Video: Pet food: What should I buy?

updated 3/30/2007 4:21:34 PM ET 2007-03-30T20:21:34

Meat by-products. Wheat meal. Rat poison? Plastic chemicals?

OK, so just what’s in pet food, anyway? Thousands of pet owners have been asking themselves that question — especially after last week’s mysterious revelation by scientists at the New York State Food Laboratory that the Menu Foods pet-food recall was linked to aminopterin, a toxin used as rat poison in some countries. Matters got even more confusing on Friday when the FDA announced that while it didn't detect rat poison, the agency did find melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, in the recalled food.

When even national brands with a reputation for quality are caught up in a recall of this magnitude, it’s hard for a pet owner to know what to do. If you’re among those who have been anxious about where your dog or cat’s next meal is coming from, this Q&A may be helpful for you.

What exactly is in pet food?
Common ingredients in pet foods include grains such as corn, wheat and rice; chicken, beef, seafood, other meats or meat by-products or meals; and grain by-products such as wheat gluten, which is suspected to have been contaminated by rat poison in the recall.

How high is the quality of those ingredients?
It’s hard to say because labeling requirements don’t have much bite.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pet-food labeling, terms such as “gourmet,” “premium” and “natural” don’t have any official standing. Foods labeled as such aren’t required to contain any different or higher-quality ingredients or to meet any higher nutritional standards than any other complete and balanced pet food. And the famously secretive pet food industry is no different than, say, Coca-Cola when it comes to protecting its recipes, ingredients and manufacturing processes. It is, after all, a multibillion-dollar business.

What should I look for when reading the pet-food label?
Pet-food labels are easily manipulated, but here are some things to watch for:

According to the FDA, ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. Meat and poultry are heavy ingredients that contain about 60 percent water, so it doesn’t take much to land them at the top of the ingredient list. They might be followed by wheat, wheat middlings and wheat meal run. That sounds like three different ingredients, but it’s all wheat. If you removed the water from the meat and then weighed the meat against the various grain products in the food, surprise! The food contains a lot more grain than it does meat.

Choose a food with meat as the first ingredient. Look for meat with a name — chicken, lamb, turkey — rather than the generic term “meat.” You should also see meat or other high-quality nongrain proteins such as eggs or cottage cheese listed later on the label.

How 'bout those by-products?
Of all the ingredients that might go into pet food, by-products tend to have the worst reputation. Is it warranted? That depends on how picky you are about what goes into your pet’s mouth as well as who you talk to.

The term “by-products” can mean the trimmings from chicken breasts destined for grocery stores — or things you wouldn’t feed your worst enemy, let alone your best friend.

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The Association of American Feed Control Officials describes meat by-products this way: “The non-rendered clean parts, other than meat … lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves.”

If you visit Nestle Purina’s Web site, you’ll read that poultry and beef by-products are excellent sources of protein, secondary products produced in the same plants as beef or poultry processed for human foods. Poultry by-product meal includes ground, rendered (heat processed), clean parts of poultry such as necks, intestines and undeveloped eggs. Doesn’t sound that much different from what you’d see wolves or lions eating on the Discovery Channel, does it?

It goes on to say that meat by-products are also used in human foods, including specialty items such as liver, kidney, sweetbreads and tongue.

But Jean Hofve, a veterinarian in Jamestown, Colo., who was an official liaison to the Association of American Feed Control Officials for two years, says, “Meat by-products, by-product meal, and meat and bone meal are cheap meat substitutes. They are poorer quality protein sources.”

Video: Owners turning to homemade pet food Veterinary nutritionists point out, however, that it would be foolish for pet-food companies to produce unhealthy foods.

“Pet-food companies do not formulate and sell diets that are designed to hurt a dog or cat,” says Joe Bartges, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. “Not only would it be unethical and illegal, but not very smart business.”

What does ‘premium’ mean?
When you shop for pet food, you can find organic foods, raw foods, foods for indoor cats, foods for cats with hairballs, food for high-energy dogs, tiny dogs, obese dogs and all dogs in between. You’ll also see foods marketed as “premium,” “ultra-premium” or “super-premium.” What makes them different from Brand X at the grocery store?

“Premium foods are not always better than grocery store foods, but manufacturers of premium diets may use more expensive ingredients, have better quality control, do more research and analysis of their diets and feed them to animals in a controlled setting to ensure they are nutritionally complete,” says Craig Datz, a clinical assistant professor at University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbia, Mo.

Will a pricey niche pet food protect my dog or cat from the bugs and toxins that can contaminate grains and meats?
Not necessarily. Premium products have pluses, but no pet-food manufacturer is exempt from human error or just plain bad luck.

What kind of testing is done?
Some companies analyze each batch of food before releasing it for sale, while others do so only if a problem is suspected, Datz says.

But testing food prior to sale probably would not have helped in the Menu Foods recall. After the problem was recognized, the food was tested extensively for all known toxins that tend to occur in foods and was negative for all of them, says Richard Goldstein, associate professor of medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y., where pet-food samples were tested by the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center. “This substance was picked up on a very wide screening type of test. It’s not a substance you would have initially thought to look for,” he says.

Should I buy organic pet food?
Feeding an organic diet can’t hurt, but it’s no guarantee against contamination. Although organic foods can be expected to be free of pesticides or other chemicals, some toxins occur naturally.

Would a homemade diet be better for my pet?
Some people haven’t bought commercial pet food in years. They prepare their own, using the same meats and other ingredients they’d eat themselves.

“It’s bewildering to me why a fresh, varied, unprocessed diet based on whole foods is understood to be good for humans, but only a processed, packaged, unvarying commercial diet is good for dogs,” says Christie Keith of San Francisco, who breeds and shows Scottish deerhounds and writes frequently about pet nutrition.

A home-prepared diet offers the security of knowing exactly what’s in the food — no by-products or mystery meat. But a potential disadvantage of a homemade diet — besides being labor intensive — is dietary imbalance when recipes aren't complete and balanced. And some vets discourage feeding raw diets because of the risk of contamination when meat isn't handled properly. 

For pet owners interested in going this route, commercial raw diets that meet Association of American Feed Control Officials standards can be purchased at pet-supply stores, and plenty of reliable sources offer recipes for balanced diets. The University of California School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis will analyze homemade diets for a fee. But if you don’t aspire to be Julia Chowhound, let common sense rule.

How can I tell if something might be amiss with my pet’s food?
Inspect food after opening a new bag, pouch or can, Datz recommends. “If there is an unusual appearance or odor, it’s best not to feed it. If a pet has any kind of illness after eating a new diet, stop feeding and contact a veterinarian,” he says.

What should I do if I suspect a problem?
Always contact the manufacturer if you suspect something’s wrong. In fact, for concerned consumers these days, the most important information on the label isn’t the ingredient list but the phone number for the manufacturer. Use it to ask exactly what’s meant by the terms “by-products,” “natural,” “human-grade” and “organic”; whether they produce the food themselves or outsource it to another manufacturer; and what kind of testing they do for contaminants.

And if your pet is showing signs of ill health, contact your veterinarian.

What else can I do?
Consider feeding a diverse diet, veterinarian Hofve suggests.

“Feed different kinds, different brands, different protein sources. I think that’s what’s going to protect us,” she says. “So many times in the past when toxicities or deficiencies or problems have been found, it’s always been in animals that eat the same thing, year in and year out. Those are the ones that get in trouble.”

There’s nothing wrong with variety, but Datz says there’s no evidence that pets can benefit from it. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they won’t benefit from it. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have helped in the Menu Foods recall because so many brands were involved.

Bottom line? “I don’t know that anything we could have done would have prevented this,” Hofve says.

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