Food

The Pet Food Charade -- Pet Food Marketing Targets Pet Owners Emotional Needs and Not Pets' Health

Much of what determines pet food ingredients and labeling claims is marketing to pet owners and not the needs of actual pets.

Dogs happily drink from the toilet and snack on poop, and cats don't eat the prime cuts of meat from the mice they catch and leave over the organ meats, fur and bones. If our pets aren't all that discerning in what they eat, how do we know what's best to feed them? A great place to start is with Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim's recently published book, Feed Your Pet Right, a new kind of shocking expose that primarily consists of shockingly good news when it comes to pet food.

The book addresses two major points: 1) Aside from meeting requirements for animal nutrition and profitability, much of what determines pet food ingredients and labeling claims is marketing to pet owners and not the needs of actual pets; and 2) pets can safely and healthfully eat many things that humans find utterly disgusting.

While optimal dog nutrition and commercial dog foods hardly contain toilet water and poop, pet foods generally consist of the parts of meat animals that humans won't eat. On labels, these parts are divided into the meat itself and meat by-products (and by-products sounds decidedly worse to the human reading the pet food label) but whether an ingredient falls under the category of meat or meat by-product, it's almost always a part of an animal that a human would not want to eat. And, according to Feed Your Pet Right, that's fine. Not only do dogs and cats not mind eating human leftovers, they've done it for millennia (just not in the form of commercial pet food) and some of these parts contain vital nutrients that are not contained in the cuts of meat humans eat.

The overall theme of the book is that any pet food labeled "complete and balanced" is fine to feed your pet, and it's also fine to cook your pet's food, provided you know exactly what you're doing (the book contains a helpful guide). Most of the variation among pet foods is simply marketing, and often the ingredients of high-cost premium pet foods bear little difference to those of low-cost brands. The book, does, however, help you parse out the differences between real and bogus labeling claims. For example, claims of added vitamin C are bogus, since dogs and cats don't need vitamin C. On the other hand, certain pet foods really can make a pet poop more or less, so claims related to this might be legit.

A significant exception to the notion that all pet foods are essentially equal is food formulated to reflect human values. If you are looking for food produced organically by a local farmer, Meow Mix and Alpo probably aren't your best bets. Your pet could thrive on the commercial brands, but obviously pet food has an impact on the world just like human food does and you might care to ensure that environmental harm, human rights violations and animal cruelty aren't ingredients in the food you feed your pet.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book was reading through the lengths marketers will go to in order to sell these products. Did you know there is actually bottled water for dogs? Many brands include token amounts of various meats for marketing purposes only, including, for example, a minute amount of chicken in order to claim "Chicken Flavor!" And one brand, Pet Promise, presented itself as free of by-products when, in fact, it wasn't. It avoided including any by-product ingredients on the label by listing the actual organs included in the food. That's legal ... but those organs are still considered by-products.

All in all, if you own a cat or a dog, read this book. You will definitely learn a lot, you will most likely find a lot of good news, and, by learning how to read pet food labels and differentiate marketing from reality, you will very likely save money on future pet food costs.

I asked Marion Nestle a few questions about Feed Your Pet Right. Here's what she said:

Jill Richardson: You're one of the nation's foremost experts in human food. What turned your attention to pet food and convinced you to write this book?

Marion Nestle: Two things. The first had to do with the research for my book What to Eat, which came out in 2006. It is a book about how to think about what to eat and I used supermarkets as an organizing device for discussing food issues. At the time I was researching the book, the Wegman's supermarket in Ithaca, NY where I was doing a lot of the research, had a pet food aisle 120 feet long, cat food on one side and dog food on the other. I couldn't figure out what all that stuff was. The labels made no sense.

That's where the second reason comes in. My partner, Mal Nesheim, did his doctorate in animal nutrition. He had no trouble reading the labels because they are the same as the ones on animal feed. He's a retired professor from Cornell and I thought co-authoring a book on pet food would be a great retirement project for him and that we would have a lot of fun with it. Which, of course, we did.

JR: What surprised you the most when you began looking into pet foods?

MN: Commercial pet foods are pretty much all the same, nutritionally speaking. They have to be. In that sense they are like infant formula -- everything a dog or cat or baby needs in one product. Other surprises: the lack of high-quality comparative research on pet foods, the lack of nutrition education in veterinary schools, the close relationships of pet food companies to veterinary education and practice, the lack of adequate oversight ... I could go on and on. Everything we looked at was a revelation.

JR: You mention quite a few ridiculous products (or in some cases perfectly reasonable products with ridiculous marketing claims) in the book. Do you have a favorite that you found in the course of your research?

MN: So many to choose from. I particularly appreciated the $35 per pound treat that supposedly keeps dog pee from killing grass. Or how about the Organic brand kibble that did not have one single organic ingredient. Priceless.

JR: After the extensive amount of research you've done, can you sum up your advice to pet owners on choosing a food for cats or dogs?

MN: Nobody wants to hear this but it's really a matter of lifestyle choice. There is no one way that works best for all animals. The pet food industry produces products to satisfy the preferences of all kinds of pet owners: all meat, all vegetable, kosher, vegan, etc. You name it, they make it. The complete-and-balanced products mean owners only have to worry about quantity. But cooking for your pet is just fine. Raw diets can work. Just as with food for people, the choices are practically infinite. Some diets work better for some pets than others. A little experimentation can be useful.

JR: As a cat owner, I breathed a sigh of relief when I read your sections on meat by-products and rendered meats in pet foods. Can you share briefly what you found about the health and safety of their inclusion in pet foods?

MN: By-products sounds disgusting because we don't eat them but cats and dogs don't care what part of an animal their meat comes from. I was in a salmon cannery in Alaska this summer and saw the trim that goes into pet foods. Cats eating those fish racks are getting some gorgeous salmon in their food.

JR: Do you have any plans for your next book? Will you stick with pet food, go back to writing about human food, or do something else entirely?

MN: Mal and I had such a good time with this book that we are doing another one together for University of California Press. It's for humans this time and is about calories. The manuscript is due next March and it's scheduled for publication in 2012.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
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