is a science writer who lives near Portland, Maine.

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