Updated 8/10/16 (original publication date 9/1/11). Any good veterinarian is learning all the time. These issues do not apply to any individual, but the criticisms of the pet food industry are 100% valid. Here are some of the worst myths propagated about how to choose a wholesome pet food.
Myth: A whole food protein source must be first in the list of ingredients.
This very old trick, begun by Pedigree in the 1990s, consists of listing a named meat, such as chicken, at the top of the ingredient list of dry pet foods. This deceit has been so successful that it has been universally adopted by the vast majority of pet food makers (except those whose target market shops by price alone, and never reads a label or even thinks about quality). This continues to be an inaccurate way to assess most dry pet food.
On a pet food label, ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, and chicken meat is about 65% water. Not only that, but in order to make the ingredient work in the formula, they add 10% of that high-moisture chicken to 90% water, and the resulting slurry is the “water for processing” that you used to see labeled on many foods. The amount of pure chicken protein in “chicken” on a dry pet food label is probably less than 3%. Protein products further down the list, such as chicken meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, etc., are lightweight dry ingredients that make up the majority of protein in the food.
Even though it’s primarily a marketing ruse, it is better to see “chicken” at the top of the ingredient list than “ground yellow corn” or “meat-and-bone-meal.” But you have to look deeper to discover what kind of food it really is.
Myth: The best foods contain a named animal protein “meal,” such as chicken meal.
Almost without exception, meat meal (indeed, virtually every kind of meal) is found only in dry food. This advice would eliminate foods made by canning or other processing methods, pretty much all of which are preferable to the extrusion or baking that dry foods undergo.
Meat meals are rendered products; i.e., boiled in a giant vat for 30 minutes or more. The fat rises and is skimmed off the top; it’s valuable for many purposes, including pet food, cosmetics, pesticides, and many other industrial uses. Water is then extracted, leaving a dry, brown powder that is almost pure protein; it’s perfect for kibble.
However, there are big differences among the animal products found in pet food.
Meat includes only striated muscle meat, which is found in muscles, diaphragm, tonue, heart, and esophagus. The term meat is restricted to just four species: cattle, goats, sheep, and swine.The most equivalent avian product is poultry, or a named poultry species such as chicken or turkey, except that poultry products may contain bone. Meat and poultry are fresh, non-rendered products.
Meat meal may contain other parts that naturally go along with the meat, such as fat and skin, but no other extra material, such as blood, hair, hoof, horn, manure, stomach, and rumen, can be added. “Lamb meal” and “pork meal” fall under this definition.
Chicken meal may contain bone, and is generally made from “backs and frames” — the ribs, vertebrae, and pelvis and remaining attached meat, left over after human-edible meat has been removed. Poultry meal is similar but may come from other meat-type birds such as quail, turkeys, or ducks. Heads, feet, and entrails are prohibited. These meals are rendered products.
So, where do the heads, feet, and entrails go? Chicken or poultry by-products (fresh, non-rendered; usually found in canned foods) or by-product meal (rendered; found in dry food) For fresh, non-rendered mammal tissues, the term is meat by-products.
By-product meal is rendered from non-meat portions of poultry; it includes things like necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and organs. The equivalent mammalian product is meat and bone meal (MBM). Some manufacturers are now using names like “beef and bone meal” and similar designations in order to get away from MBM’s well-deserved bad reputation. MBM and animal fat are the two ingredients most likely to contain the euthanasia drug pentobarbital. These are all rendered products.
Myth: All meat by-products and digests are bad.
Meat by-products are fresh and non-rendered; although quality varies greatly. However, they are not in themselves bad or harmful; a hunting canine or feline would naturally eat both meat and by-products of their prey. If the by-products are good quality and truly fresh, they are appropriate to feed.
Animal digest, on the other hand, is processed by enzymatic or chemical hydrolysis of “animal tissues.” The tissues used are typically very poor quality and not necessarily fresh.
Meat by-products are found in canned pet foods, while animal digest is a palatability enhancer sprayed onto the outside of kibble to give it a meat-like flavor.
Myth: It’s best to buy “human grade” foods. It is technically illegal to use this term with regard to pet food, unless every ingredient and the finished product are produced, transported, stored, and maintained in a human-edible condition according to federal statutes. This rule applies to not only the label but also websites, brochures, and other promotional matter.
No matter what the source of the ingredient, the instant it goes out the door of the slaughterhouse on its way to a pet food manufacturing plant, every ingredient as well as the finished product is automatically classified as “pet grade” or “feed grade.” To my knowledge, the only exception is The Honest Kitchen, to which a court ruling gave the legal right to make the claim of human grade. (Click here to read The Honest Kitchen’s detailed explanation.) The Honest Kitchen has proven that every ingredient it uses in its products are suitable for human consumption, and the products are manufactured in a human food facility.
Myth: Corn and soy are cheap fillers with no nutritional value.
I agree with the pet food companies on this detail: there are no “fillers” in pet food. Every ingredient has a purpose; why else would they buy it and use it? In the case of corn, the nutritional value is as an energy source–that is, a source of calories; and both corn and soy and their derivatives are used to boost the crude protein content of the food. Corn contains about 11% protein, and like any protein (including soy), it can be allergenic, but it’s not as common an allergy as many have claimed. However the high carb content of both corn and soy are contributors to the obesity epidemic in pets.
Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to avoid corn and soy: in the U.S., nearly all of it is genetically modifed (unless it is organic). Even leaving aside whether GMOs themselves are dangerous, GMO plants are soaked in massive amounts of glyphosate and other herbicides and pesticides that are extremely toxic.