Quality Control (and potential gaps therein) in the Pet Food Industry

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.

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Annabelle and her “don’t even think of feeding me that slop” look.

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.

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Muti-use & multi-purpose equipment (image taken from http://www.animalfoodmachines.com)

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
working-together

Sometimes cheesy stock graphics are right, working together can be good for everyone.

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)
blank-pet-food-can

What is really in that can???

 

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?

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Me and Dusty-Loki, the cat with two names but one love in life…food. Definitely not thrilled with this photo shoot.

Happy Feeding!

 

Lisa Weeth, DVM, MRVCS, DACVN

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5 thoughts on “Quality Control (and potential gaps therein) in the Pet Food Industry

  1. Every time I give my dog his allotted half-cup of Eukanuba, I have a minor anxiety episode knowing the company doesn’t have any full-time Ph.D. vet nutritionists on staff and this particular formula hasn’t passed AAFCO feeding trials. The dangers of knowing too much about a thing when you also have anxiety disorders, sigh.

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    • No need to panic, PerfectPanicky. Eukanuba/Iams stopped conducting AAFCO feeding trials after they were purchased by P&G in 1999, but they had done a number of feeding trials before that and a vast body of nutrition and pet food manufacturing historical knowledge at that point so new feeding trials were probably not warranted anyway. They knew their ingredients, knew their manufacturing process, and knew what to expect when their diets were fed. Under P&G they did have PhD Nutritionists working with them and still did a lot of work with dogs and cats (in a low stress, animal friendly environment) to ensure that their diets were safe and healthy for their end consumer (i.e., dogs and cats). After the pet food recall in 2007 they were also one of the companies that made push to tighten quality control checks in their foods and manufacturer as much in-house as physically possible. After P&G acquired Natura in 2010, they also added a DACVN/MS to their roster who helped critically evaluate all their diets (OTC and vet-exclusive). Fast forward to 2014 and the Eukanuba/Iams/Natura line was bought by Mars (who is probably the largest employer of PhD and DACVN Nutritionist in the world), so lots of eyes and knowledge looking over pup’s diet.

      Hope that helps!
      Lisa

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  2. Hi Lisa, my vet told me about your website. She said the “boutique” dog kibble I was buying – brands like Orijen and Raw brand (it’s not raw) and Open Farm grain-free were not tested by AAFCO, and that vets and pet stores have a different view on what is optimal for a dog’s health. Of course I was buying organic and “as close to raw without being raw” etc thinking it was high quality, but the manufacturers, even Orijen, are apparently too small to have uniformity across batches of kibble, nutritionists on staff etc. My vet recommended I get only food that has been tested by AAFCO, not “formulated to meet the standards,” so I switched to Purina Pro Plan Sport. But as I read the ingredients, the Purina looks like it has lower quality ingredients? Also a veterinary nutritionist told me to stop giving my dogs freeze-dried meat, such as Stella & Chewy’s, and bully sticks because they can have bacterial contamination. Can you comment or direct me to any research I should read? Thanks!

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    • Hi Elizabeth,

      I am really behind in my replies, but thanks for reading and posting a question and being patient with my response time. One of the challenges when comparing commercially-prepared dog and cat foods whether it is canned, kibble, baked, dehydrated, cooked-refrigerated, or raw is that we can’t really tell the quality of an ingredient from the label. There is a lot of variability in even simple ingredients like “chicken”. It is most often mechanically deboned chicken frame meats (this is what is left once the breast meat, leg and wings are removed) since breast, leg and wing meats will get a higher price on the human food market. Does the provider make sure to screen out the bone or do little bits (or a lot) of bone get left in? Or is their “chicken” mostly chicken fat with just enough meat to qualify as “chicken” from a regulatory standpoint? Is the company testing their “chicken” for indicators that it may have gone bad or rancid before they mix it into their diets? This is where knowing the manufacturer comes in handy. What I consider a good quality company is one that has and enforces standards for the quality of their ingredients. If they order “chicken” that is being used as the primary protein source in the diet they are ensuring that the chicken is fresh, has a consistent fat content batch to batch, has a low “ash” (overall mineral) content batch to batch, and they do regular testing of this ingredient before and after it is made into a pet food. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has a list of questions that may be helpful when comparing pet food companies.

      Feeding trials are great if they are there, but there are still a lot of smaller to medium sized companies that don’t have the resources to conduct AAFCO Feeding Trials and a lot of large companies that have done AAFCO Feeding Trials on past diets and when they reformulated or expended their lines didn’t do new ones on the new diets since they know their ingredients and manufacturing processes to be good without the double check. I tend to be more accepting of diets that are “Formulated to meet the needs…” as long as the company has a good quality control process in place and invests in other ways of ensuring that the foods are healthy for dogs and cats (like employing Nutritionists -either PhD or DACVNs- and experienced food scientists). I am not a fan of raw meat diets in general (freeze-dried, fresh raw, or frozen) primarily because of the food safety concerns for pets and people. Some commercial companies are putting their diets through a process canned High Pressure Pasteurization, which does help dramatically reduce and usually eliminate bacterial contamination. And the Food Safety Modernization Act from 2011 is finally going to be enforced for all sizes of pet food manufacturers starting this month, so from a bacterial contamination standpoint this should be a non-issue going forward, but it still relies on manufacturer integrity since their will not be a State Feed Control Official watching every day.

      I’m not sure if that answered all of your questions but I hope it helped!

      Lisa

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