The earlier chicken jerky crisis and the prior and current pet food recalls— mostly from bacterial or other contamination, presence of heavy metals, and toxic levels of vitamin D — have raised consumer awareness levels about food sourcing. The pets who became critically ill or passed away are truly angel sentinels who saved thousands of others from the same fate. I often think the topic of food sourcing is brushed aside instead of really discussing solutions and acting on them. Think about it: a recall happens and you have several options to switch your dog or cat’s food or treats.
As an advocate of raw diets, properly prepared and balanced, I am pleased with its growing popularity among dog and cat caregivers. More manufacturers are answering the demand by adding raw, dehydrated, freeze-dried, or refrigerated products. An economist would say that this trend is good as it provides consumers with variety, educates consumers, drives prices down, and permeates regions that otherwise might not have access to these items. However, with regard to the pet food industry’s history, this sort of trend may compromise product quality.
Two primary tenets built the raw pet food industry: processing and food sourcing. The debate primarily focuses on processing. Food sourcing is rarely questioned as many raw producers already choose better quality meats, and organic fruits and vegetables. The belief that ALL raw or refrigerated foods are sourced ethically may drive consumers to purchase a product without thinking about what is in it and where it came from. Of course, this presumption could be applied to ANY pet food type – kibble, raw, dehydrated and home cooked.
As consumer education on this topic is increasing at an exponential rate, the public will demand food sourcing transparency. Our NutriScan saliva-based food intolerance test for pets detects adverse reactions to 24 commonly fed dietary ingredients. This is where food sourcing comes into play. If anything, food sourcing is more important for pets than humans, as pets are fed less variety than their human counterparts. They do not live as long or weigh as much on average either, so they can be more affected by what they eat.
Several reasons have been given for the failure of clinical signs to be relieved upon feeding a dog or cat a commercial limited antigen diets including: the presence of atopic (inhalant) dermatitis from environmental hypersensitivity or a non-allergic pruritic (itching) disease; improper choice of the limited antigen diet, unreliability or contamination of the selected diet with undeclared food sources; lack of owner or pet compliance; and residual allergenic fragments still present even in the hydrolysed diets (Ricci et al, 2013).
With that being said, the topic of food sourcing mirrors the food industry’s global enormity. Even concerned and knowledgeable consumers will concur that choosing products can be overwhelming. Our 2015 book, co-authored again with Diana Laverdure, “Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimal Health” (DogWise, 2015), delves into this topic at length. Since we strongly believe this topic needs more attention, I wanted to give pet caregivers six, easily remembered tips for when they go to purchase food for their pets.
Six quick tips
- Made in the XXX
- Made in a certain country does not mean the ingredients were sourced from the same country or even surrounding countries. Animal proteins are especially of concern. If a company cannot unequivocally tell you from where the meat is sourced, stay away. Make sure the farming practices from the source country have a good and reliable record.
- U.S. labeling
- Cage Free: The phrases “cage free” and “free range” do not pertain to what the animal was fed, but how humanely it was raised. While cage free is definitely an improvement over Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), the term is not regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). So, you will have to have faith that the producers are ethical in their claims.
- Free Range: In order to obtain labels bearing the claim “free range,” producers must provide a brief description of the housing conditions with the label, when it is submitted to USDA’s Labeling Program and Delivery Division (LPDD) for approval. The written description of the housing conditions is reviewed to ensure there is continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for over 51% of the animals’ lives, i.e., through their normal growing cycle.
- Grass-Fed: To use this on a label, the USDA requires farmers to ensure their animals have access to the outdoors during the grass growing season, which could be only six months out of the year in some states. The diet should be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. This is definitely preferred and we hope the USDA will make the guidelines more stringent.
- Has this company had any recent food recalls? If so, what was the reason: ingredient sourcing or equipment? Has it been adequately addressed, as far as you can discern?
- Is the food declared to be free of wheat, corn and soy?
- What about glutens other than wheat ( barley, rye, oats unless labeled gluten-free, kamut, spelt, farro and couscous)?
- What about peas, pea fiber and pea protein ( in many pet foods) and soy— these are phytoestrogens than can delay puberty and impair fertility in breeding stock.
- Does the food contain rosemary, oregano, fennel or sage (many pet foods do), which should not be fed if your dog is an epileptic.
- Remember that commercial dry foods can contain other ingredients than those declared on the label. So, if your dog appears not to tolerate the food you select, this could be one of the reasons.