Do we really know what we’re feeding our pets? In the spring of 2007, pet owners across North America were devastated when upwards of 50,000 of their beloved pet dogs and cats fell seriously ill after eating tainted pet food. Many of the animals died. Menu Foods of Toronto, the manufacturer, initiated the biggest recall of pet food in North American history.
That’s the opening teaser for the Canadian Broadcasting Company special which aired this evening on Doc Zone, entitled Pet Food: A Dog’s Breakfast.
The documentary would be preaching to the choir for some of us, but enlightening to many who perhaps weren’t aware of the extent of the recall or the scandalous lack of regulation in the industry. It is also heartening to those who lost pets or who are still nursing sick ones, to be assured that the ripples of the largest pet food tsunami in history have not disappeared.
Interspersed among the vintage television images of dogs and cats happily gorging on kibble, accompanied by slogans like “So complete – all you add is love” are solemn interviews with pet owners. And there are a few experts like Elizabeth Hodgkins (a California DVM who used to work in the pet food industry), Meg Smart (University of Saskatchewan) and Rebecca Remillard (MSPCA Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston), who say that the industry cannot be trusted.
When the news of poisoned pet food exploded in March, 2007, veterinarians realized that they had been seeing these symptoms for some time. Despite some FDA figures itemizing the casualties at 16, a number that was annoyingly persistent, the estimates of sickened and dead animals are now in the tens of thousands. Menu Foods, which co-packs for hundreds of brands, made one third of all wet dog and cat food in North America at the time.
According to Hodgkins, there is a systemic problem in the pet food industry: lack of regulation, likened to the fox guarding the hen-house. Testifying at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in 2007, she stated that this was not an aberration, and it could happen again quite soon. Manufacturers, she said, are not doing adequate testing, they are cutting corners, using lower quality ingredients, and they are failing to be truthful about their actions.
There are something like 90 class action suits, but no agreement on payment for emotional damages. Pets are still “property”, after all. But Lucianna Brasil, a Vancouver class-action lawyer, thinks that the case can be made for emotional damage compensation because pet food marketers have been advertising pets as “more like family members”. And there’s a new demographic that will push for change. Nearly 2/3 of pet owners are childless and a good 60% buy Christmas presents for their pets.
Cut to: Jovanna, a young Toronto woman who lost one cat to kidney failure as a result of the recalled food. She and her boyfriend struggle to keep up with the mounting vet bills for her other cat. They’ve gone into debt and he is working a second job. But they wouldn’t do anything differently. She would like Menu Foods to cover those vet bills.
Hodgkins says that the industry promotes pet food as if it is human food; the marketers know that clever packaging is a big part of the buying decision. But the succulent cuts of meats and fresh veggies aren’t what they seem to be. She spent some time in the kitchen showing us the difference.
The ingredients are almost entirely salvaged from human food production including diseased parts. The fish in cat food is the relatively non-nutritious parts like fins and heads. Poultry by-products means things like heads and feet. Hodgkins cuts these up, whirls them in a blender, cooks them for a long time, throws in some vitamins and pops the mess into a can.
The industry, she says, insists that pets live longer, healthier lives as a result of their products. And most vets agree.
Nutritionist Rebecca Remillard says that, in many cases, pet food marketing is highly misleading. For example, Purina claimed an increase in median life span of two years, in a study of dogs fed only Puppy Chow and Dog Chow.There was no scientific evidence supporting their claim, she says.
Cut to: the famous PETA video of the IAMS beagles with the chunks cut out of their thighs.
Remillard says these studies are largely unnecessary.
With the changing demographics, pet food marketers are pushing more expensive foods. But Hodgkins says they shouldn’t make unsubstantiated claims; for example, that “premium” implies higher quality.
Meg Smart doesn’t think that premium foods are worth the extra money. The information on premium and non-premium food labels is so similar that her class of veterinary students could not pick the premium foods based on the labelling. Moreover, a lab examinations of premium and non-premium foods showed no significant difference in nutrients.
(Throughout all this, Hodgkins’ photogenic little Jack Russell is looking gloomier and gloomier.)
So, how well-qualified are veterinarians on what to feed? Smart says they get limited training at school, and it’s largely from the pet food companies themselves.
According to Hodgkins, the order of ingredients on a label (thought to be an indicator of quality) can be deceptive. Ingredient splitting is one way to fool the consumer. A food may be mostly corn, but the components are split out into corn meal, corn gluten, corn grits and so on into smaller percentages of the total, so that the minuscule amount of meat can appear in first place on the label.
Hodgkins points out that there is more grain than meat in most dried foods. That’s particularly bad for cats who are obligate carnivores. Besides, grain-based dry food requires a lot of processing which ruins the nutrients. At the end of the process, manufacturers spray rendered fat on the kibble for palatability.
She likens a kibble diet to feeding your kids the same convenience food all their lives.
Cut to: a pet store where a man purchases pet food based on what his dog chooses. He puts three types of kibble on the floor and the dog gets to pick. So it’s based on palatability, not nutrition.
Hodgkins herself home cooks, and feeds raw to her pets. But the mantra of the Veterinary News Network (VNN), echoed in some veterinary offices, is that home cooking is not complete and balanced, and it can be downright dangerous because of bacterial contamination.
Meg Smart also spends some time in kitchen, brewing up a concoction of work boots, crankcase oil, wood shavings and vitamins. She sends it off to a lab where it passes the minimum industry nutritional standards. The beleaguered industry, meanwhile, says that it’s strictly regulated by the FDA but in fact the rules are written by the industry, and they’re not enforced. Hodgkins wants to see changes such as clear and honest labelling as a start.
Mike Floyd, founder of defendourpets.org, got involved after his dog developed kidney problems at the time Menu Foods was announcing its recalled brands. He is also after a change in the labelling rules, as well as certifiication on foreign imports. Congress passed a law requiring identification of foreign ingredients in May, 2007.
Cut to: Jovanna in Toronto, who says that she and her boyfriend will just keep on keeping on with the treatments. They could never let their animals down.
Cut to: a couple in the US who lost their black lab to the recall. They don’t care about getting a dime from the industry. They just want to see the laws change to protect pets.
Nice work, CBC and Yap Films!
More on Meg Smart’s views at the Saskatoon Star Phoenix
More on the pet food recall on Red Star Cafe here.
What can you do?
Buy a copy of the DVD and share it
Yap Films is now distributing the DVD. The price is $44.95 Canadian plus applicable taxes and shipping. The DVD can be ordered by emailing dadams (at) yapfilms.com (replace (at) with the email symbol).
Help get “Pet Food – A Dog’s Breakfast” aired in the U.S.
Write to Anderson Cooper at CNN and let him know that it’s important for people to see this documentary.
Here’s a sample letter:
Dear Anderson Cooper,
During the height of the pet food crisis last year you ran the first in-depth piece on this problem.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, working with Toronto film-maker, Yap Films (http://www.yapfilms.com) recently aired a riveting one-hour documentary: “Pet Food – A Dog’s Breakfast” that captured the attention of Canadian audiences. There is one segment that shows “Old Boots Pet Food”, a concoction of work-boots, crankcase oil and wood chips that would meet the Canadian pet food nutrition standard!
Here is the background from the CBC’s Doc Zone page:
Many people in the U.S. have said that they would like to see this documentary. Airing this film on CNN would reinforce your earlier message about the pet food crisis, inform those who are not aware of the issues, and send a clear message to the pet food industry that consumers expect better.
Your interest in this ongoing and unresolved issue is appreciated by all of us who are concerned about our pets.