I know, I know. It has been a while since I’ve added a new entry to the weethnutrition blog. Last year turned out to be eventful in the Weeth household (as well as the world). We were living in the United Kingdom to witness Brexit first hand and then moved back to the United States in time for the 2016 elections and all the drama that entailed. I had the opportunity to speak to veterinarians on three continents about the importance of nutrition in the health and wellness of their patients, wrote a few articles, started a business in Los Angeles, and started training for the London Marathon.
However you lean politically and whatever your own crazy, busy schedule I think we can all agree that keeping our companion animal’s food supply (and our own!) safe and healthy is a priority. The problem is that the current pet food labeling standards and misinformation peddled by certain pet food companies and pet stores big and small make this challenging for caregivers and veterinarians. Just take our most recent pet food recalls as examples.
In the last two weeks we had a recall because of a contaminant that could potentially kill dogs eating the food, followed by two recalls, one for dog food and one for cat foods, because of the potential for foreign material (namely metal bits) to show up in the cans. I actually heard someone try to point to these recalls as “proof” of the problems with Big Pet Food’s corporate greed, while completely ignoring the fact that these recalls have affected small to medium size pet food providers. In my opinion, these recalls actually point to a bigger problem in the pet food industry, the disparity between the quality control standards of different manufacturers. I covered some of this in one of my past posts, but given these recent recalls I think a certain aspect of pet food manufacturing, co-packing, warrants a focused topic all on its own.
…these recalls actually point to a bigger problem in the pet food industry, the disparity between quality control standards of different manufacturers.
What do I mean by “co-packing”?
In almost every industry there are more people with ideas for products than there are companies that exist to make those products. There is a whole specialty business in “contract packing” (or co-packing for short) for beauty products, home-goods, beverages, snack foods, and yes, pet foods. There is a link to a pretty good pro/con graphic here.
Benefits of co-packing a pet food…
- Lower manufacturing cost: co-packers already have a factory in place
- Experience: they make lots of foods for lots of different companies
- Lower ingredient costs: they can buy in bulk, lowering the cost of starting materials for any one brand
Risks of co-packing a pet food…
- Potential lack of oversight: independent testing or audits are not required unless dictated by the owner of the pet food label
- Potential for unknown ingredient quality: co-packers can change raw material supplier at their discretion (like what happened in 2007 or what a certain heavily marketed pet food label claimed happened that caused them to lose a class action lawsuit)
- Potential for cross-contamination: lots of different foods may run through the same production lines (not so good for animals with ingredient sensitivities or allergies)
What does this mean for you as the dog and/or cat caregiver?
Know who manufacturers your pet’s food. Every pet food label on every pet food sold in the Unites States (and Canada if they are following AAFCO label recommendation) will have a statement that says “Manufactured for…” or “Manufactured by…”. This does not mean that co-packed foods are always bad and companies that make their own are always good, but having manufacturing in-house will give the company greater control and accountability for the ingredients that come in and foods that go out with their names on it.
If the brand you and your furry companion like best are made by a third-party co-packer, ask the company who makes their food (they probably won’t tell you, but if they do that’s a plus) and what kind of independent quality control tests they run. At a minimum, they should be requiring third-party audits of the co-packer’s processing and raw materials and be conducting their own safety and quality control testing on the finished products. Don’t let them get away with telling you that they run a “proximate analysis” and that this is good enough. Proximate analysis testing is used to determine the values of key nutrients (particularity protein, fat, fiber and water) and is used to populate the Guaranteed Analysis table on a pet food label. It is one of the minimum standards required by law for labeling and doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the food or it’s safety to your dog or cat. For companies that make their own foods, the same requirements apply: what kind of quality control testing do they have in place?
Know who manufacturers your pet’s food!
One of the key differences between various pet food companies (at least in my opinion) is not their size, but their commitment to companion animal health and wellness. Do they have an idea, make a food, and sell it no questions asked? Or do they have rigorous product testing and safety checks built in to catch problems before they reach the dog or cat consumer and their human caregivers? If something does slip through do they act immediately to correct it, own the problem, and put checks in place to prevent it from happening again? Or do they shift blame to someone else? Do they just want to make a profit, or do they want to keep your dog or cat healthy for years to come?
Lisa Weeth, DVM, MRVCS, DACVN