Kibble Chaos: What to do when the fear mongers come out

Important Notes: The following post contains my personal views and is not an endorsement or detraction for any particular products. I do not have detailed knowledge of any pending legal cases, nor am I associated with the defendant pet food company.

 

I am sure most of you have already read about the lawsuit filed in California last week against Nestle Purina by a concerned and grieving pet owner. This lawsuit claims that all three of the owner’s unrelated dogs became ill after consuming Beneful dog food, with one of them, an eight-year-old English Bulldog, dying from this mystery illness. The lawsuit further alleges that an ingredient used in the food (propylene glycol) is toxic to dogs and that the grains were contaminated with mycotoxins. The lawsuit seeks to prove that both factors caused the dogs’ illness, or at the very least they seem to be trying to hammer Nestle Purina with enough bad PR through emotionally charge, but poorly detailed media reports that they will settle out of court.

I have had a number of friends and family contact me over the last week asking what I thought about the lawsuit or if they should stop feeding Beneful to their dogs. My good friend over at Pawcurious recently addressed this question in her blog, but I wanted to chime in officially, too (mostly because I had already started writing this post). The short answer is no, if your dog is doing well (eating, drinking, acting normal) then don’t change their diet. But…as I’ve said before, there is no one perfect diet-feeds-all when it comes to dog and cat foods and if you have any specific concerns then Beneful (or whatever brand you are feeding) may not be the best diet match for your pet.  My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a beloved companion. The death of a dog or cat is always hard and bereaved caregivers are often left looking for someone or somewhere to place the blame, but it is important to look at the merits of a media claim before jumping to conclusions for your own furry family member.

 

Lawsuit Problem Point #1: Propylene glycol is a compound used as a humectant (meaning it retains water) in pet foods and treat, and also has the added bonus of being anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. This is what keeps the chewy bit chewy, but prevents them from becoming green and fuzzy. Propylene glycol has been used in dog foods and treats for decades and is “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) for dogs by the FDA even at high dosages. On the other hand, propylene glycol is definitely toxic to cats (causes damage to red blood cells resulting in anemia) and has been banned in and around cat foods since 1996. Since the diet in question is clearly a dog food, I am not worried its use here. Propylene glycol and ethylene glycol are NOT the same thing. Ethylene glycol is antifreeze and is toxic to everyone. There is no antifreeze in Beneful.

Propylene_glycol_chemical_structure

Propylene Glycol is not…

200px-Ethylene_glycol.svg

Ethylene Glycol.

Lawsuit Problem Point #2: Beneful is the most popular diet Nestle Purina sells, with a reported 1.5 billion “meals” served in 2014. Which means just based on the numbers, even if 0.0001% of those meals caused a problem you would be able to find “thousands” of unhappy customers (1,500 each year to be exact) on an internet fishing expedition. If the same food only sold 1.5 million “meals” on any given year, that same percentage would only cause 1.5 adverse events each year and no one would have even noticed. I am making up these percentages and numbers, but you get the idea. With enough sales, even normal variations are magnified. Yes, there will be dogs that have not and will not do well on Beneful, just as there are dogs that will not do well on every other brand of food out there. In practice I have seen and treated dogs for adverse reactions to every single brand of food you can think of (and some you’ve probably never heard of).  No one food is perfect for every dog.

Lawsuit Problem Point #3: The clinical signs reported through the media and named in the lawsuit do not fit with any pattern to establish food toxicity. The signs listed range from vomiting and diarrhea, to seizures and bloat, to internal bleeding, liver failure and kidney failure. If this was something like ethylene glycol (actual antifreeze) or even melamine and cyanuric acid contamination, every dog would develop kidney damage. If this was a mycotoxin I would expect vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. I find it very hard to believe that a particular food would have not just one of these food-borne issues, but all of them. The signs listed are too varied and inconsistent to have a pattern, which is what happens when dogs get sick from random chance and just happen to be fed the most popular diet sold in the United States.

Lawsuit Problem Point #4: It is being promoted through the media, not the FDA or other knowledge based sources. Conspiracy theorists may start to scream and shout that Big Pet Food is in bed with the Government, but the reality is that every pet food company and animal feed raw material provider screens for mycotoxins and while it is nearly impossible to have a zero mycotoxin level, this is regulated by the FDA and high levels are an actionable offense.  Additionally, real or potential product contaminations are a serious health and public safety concern and are why the FDA established the Reportable Food Registry in 2009. Any pet food or treat at any time (no matter where it is sold or how much it costs) can have a production issue and the FDA relies on diligent pet owners and primary care veterinarians to report any suspected problems as soon as possible so they (the FDA) can investigate and force a recall if and when needed. The FDA would not take a “wait and see” approach with human or animal health and Nestle Purina did not become a multi-billion meal provider by harming dogs. That is a terrible business strategy.

So what do I think may be the real story behind this lawsuit? If I was to guess I would say older pets without regular heath screening fed a low cost diet that does not fit their particular needs. We don’t know the health status of the dogs in question before the diet change, or why the diet was changed in the first place. Also having a lower price point does not mean that a food is “bad” or “junk food” it just means that the combination of ingredients and larger amounts of plant-based ingredients are less expensive from a manufacturing standpoint. Less cost to manufacturer means less cost to the pet owner, but these combinations can also make the diet less digestible. A less digestible diet result in more poop being produced; a fact that will not agree with every dog, but no food is perfect. At the risk of talking in clichés, correlation is not the same as causation and cost does not always equal quality. So in the immortal words of Douglas Adams…

 

the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy

Generally a good approach to life.

 

Happy Feeding!

Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Kibble Chaos: What to do when the fear mongers come out

  1. I do not feed Beneful, but Purina products. I tried the higher priced, touted “more healthy” brands and did not find any difference. People yell about corn, wheat,gluten, yet my dogs do well on ProPlan Performance, and it is less expensive. One of my girls is a Dual Champion, working in her Grand Champion title. My old, male deerhound lived to 2 months short of 12 yrs. and ALWAYS ate Purina in one form or another.

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    • Hi Denise,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. And congrats on your dogs titles! I think that having Champions is a testament to your dedication just as much as it it to their breeding and intelligence. I agree, higher price tag doesn’t always mean better quality and I too have met other titled Champions fed food from one of the Big Pet Food companies. My Labradors did not participate in any shows or field trials, but they ate a major label commercial dry their whole lives and one lived 2 months shy of his 14th birthday and the other was nearly 15 when we lost her.

      Lisa

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  2. But why would you feed an average dog food full of artificial colors, a soft piece that needs a Glychol thing to ward off mold and mites – if you want to feed your dog veggies and meat, why pretend to do so with a mite laden look alike food… I don’t get it.

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    • Hi George,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment and question. Personally I wouldn’t feed a diet that uses artificial colors and food-like shapes and textures because those are added to the food to appeal to the pet person not the pet. Dogs and cats can discriminate between different shapes and flavors, but the colors and chewy bits are designed to appeal to us and don’t provide any essential nutrients to the diet. That doesn’t make them bad (or harmful), just unnecessary to my goal of keeping dogs and cats healthy. I also don’t necessarily get why so many pet owners base their food decisions on marketing gimmicks, pretty packages, and celebrity spokespersons either, but they do.

      Bacteria and mold are a fact of life for any food with a higher moisture (water) content. Wet foods (moisture content above 75%) and semi-moist (moisture content between 60-75%) are the perfect breeding grounds for food pathogens. Wet foods sold in single-serving cans or trays can get around the need for preservatives because they are cooked in the can/tray, which kills bacteria and mold spores, sealed in the can/tray to prevent reintroduction, and are intended to be opened and used within a day or two. But every semi-moist food or treat sold in a bag designed to be opened and closed again (including “premium” brands, dehydrated raw, or high pressure pasteurized raw) use naturally-derived and synthetic preservatives to prevent mold and bacteria. Sometimes this takes the form of a high sodium content (similar to dry salami hanging in a market window); or rosemary and marigold extracts, which are synthesized in a lab from natural resources but aren’t very effective at preserving foods once the package is opened; and some companies will even use probiotic-type bacteria that will colonize the food faster than pathogenic bacteria (the same way probiotics work in the gut) or bacterial “fermentation products” to change the pH of the food to prevent bacteria and mold growth. All of these processes are designed to slow down or stop what is the natural degradation of food and all of these methods are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) to the general population. But, even salt, which is GRAS for healthy dogs and cats can have harmful effects on individuals with underlying medical conditions, like kidney or heart disease.

      As for storage mites, they are on everything, no matter where the fold is sold or who manufactures it. I don’t know of any pet food company big or small (or human food company for that matter) that has been able to prevent storage mites from appearing in their dry food. Improper storage of dry foods by distributors and retailers can accelerate their reproduction and increase storage mite numbers in the food, but I think this is an unintended consequence of the distribution channel rather than a fault of the manufacturer.

      Lisa

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    • The doctor nailed it with her reply. Kibble is made of ingredients – meat, vegetables, cereals – that has been cooked and processed and turned into bites. Coloring is added for the benefit of the customer (just like coloring is added to breakfast cereal.)

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  3. Actually, propylene glycol is used in antifreeze, but it’s pet (and child)-safe antifreeze, not the ethyl glycol antifreeze that will kill you in a heart beat. (I was surprised to learn that AMSOIL, for which I am a dealer, markets a safe antifreeze made with propylene glycol. There are other companies that also manufacture it. It costs quite a bit more but would be worth it if pets are able to get around a vehicle or where antifreeze is stored.)

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    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for reading my blog and all of your great comments. I think I may have to make you my official editor to catch when I take short cuts in my writing. 😉

      You are right that propylene glycol is technically a type of antifreeze as well, but a pet/people safe one. It is used specifically because it is nontoxic to animals and children unlike ethylene glycol, which you point out is universally fatal once ingested. Propylene glycol based pet/child-safe antifreezes are safe even if the pet/person knocks it over and takes a big swig (not recommended by the way since it doesn’t taste very good).

      Lisa

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  4. Pingback: Panic in the Aisles: The Beneful Lawsuit and You | Pet Care Articles

  5. Artificial is artificial and if medical professionals don’t recommend pre-packaged, “highly processed” foods with added sodium, sugar, colors and preservatives for humans, then why would we sanction it for pets? Simple as that. Dogs and Cats have a history of eating natural, wild caught, fresh, highly bio-available food in the wild, should we not replicate that diet (safely) in domestic situations? A dog eating kibble 24l7l365 for its entire life would be like a human eating a “dry nutritional health bar” with vitamins and minerals everyday of their life, minus fresh fruits, veggies and protein sources with original enzymes and amino acid availability. Granted all food for pet and humans should be sourced, procesed, and served safely. But at the very least even kibble should be augmented with plenty of fresh food! Even a Vet should be in agreement with this theory.

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    • Hi,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. And I do agree that all things being equal, feeding a less processed complete and balanced diet sources and prepared daily is the closest to a “natural-type” diet as we could get. But I also recognize that dogs and cats (and people) can do very well on a variety of different diet types. What dogs and cats ate in the wild was sufficient to get (most of) them to reproductive age and that was about it. A pretty low bar to step over. Longevity and feeding for health and wellness on the other hand are relatively new concepts in the history of companion dogs and cats, and my goal is to keep those companions with their families for as long as possible. Using whatever diet strategy works best for the whole family. Not everyone can afford to feed a less processed, fresh food diet, and not every dog or cat does well on them.

      And yes, whenever possible, I encourage caregivers to use fresh fruits and vegetables (non-toxic ones, of course, and staying within 10% of the daily intake) as treats instead of commercial dog or cat treats. Proteins (meats, eggs, daily) can be pretty calorie dense so those should be used sparingly and in moderation. Fruits and veggies though tend to have low calorie contents relative to meats and store-bought treats and they have the added bonus of providing phytonutrients and antioxidants that may have a yet to be undetermined health benefit for dogs and cats.

      Thanks,
      Lisa

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