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Man’s Best Friend — Do We Know What We Are Feeding Him?

By James I. Marasco  |  Partner

Over the past decade, consumers have started taking greater notice about the foods they are consuming. Today, in most grocery stores, you’ll notice a growing organic food section that didn’t exist in the past. Being more health conscious about what we feed ourselves and our family can be vitally important to our well-being. For most people, dogs are considered a family member, so shouldn’t we be paying attention to what we are putting into their bodies, too? Is there really a quality difference in the dog foods available or is it a marketing gimmick to pull at our heart and purse strings?

The 2007 Melamine Scandal

The spark of this movement started over 12 years ago. In April of 2007, one of the worst consumer recalls occurred: the melamine pet food recall. Dogs and cats started dying of renal failure. A manufacturer out of Canada,  Menu Foods, voluntarily recalled their pet foods after pets linked to their food started dying. Soon after, complaints started pouring into the FDA involving numerous other manufacturers. Independent tests by the FDA and Cornell University confirmed that melamine contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein from sources in China were associated with kidney failure in pets in the United States, while contaminated corn gluten was associated with kidney failure with pets in South Africa. Apparently, Chinese food companies use the nitrogen-based compound in wheat flour and other products to make these products appear to have more protein. While Menu Foods  represented the largest portion of the recall, other major brands were also caught up in the scandal. Blue Buffalo, Hills, Purina, Royal Canin and others, all experienced recalls, even as they advertised the health benefits of their products. Five months after the scandal, Congress developed the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA). This required that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) improve the safety of pet food. Per the FDAAA, the FDA was required to:

  1. Establish an improved pet food adverse event reporting system;
  2. Establish improved pet food ingredient definitions and ingredient standards (the standards part is significant); and
  3. Establish improved pet food labeling, providing the consumer more and better information on labels.

Truth in Advertising

In mid-2014, Purina filed a lawsuit against Blue Buffalo for false advertising of their pet food after testing revealed the presence of poultry by-product meal in some of Blue Buffalo’s top selling pet foods. Purina claimed that some  Blue Buffalo products were not consistent with the company’s “True Blue Promise,” which stated that the products are “formulated with the finest natural ingredients” and made with “no chicken/poultry by-product meals; no corn,  wheat or soy; and no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.”

A year later Blue Buffalo acknowledged in court that a “substantial” and “material” portion of Blue Buffalo pet food sold to consumers contained poultry by-product meal, despite advertising claims to the contrary. Under the terms of the agreement, Blue Buffalo had to pay $32 million into a settlement fund to settle the claims of the plaintiff  class. Blue Buffalo claimed it was duped by its suppliers and pursued them for misleading and misrepresenting the company.

Regulation and Safety

For human food, we know that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for regulation and safety of meat, poultry and egg products, and the FDA regulates all other food. But what about our pet’s food?

According to the FDA website, they regulate “that can of cat food, bag of dog food, or box of dog treats or snacks in your pantry.” at seems like a pretty vague and loose list of what they regulate. They go on to say that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) requires that all animal food be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be truthfully labeled. They go on to state that there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. However, the FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food. Many ingredients such as meat, poultry and grains are considered safe and do not require pre-market approval.

In the United States, the FDA regulates both finished pet food products and their ingredients. Their responsibilities include:

  1. Inspections of pet food manufacturing and ingredient suppliers (excluding USDA regulated suppliers);
  2. Pet food investigations (based on consumer or veterinary complaints);
  3. Works in cooperation with Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) developing state laws, defining ingredients, establishing nutritional requirements for pet food/animal feed; and
  4. Approves or denies pet food additives or processing aids not defined by AAFCO (GRAS — Generally Recognized as Safe — ingredients).

The FDA is also mandated by federal law to abide by the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Food Drug and Cosmetic Amendments Act, and the Food Safety Modernization Act. The secondary authority for regulation of pet food is the State Department of Agriculture (SDA). They are tasked with inspecting pet food labels for adherence to labeling laws, investigating consumer complaints and inspecting pet food manufacturing facilities within their jurisdiction. Some states work in cooperation with AAFCO developing state laws, defining ingredients, establishing nutritional  requirements for pet food/animal feed.

The FDA administers pet product recalls and displays a complete list of them at https://www.fda.gov/safety/recalls-market-withdrawals-safety-alerts. However, are they really doing enough to
provide the assurances most of us expect?

What Should You Look For?

The key to ensuring your pet’s safety is education. The most expensive food may not be the best food for your dog; however, you will probably pay more for higher quality ingredients. There
is a wealth of information online describing the various ingredients that are added into dog food and ones to avoid. Listed below are the most prominent ingredients found in pet foods and ones you should try and avoid:

  • Wheat and corn gluten, which are commonly used as cheap fillers and could cause dogs considerable distress if they have allergies or digestive issues.
  • Animal “by-products.” This could represent all scraps of an animal not used in human consumption such as bones, brains, feathers, intestines, etc. Look on the label for actual identified animals that are included.
  • Generic described “meat” and “meat meal.” Similar to above, look for actual named animals.
  • Chemical fat preservatives such as BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole). BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and ethoxyquin. BHA and BHT are banned in most countries except for low doses allowed in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Ethoxyquin is not allowed in human food in the U.S., but is still allowed in dog food. These chemicals have been linked to cancer and hyperactivity.
  • Food dyes (Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, 4-MIE), which are linked to hyperactivity and provide no nutritional value.
  • Propylene glycol, also known as antifreeze. Some human foods contain low amounts, which helps a product maintain its moisture. In large doses, it’s fatal.
  • Rendered or animal fat. Some fat could be good, but if it goes unnamed it probably represents dead, dying, disabled or diseased animals, which the pet industry is famous for including in their food. Look for fats from named sources.

Keeping Them Healthy

Veterinary journals are reporting that cancer rates are affecting more dogs and at younger ages. Current statistics show that one of every two dogs will succumb to cancer. It’s unclear whether
it’s the commercial food they are eating, the vaccines they are receiving or environmental toxins they are coming in contact with. If we want our pets to thrive, do them a favor and read the labels.
Eating healthy may cost more, but in the long run, it may make them happier, more manageable and keep them with the family longer. Who could put a price on that?

About the author Jim Marasco:   Jim is a Partner at EFPR Group, LLP and one of the Founding Members of StoneBridge Business Partners, an affiliated consulting firm.  He is a member of the firm’s Business ValuationLitigation Support & Forensic Services Group and other nontraditional accounting services.  Jim has been with EFPR Group for over 20 years and is a full-time management consultant traveling extensively throughout the country. He has helped safeguard some of the largest Fortune 1000 companies from fraud and abuse and has assisted in the identification and recovery of millions of dollars back to the affected parties. His experience is mainly concentrated in the healthcare distribution and franchise fields, where he has worked with over fifty of the top franchisors in the U.S.  In addition, he has worked closely with the Catholic Church in the U.S. for the past five years assisting in their compliance efforts to ensure the safety of children within the church.  Jim is also a court-recognized expert, lecturer and author on varying subjects of fraud and forensic auditing. 

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