by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Pet food

Feb 11 2015

The buying and selling of pet food brands

Dave Love @davelove1 sent me a tweet: @marionnestle what do you think about big food companies buying pet food brands?

His question referred to an article in the Washington Post titled the McDonaldization of pet foods.

The New York Times also covered the issue that triggered this question: the purchase by Smucker of Big Heart Pet Brands, “the company once known as Del Monte.”

That rang a bell.

In my book with Malden Nesheim about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were so intrigued by how big food companies buy and sell pet food brands that we did a figure using Del Monte as an example.

I can’t figure out how to make this diagram bigger but you get the idea: current Del Monte (now Smucker Big Heart) holdings are the result of the merger and acquisition of five original companies and many in between.

Companies trade pet food brands like baseball cards.

pet food

There’s gold in them thar hills.

Nov 4 2014

Souvenirs from the Dietitians’ annual meeting

The annual meeting of the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, always provides an incredible exhibit of products from food companies—the latest in dietetic junk food and food company nutritional spin.

Knowing how much I enjoy these things, and that I am working on a book about food advocates and the soft drink industry (Oxford University Press, September 2015), several of my colleagues brought back souvenirs.

Functional foods (with “healthy” ingredients above and beyond what occurs naturally)

  • For Keurig brewing machines, a container of Fibersol Cran-Raspberry flavored instant tea mix, with soluble fiber added (is tea really a significant source of soluble fiber?).
  •’s chocolate mint signaling lozenges, “an antidote to overeating.”  If you feel that you are overeating, suck on one: “take control, curb appetite, get results” (if only).
  • A 6-ounce can of Kao Nutrition’s black coffee with 270 mg polyphenol (coffee chlorogenic acid), naturally present because the coffee was not brewed at high temperature (well, coffee is a plant extract, after all).


  • A pen with a pull-out section that gives the potassium content of commonly consumed foods (these come in other versions too, apparently).

Soda company propaganda

  • A brochure from PepsiCo’s Nutrition Team, HydrateNow.  Gatorade, it points out, is 93% water (and the other 7%, pray tell?.
  • A pamphlet from PepsiCo on Calorie Balance: “many things influence your everyday nutrition.  For maintaining a healthy weight, the most important factors are how many calories you eat and the total calories you use up”  (but if those calories happen to be empty?).
  • A PepsiCo brochure on Diet Beverages for People with Diabetes (but it still is advertising Pepsi).
  • A list of PepsiCo drinks that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for schools (a long list, alas).
  • A scientific paper, “What is causing the worldwide rise in body weight,” sponsored by Coca-Cola (Coke’s answer: lack of physical activity, of course.)
  • A poster from the American College of Cardiology, “Striking an energy balance,” sponsored in part by Coca-Cola.   It says: “Drink water or no- or low-calorie beverages” (it does not say you should Drink less soda”).
  • A pamphlet on National School Beverage Guidelines sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple, and the American Beverage Association:  “The beverage industry committed to bold change and then made it happen.  Working with our school partners, we transformed the beverages available to students” (yes, but it doesn’t explain that public pressure forced them to do this).
  • A Coca-Cola pamphlet, Balancing Act.  This gives five easy ways to burn 100 calories: playing soccer 13 minutes, briskly walking 15 minutes, climbing stairs 10 minutes, jumping rope 9 minutes, gardening 19 minutes (based on a 150 lb person).  Funny, it doesn’t mention that one 12-ounce Coke is 140 calories.
  • A pamphlet, Healthy Eating for Kids, from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Dietetic Association, distributed with a grant from Coca-Cola.  It lists healthy eating habits—family meals, be active, limit screen time, stay positive, etc (but—surprise—does not suggest that your kid might be healthier not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages).

Treasures, all.  I really love this stuff.  Thanks.

May 22 2014

A roundup on pet food items

I haven’t said anything about pet food in a while, but plenty is happening with it since my pet food books came out—Pet Food Politics (2008) and Feed Your Pet Right (2010).

A few items I’ve collected over the past month or so.

  • FDA regulations: The FDA finally issued its proposed rule for processing standards for all facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing or holding animal feed and pet food.  These include  Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs) and risk-based preventive controls (formerly known as HACCP), among other provisions.
  • Safety tips: Food Safety News lists ten ways to make pet food safer—pay attention and follow food safety procedures diligently, for one thing.
  • Double standard: Bill Marler complains that the FDA is constantly announcing recalls of Salmonella-contaminated pet foods, even though few of them result in cases of Salmonella in pets or humans, whereas foods for humans take forever to get recalled even when they cause illness.
  • Pet food recalls: The FDA certainly lists plenty of pet food recalls, and even has a web page for them.
  • FDA oversight: The FDA is on the job and testing.  Bravo issued recalls because of potential Listeria contamination.  It did so because the FDA says an independent lab detected the bacteria in a sample.
  • Marketing wars: Pet Food Industry, the excellent publication for manufacturers, has a juicy story about the marketing claims war between Nestlé (no relation) Purina PetCare and Blue Buffalo.  Each has sued the other.  Blue Buffalo has already been called on its advertising claims, perhaps in response to a complaint from  Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
  • The ongoing mystery: Pet jerky treats, mostly imported from China, linked to at least 3 human illnesses and more than 1,000 dog deaths and 4,800 dog illnesses, mostly from gastrointestinal problems, liver and kidney disease, and neurological and skin conditions.  The FDA says it still can’t figure out the cause, despite 7 years of trying. symptoms in their pets,” said FDA.

If we can’t get pet food right, there’s not much hope for human food either.

Mar 28 2013

Yes, dogs can eat carbohydrates, and here’s why

When Mal Nesheim and I were writing our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were constantly challenged to defend our contention that dogs can eat pretty much anything, including commercial food products made with grains.

Our reasoning: dogs are not wolves.  They evolved to take full advantage of the leftovers from human food consumption.

Now a study published in Nature Magazine, “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet,” explains how this happened. 

The investigators sequenced the entire genomes of dogs and wolves.  They identified 3.8 million genetic variants, and used them to identify 36 genomic regions that appeared related to dog domestication.  Many of these gene regions appear to be associated with the behavioral changes needed to domesticate wolves.  

Ten of the genes turned out to have roles in starch digestion; three of these genes promote digestion.

The investigators identified mutations in key wolf genes that allowed this to happen.  The study provides evidence that dogs “thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves.”  

This, they say, constitutes a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.

In conclusion, we have presented evidence that dog domestication was accompanied by selection at three genes with key roles in starch digestion: AMY2BMGAM and SGLT1. Our results show that adaptations that allowed the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in early dog domestication…In light of previous results describing the timing and location of dog domestication, our findings may suggest that the development of agriculture catalysed the domestication of dogs.

 If your dog is domesticated, it will love those carbs just as you do.  But keep it away from the pizza and cookies.  We seem to have co-evolved to put on the pounds together too.

Feb 20 2013 too political for China? Really?

My not quite son-in-law is stage managing a play in China, and writes:

I looked at the pictures of Mayor Koch and you in your kitchen last week and it worked fine.  Now I’m here in Shenzhen & Internet Explorer isn’t able to open your Blog.   See!  That’s what you get for all those nasty things you said about the Chinese baby formulas and pet foods!

I guess he’s referring to my posts on the deliberate adulteration of pet food and infant formula with melamine.  Is this site really blocked?  If so, is it really a threat to the Chinese state?

Seems far-fetched, no?  Anyone know anything about this?

May 8 2012

The latest pet food Salmonella recall

A reader writes:

Here’s what I don’t understand.

Everyone who is scared of raw says they want their dog’s food to be cooked, to kill salmonella.

But here is kibble, which by definition is cooked to the point of losing most of its original nutrients, but STILL has salmonella.

I don’t see how this is possible.  If it’s cooked enough to be “kibbled,” how can it possibly still have salmonella? It just seems like the worst of all possible worlds.

This question refers to the recent recall of dry dog food manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods.

As the CDC explains, Michigan public health officials found Salmonella in an unopened bag of a Diamond kibble product during routine testing.  This particular Salmonella strain had been found to infect at least 14 people.

CDC investigators connected the dots between the illnesses and dog food through interviews:

Seven of 10 (70%) ill persons interviewed reported contact with a dog in the week before becoming ill.

Of 5 ill persons who could recall the type of dog food with which they had contact, 4 (80%) identified dry dog food produced by Diamond Pet Foods that may have been produced at a single facility in South Carolina.

In my book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, I tell the story of the massive pet food recalls of 2007 due to contamination with the industrial chemical, melamine.  And in Feed Your Pet Right, my co-authored book about the pet food industry, I explain how pet foods are manufactured and why they are so subject to contamination and recall.

Canned pet foods are sterile.  Dry kibble is not.  It may be sterile at the point of extrusion, but it is a perfect growth medium for bacteria.  It is nutritionally complete.  Although some nutrients are lost during processing, the product formulas compensate for such losses.  That is why dogs can survive on “complete and balanced” dry foods.

If the factory is contaminated with Salmonella, the bacteria can fall into the production lines and get packaged into the kibble bags.

Dogs are relatively resistant to Salmonella and usually do not show signs of illness from eating contaminated kibble.

But humans who handle the food or the dog can acquire the bacteria and get sick.

This makes dry dog food a potentially hazardous product, one best kept away from people with weak immune systems such as young children and the elderly.

People like feeding dry food to pets because it is convenient and cheap.

My point in Pet Food Politics was that pet food is an indicator of problems in food safety regulation.  If pet foods are not forced to be produced under strict food safety measures, humans and the human food supply are also at risk.


Tags: ,
May 2 2012

FDA releases strategic plan for 2012-2016

Ordinarily I find government plans of this type to be soporific but this one is especially well written and well thought out (with some caveats).

The report is a statement of FDA commitment to what it is going to do in the next four years in food areas that affect people and animals.  It includes many promises, among them this one of particular interest: 

Program Goal 4: Provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity

Objective 1. Update the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [OK, but by when?].
  • Publish final rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [Ditto].

Objective 2.  Implement menu and vending machine labeling regulations.

  • Publish final menu and vending machine labeling regulations [OK, but by when?].
  • Collaborate with states, localities and other partners to ensure high rates of compliance.

Objective 3.  Improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information.

  • Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities [Explore?  See comment below].
  • Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education [Collaborate?  See comment below].
  • Implement updated standards for the labeling of pet food including nutrition and ingredient information [How about a Pet Facts label for pet foods that someone might actually be able to understand?].
  • Implement standards for animal feed ingredients.
  • Publish final rule defining and permitting use of the term “gluten free” in the labeling of foods.

Goal-setting processes usually include dates by which the objectives are to be completed.  These do not, which suggests that the FDA can continue to delay action until 2016. 

I also do not understand what is meant by “Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities.”  Explore?  The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?

And “Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education?”  What does the FDA have in mind for the content of such education?  You can bet that no collaborative campaign can focus on “don’t drink your calories.” 

FDA needs to deliver on these items, and sooner rather than later.  This year?  I’m not counting on it.


Jun 24 2010

San Francisco Chronicle writes about Feed Your Pet Right

This article appeared yesterday in the Datebook section.  The dogs loved the food—a huge relief because we had not tested the recipes (oops).

Photos by Russell Yip. Aussies borrowed.

Challenging the pet-food dogma

Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle, June 23, 2010

In her best-selling food industry exposés “What to Eat” and “Food Politics,” Marion Nestle taught the nation how to shop smarter at the supermarket. Now the New York University nutrition professor and Chronicle Food Matters columnist has teamed with animal nutrition expert Malden C. Nesheim to examine the $18 billion pet food industry in “Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat” (Simon & Schuster; $16.99).

Their research-based work examines the politics, marketing and science behind pet food, and offers pet owners advice on how best to feed America’s 172 million cats and dogs. She recently visited The Chronicle’s test kitchen, where canine tasters wolfed down an easy-to-prepare recipe from the book.

Q: This book began when you couldn’t understand the ingredients on pet food labels?

A: I couldn’t! I was in a supermarket in Ithaca (N.Y.), and the pet food aisle was 120 feet long. I was stunned by the amount of real estate devoted to it. This had to be some huge industry, and it surprised me because I didn’t think dogs and cats had taken over the world. I looked at the label and it didn’t make any sense at all: stuff about guaranteed analysis, profiles and health claims all over it. We gathered all the books we could find on feeding pets, and they were so dogmatic – saying you have to feed your pet this one way and everything else was poison. They were enormously contradictory, and none seemed to be based on actual research.

Q: Is it in the best interest of the pet food industry to confuse us?

A: Of course – they are selling products that are inexpensive to make and profitable to sell, and all they have to do is convince pet owners if they don’t use their products, they are making a big mistake.

They would prefer you don’t think about what’s in there – the byproducts of human food products. There are billions of pounds of leftover parts of cows, pigs, chickens and sheep after they are slaughtered for human consumption, and something has to be done with it or it will be wasted. One way is to feed it to dogs and cats. They don’t care what part of the animal it comes from.

Q: Give us a cheat sheet. What should we look for on the label?

A: If you want one-stop shopping that meets all the nutritional needs of your cat or dog, look for the words “complete and balanced” on the package. That’s code for meeting all the nutritional standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) – the non-regulatory agency that sets the pet food standards.

Next is the ingredient list. Our rule of thumb is to check the first five ingredients; after that, the ingredients are so small, they do not amount to much. The first five should be real foods – not wheat gluten or something that doesn’t sound like real food. A lot have meat byproducts in them that are quite nutritious, but a lot of people think they are disgusting.

Beyond that, if you are concerned about the quality and interested in organic, seasonal and locally grown, you can find a commercial pet food that meets those standards, but typically you will pay more.

Q: Is there some truth to the claims that some foods are for aging pets, puppies, weight loss, organic, premium?

A: You can pretty much trust it the way you can human food labeling. There will be cheats every now and then.

Q: Is price an indicator of quality?

A: We were rather surprised by what we found. We bought a collection of chicken dinners for pets that were all premium brands, which is a code for higher price. We compared the first five ingredients, the health claims and price, and although the ingredients were all the same, there was a threefold increase in price. So there’s some heavy marketing going on here. The word “premium” has no regulatory meaning, so you have to read what’s in the product.

Q: What are the main things we are doing wrong when it comes to feeding our pets?

A: Overfeeding.

Q: Should we just be cooking for our pets?

A: People who do say it is healthier. One of the funniest things we found was a big clinical research book for cats and dogs put out by Hills Co. that had a very long chapter about how dangerous it is to cook for your pets, then it gave generic recipes for cat and dog food that were easy to follow. We put the recipes in our book!

Q: Since the invention of commercial pet food, is there any evidence that pets are healthier or living longer? Or the opposite?

A: We were curious what did people do before commercial pet food. But there was little information and an astonishing lack of research about pet life spans. In the last 10 years, there’s been some preliminary evidence that life spans of dogs and cats have increased a little bit, but I wouldn’t want to push that too hard. There’s certainly evidence that pets are not doing any worse since commercial pet food was invented.

Q: The top five pet food companies control 80 percent of the market – who is regulating them?

A: All of those five companies are also either human food companies or consumer product companies. Governing them is a complicated regulatory system comprised of the (Food and Drug Administration’s) Center for Veterinary Medicine, AAFCO and states. States have their own rules, AAFCO sets models it wishes all states would follow but about half do, and the FDA regulation is minimal. But that’s changing.

Q: Is that because of the pet food recalls in 2007 that were traced to melamine in China?

A: Yes, it made everyone realize we only have one food supply – and it feeds humans, pets and farm animals. If we have a problem with pet food, then there will likely be a problem with all food. Sure enough, melamine showed up in baby formula in China and in a lot of products that were supposed to be containing milk. We need a food-safety system covering the whole thing, and the FDA is not unsympathetic to that approach. We need food labels on pet food that we can read, and calorie counts should be on them.

Q: What foods are deadly to pets?

A: Raisins, grapes or macadamia nuts, onions, garlic and chocolate. Little amounts really won’t do any harm; it’s pounds that causes problems.

Q: If you want to cook for your pet, how do you do it properly?

A: Follow a recipe.

Q: On your book tour, what are the most common questions people have?

A: A lot of questions about poop and how to keep the amount down – all these people in Manhattan apartments want to know. I tell them feed a high-premium, low-residue product with not much fiber in it. PetCo even has a sign showing the poop size comparisons using these kinds of products.

Recipes: Homemade food that gives pets the nutrition they need. E5

Homemade Dog Food

From “Feed Your Pet Right,” by Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim (Simon and Schuster; $16.99). This recipe, adapted from guidelines in “Small Animal Clinical Nutrition” (2000), feeds one 40-pound dog. Amounts should be adjusted to the size, age and condition of the animal.

  • 8 ounces cooked grains (rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, pasta and other grains and cereals)
  • 4 ounces cooked meat (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish)
  • 2 teaspoons fat (beef fat, chicken fat, vegetable oil, olive oil, fish oil)
  • 1 ounce raw or cooked vegetables
  • 1 teaspoon bone meal (or dicalcium phosphate supplement, see Note)
  • 1/4 teaspoon potassium chloride supplement (salt substitute)
  • 1 human adult daily multi-vitamin, multi-mineral tablet

Instructions: Combine the ingredients in a bowl. Mix well and serve.