As a veterinarian who carries pet food in his Northern California
clinic, Dr. Paul Palmatier doesn’t need to make runs to the market to
keep his dog in kibble. So when he visited a local feed store recently,
he was stunned.
“I was overwhelmed both by the number of food choices and also their cost,” Palmatier said.
visit gave the 26-year practitioner a sharp appreciation for the
choices his clients face. Palmatier said he thinks “constantly” about
pet food these days, in part because clients come to him with questions
or admit to alternative diets for their pets — raw or homemade food,
for example — that the mainstream veterinary community typically
Just as consumers are thinking more critically
about where their food comes from and what’s in it, many are applying
the same scrutiny to what they feed their animal companions. Palmatier
believes the movement gained momentum from the melamine scandal of
2007, in which unscrupulous suppliers added an industrial chemical to
pet food, killing and sickening thousands of animals and spurring a
giant product recall involving leading manufacturers.
to consumers’ growing concern about safety and health, some pet-food
makers are using a variety of labels that they hope will convey
superiority — “all-natural,” for example, “holistic” and even “human
That last one prompted Palmatier last month to post a
on a Veterinary Information Network discussion board. Just what
does that term mean? he wanted to know. Does it have an official
definition, or is it just marketing?
The answer, it turns out, is both.
grade” has no formal legal definition. But the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine has taken the
position that if every ingredient in a product is edible, meaning
that it was processed according to rules of sanitation required of food
sold to people, then the product may be labeled “human grade,” said
Dr. William Burkholder, a veterinary medical officer and the agency’s
resident pet nutrition expert.
The fact that the FDA doesn’t frown upon the term doesn’t mean that the claim always is used appropriately.
see a lot of ‘this ingredient is human grade’ claims but our position
is that an edible ingredient becomes inedible when you add it to other
inedible ingredients,” Burkholder said.
One pet food maker that
says it meets FDA’s strict definition of the term was refused
permission to sell its food in Ohio by that state’s Department of
Agriculture, on the grounds that the label was misleading. (States and
the FDA, together, have a hand in regulating animal feed.) The company,
The Honest Kitchen of San Diego, Calif., took the state to court in
2007. It won on the basis of free speech.
The Honest Kitchen,
founded in 2002, produces dehydrated raw food for dogs and cats. Owner
Lucy Postins said the company originated from her desire to make food
for her own puppy. Then she discovered that other pet owners shared her
concerns about what goes into conventional kibble.
“When you’re feeding these homogenous brown chunks, it’s difficult to determine what’s in there,” Postins said.
The ingredients The Honest Kitchen uses not only are edible for humans, they are eaten by humans, she said.
actually physically eat the raw ingredients that are going into our
food. As part of our QC (quality control), we taste every batch of food
... They actually taste pretty good,” she said, comparing the aroma of
the finished product to soup or stuffing mix.
The meat, she added, is sampled after it’s dehydrated.
Postins feels strongly about her company’s right to call its food
“human grade,” she said she’s aware of other manufacturers that use the
Because of its misuse, many players in the
industry decry the label. “It is essentially a made-up term used by
marketing interests to describe and promote products in light of
anthropomorphic responses people have to their pets,” David Syverson,
chair of the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ Pet Food
Committee wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
AAFCO is an
advisory body of state and federal feed regulators that develops
nutrient standards and ingredient definitions for animals, whether
livestock or pets.
Regardless whether a pet-food product meets
the standard for human-edible food, people tend to misunderstand the
term, Syverson said. He suspects consumers believe it applies to
various body parts — intestines versus muscle, for instance — but it
Whether a food is edible for humans “has little to do
with the nature of the product. It has everything to do with how the
product is handled,” he said. He offered this example:
two steaks that came out of a USDA meat processing plant. One is edible
and can be sold for human consumption because it has been handled
continuously under process controls established by law/rule to assure
that the product is not exposed to anything that would make the product
unfit for human consumption.
"The second came from the same
slaughter plant, same animal and same production line, but slipped off
the belt and hit the floor. This one is inedible.”
what is acceptable for one species to eat may be harmful for another,
he said: “Humans can eat chocolate, for instance; however, if it is fed
to a dog, it (can be) toxic.”
At the same time, some ingredients
regularly found in pet food but considered less-than-desirable in the
standard American diet (meat byproducts, for example) may be just fine
for either to eat, he and others said. In fact, some people do eat
them, noted Dr. Jennifer Larsen, an assistant professor of clinical
nutrition at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary
“I have some good friends here from Spain and they’re
really frustrated by what’s in the market,” Larsen said. “There’s no
brains, there’s no kidneys. They think it’s really interesting that we
even devein shrimp. It’s a cultural thing. There’s nothing wrong with
byproducts; they’re quite safe. It’s just, Americans think they’re
Mark Heyward, owner of Timberwolf Organics pet food, said
pet owners should judge pet food not on what they’d like to eat
themselves, but on what constitutes good quality for those species.
“If you were to let a live chicken out in the back yard and your dog ate it, it would eat everything,” Heyward said.
Avi Deshmukh, scientific communications manager for pet-food maker
Royal Canin USA, agreed. “When carnivores kill, the first thing they
are likely to eat are the internal organs,” he said. “They know that’s
where the gusto is. For example, liver and kidney contain vitamins. The
intestines contain excellent protein. So a lot of these things provide
a very good nutrition to the animals. They will go to the steak later.”
to those people who say they don’t eat meat byproducts, Deshmukh
responds with a chuckle, “Yes, you do. What do you think is (in) a hot
What, then, is the difference between people food and pet
food? From the government’s point of view, the key distinction rests in
rules governing the handling of food products, which are aimed chiefly
at sanitation. “For animal feeds, of which pet foods are a subset,
there are currently no ‘good manufacturing practices’ in regulation,”
the FDA’s Burkholder said.
Ancillary parts of an animal, such as
the beaks, feet and combs of a chicken, for example, could end up as
components of a pet-food ingredient.
“I don’t know of any
ingredient that is just feet and beak,” Burkholder added. “Feet would
contribute protein and minerals to a product. Beaks are probably
arguably filler, if it was just beaks. They’re sort of a
chitin-keratin-composed substance. They tend to be components of
poultry byproduct meal, which has a lot of other things in it.”
meat and bone meal, which is a combination of “whatever is left over
(from processing of meat for human consumption) -- bones, and meat
portion attached to it,” Deshmukh said, may be used as an ingredient in
One category of meat source known as 4D, for “dead,
dying, diseased or disabled,” is prohibited for use in human food, but
allowed in animal feed, provided it was processed properly with heat to
kill pathogens, AAFCO's Syverson said.
4D meats could include
road kill. Syverson said he believes critics of conventional pet foods
put undue focus on this fact. “People don’t go out of their way to find
road kill to put in pet food,” he said. “...Somebody would have to
physically collect it and bring it to the plant. I’m not saying it
never happens; however, I have never seen it, and it’s unlikely.”
because something is permitted in pet food doesn’t mean it’s present,
of course. “There’s a difference between good companies and mediocre
companies,” Deshmukh said. “Responsible and reputable companies will
use only meat or poultry from healthy animals.”
that pet owners have no way of knowing the quality of ingredients
specified by a given manufacturer. “You have to go on the reputation of
the company,” he said.
Palmatier, the veterinarian in Santa
Rosa, said many in the veterinary community have close, mutually
beneficial relationships with major pet-food companies, some of which
fund continuing-education programs at professional conferences. For
that reason, he said, practitioners have a responsibility to know what
is in the food they promote.
“Veterinarians are aligned with
major food manufacturers to some degree, so criticisms of the major
food companies are, to some degree, a criticism of standard veterinary
medicine, too,” he said. “So we should really know the products that
either fund our CE programs or are sold ... from our offices.”