Currently browsing posts about: Pet food

Dec 22 2009

Eating Liberally: Are pets responsible for climate change?

It’s been quite a while since Eating Liberally’s kat had a question for me, but this one certainly got my attention.  My book about pet food with Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, has just progressed past its second set of page-proof corrections and is slowly making its way to publication on May 11.  Here’s her question:

Let’s Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

Submitted by KAT on Tue, 12/22/2009 – 8:13am.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics.

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that “the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle,” according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book’s authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog’s annual diet–about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains–requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You’ve become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what’s your take on the Vales’ claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet – its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating–and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals–than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.

Dec 9 2009

FDA’s new pet health & safety widget!

After years of complaints about how hard it is to get information about pet food recalls, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has  taken a big step to solve the problem.  It just posted a new widget for pet health and safety.  Technophobic dinosaur that I am, I can’t figure out how to load it.  I went to the link above, copied the code, and pasted it, but I can’t get the cute web gadget to display.  All that shows on my screen is a link to the site.

The FDA hosted a webinar on Tuesday about how to use it.  Alas, I was off giving lectures and couldn’t tune in on it, but the FDA posted the conversation on the website.

Gina Spadafori at Pet Connection was on the call, has much better technical skills than I do, and managed the upload.  She talks about how the FDA has “gone all widgety” and has some cautiously optimistic things to say about it.

This web gadget ought to make it easy for FDA to give the pet community straight information about foods recalled and not.  And anyone who wants to track this sort of thing can look it up on the site or, maybe, download it.  Good idea!  Cheers to the FDA!  And let’s hope the FDA uses is early and often.

Aug 10 2009

Do the food safety bills apply to pet foods?

A comment by Sophie on my post about the food safety bills needs an immediate response to set the record straight.  She says:

It’s my understanding that this [bill] excludes pet food manufacturers….our pets were the canaries in the coal mine in the 2007 pet food recalls; they helped bring huge awareness to the food safety issue especially when baby formula was tainted with the same melamine problem that pet food was…but yet our pets get left out of the food safety bill?  Something isn’t right here…

On this point, not to worry.  H.R. 2749 most definitely does include pet foods.  Here, for example, is Section 101 (C)(i):

The term ‘retail food establishment’ means an establishment that, as its primary function, sells food products (including those food products that it manufactures, processes, packs, or holds) directly to consumers (including by Internet or mail order).
‘(ii) Such term includes–
‘(I) grocery stores;
‘(II) convenience stores;
‘(III) vending machine locations; and
‘(IV) stores that sell bagged feed, pet food, and feed ingredients or additives over-the-counter directly to consumers and final purchasers for their own personal animals [my emphasis].

All sections of the bill, including recall authority, apply to  pet foods and animal feed, as well as to human foods.  As another example, see Section 420 (c):

Order to Cease Distribution- If the Secretary has reason to believe that the use or consumption of, or exposure to, an article of food may cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, the Secretary shall have the authority to issue an order requiring any person who distributes such article to immediately cease distribution of such article [my emphasis again].

In this sense, the bill recognizes that we have only one (global) food supply and that this one (global) food supply feeds people, pets, and farm animals alike.

Jun 17 2009

Pesky problems with multi-nutrient supplements

It’s hard not to think of multivitamin supplements (which also include minerals) as perfectly safe, since the amounts of specific nutrients rarely exceed recommended levels.  But according to recent reports, formulation mistakes get made and these don’t always get caught by quality controls.  Here are two examples.

According to FoodProductionDaily.com, 25% of Adverse Event Reports (AERs) sent into the FDA last year concerned multivitamin supplements. This, says one supplement trade association, should not be interpreted to mean that there is anything wrong with the supplements.  Maybe not, but how about checking?

I say this because of the high zinc levels in the Nutro pet food recently recalled by Mars (see previous post).  Thanks to Sophie for sending a link to a report that some bags of the kibble contained zinc at more than 2000 ppm as compared to the 75 ppm that is supposed to be there.   This, of course, is why I keep insisting that everyone, not just pet owners, should be concerned about the quality of pet food.  We only have one food supply.  If a problem exists with pet food, it’s quite likely that something similar could happen to ours.

The take-home lessons:

  • For food manufacturers: Don’t trust the suppliers of vitamin/mineral mixes; test them!
  • For the government: How about requiring all supplement manufacturers to follow HACCP (science-based food safety) plans, with testing and quality control.
  • For customers (this means you): Contact the consumer affairs representative listed on the package label, ask if the company tests vitamin and mineral levels in finished products, complain if it doesn’t, and demand to see test data if it does.

Addendum: October 16, 2009: Thanks to Anthro for sending a link to this October 7 article from the website of the New England Journal of Medicine: “American roulette – contaminated dietary supplements.”   This is only to be expected from deregulated industries.

Jun 2 2009

What’s up with Nutro pet foods?

I wish I could answer all the questions that come in under Feedback but the one from Sophie about the recent recall of Nutro pet foods is on my mind, not least because it is so mysterious.

Some history: As I discuss in Pet Food Politics, Nutro brands were caught up in the melamine recalls in 2007.  The company initially recalled several lines of dog and cat foods.  When owners reported animals sick from eating brands that had not been recalled, Nutro recalled others.  In the wake of that mess, the company was sold to Mars Petcare (yes, the maker of M&Ms) later that year.

The present fuss: Since then, more than 800 pet owners have complained to a website, ConsumerAffairs.com, that their pets got sick or died after eating Nutro products.  Consumer Affairs’ Lisa Wade McCormick followed up by contacting the FDA and filing a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) to see what the agency had on consumer complaints about Nutro.  Someone at the FDA told her they were denying her FOIA request because Nutro was under investigation.  But then the FDA said it was not investigating Nutro.  But then, people who contacted Consumer Affairs said the FDA had talked to them about their sick pets. So was the FDA investigating Nutro or not?

While Consumer Affairs was trying to figure this out, Nutro announced its “voluntary” recall of dry cat foods, found to contain “incorrect levels of zinc and potassium…resulting from a production error by a US-based premix supplier.” Translation: The FDA does not have recall authority; all recalls are “voluntary.”   Zinc and potassium are essential minerals.  Vitamins and minerals in pet foods – or breakfast cereals for that matter – are added as  pre-manufactured mixes.

The Nutro press release says the company has had not gotten any consumer complaints about the recalled products but that cat owners should watch out for loss of appetite, refusal of food, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea.  These are precisely the symptoms that have been reported to Consumer Affairs over the last couple of years and that might be expected from zinc poisoning.

So how much zinc was in the pet food? The company press release did not give the amount of zinc found in its products.  Neither did the FDA.  The FDA announcement merely said that the premixes contained too much zinc and too little potassium.  Lisa McCormick, however, reports that levels of zinc in Nutro dog (not cat) foods were once found to contain 260 parts per million (ppm).  The AAFCO standard for zinc in cat foods is 75 ppm dry weight.  For dog food it is 150 ppm.

Would a level of 260 ppm be dangerous?  Nobody really knows.  According to the most recent National Research Council report, not enough information is available to establish a safe upper limit, but 260 ppm seems like it ought to be within tolerable limits.  But maybe it’s not?  For humans, the recommended intake level is about 10 mg/day with an upper limit of 40 mg/day.

So what is going on here?  In this, as in anything having to do with pets, I defer to Christie Keith, who writes about pets for petconnection.com and for the San Francisco Chronicle. In her recent column on the Nutro business, she lays out the issues as only she can do:

Call me crazy.  Call me a dreamer.  Call me a radical progressive liberal socialist.  Or instead, call the real FDA a failure as a watchdog on the American food supply – both human and animal – that it was created to protect…this was and is a story about the safety of Nutro foods…But I think there’s a much bigger story here.  The FDA works for us.  We pay its bills.  And it’s supposed to ensure the safety of the American food and drug supply for both people and animals…[The result is that] Nutro is left to mop up after a PR mess made all over the Internet, pet owners have no idea what to believe or what pet food to buy, and the FDA has nothing more to say.  We lose.  Our pets lose.  Even the pet food companies lose.  And that’s the story.

Let’s hope that the facts emerge soon.  In the meantime, a few conclusions seem clear.

For pet owners: Don’t buy recalled Nutro products for your pets (the list is in the press releases from Nutro and the FDA).  Insist that Nutro and every other pet food company give you information about what’s in the foods, how they know the amounts are correct, and what their test results show.

For pet food companies: Know your suppliers and test every every ingredient.  If you want your customers to trust your products, release the test results on your websites. 

For the FDA: Take pet foods seriously. I keep insisting that we only have one food supply, and it’s the same for animals, pets, and people.  If the melamine recalls taught us anything, it is that if something is wrong with pet foods, people foods will be in trouble too (recall: melamine in Chinese infant formulas).  And how about being more transparent about what you are doing?  That too might help instill trust.

For the government: How about funding some research on the dietary needs of dogs and cats.  The more we know about their nutrient needs, the more we will know about our own.

For everyone: Insist that the companies that make foods for people and pets tell you what is in their products, where the ingredients come from, whether they are testing, and what the results of those tests might be.

This is why pet food politics matter (and why I went to the trouble of writing a book about the melamine recalls).

May 16 2009

Weekend fun: dog food vs. pâté (and the winner is?)

I’ll bet that a study published by the American Association of Wine Economists will be a top candidate for this year’s IgNobel Prize (the prize given for “research that makes you laugh and then think”).  Investigators somehow convinced a bunch of volunteers to undergo a blind taste test of liver pâtés and dog food.  Participants knew that one of the samples was dog food, but not which one.  They gave the dog food the lowest marks on taste, but only 17% identified it as dog food.  Everyone else thought it was just bad pâté.  This must say something about the average American palate, alas.  To address that question, Stephen Colbert  did his own taste trial on camera.  Too salty, he says.  Indeed.

Apr 13 2009

Busy weekend: the Obama’s First Puppy and Fixing the FDA

In case you were wondering about my thoughts on what the Obamas should be feeding their new First Puppy, I did an interview with Obama Foodorama on that very topic: “The Obamas get a new puppy and policy issues get unleashed.”

And for my latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Full plate for Obama’s new FDA administrator,” I deal with the question of what the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, needs to do to fix the agency’s problems. She will need all the support we can give her.

Feb 9 2009

Pet food recall settlement: at last?

The courts have finally approved the settlement agreement for the class action lawsuit against pet food makers selling products contaminated with melamine.  This means that the payouts will begin sometime this year, maybe.   Legal wheels grind slowly, it seems (or maybe this isn’t slow?).

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