Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pet Food Prediciment

Today I went to buy dog and cat food. A relatively simple task whereby I would pick a can with a cat’s face and another with one of a dog. I ended up walking up and down the aisles at Metro for 30 minutes, balancing in my arms Organic soy milk, organic yoghurt and fair trade coffee until I found the pet food section.

I read the labels - I always do - and I was appalled. One brand of cat food contained nitrates to maintain the pink colour. What does my cat care about the colour of her food? Purina’s website stated that nitrates were added to keep the appearance of the pet food consistent. The dog food was worse. Choosing “Beef and Liver” over “ Liver flavour”, I read the label on the former; “Animal liver” was listed after soy protein and animal by-products. What animal? I like my cat more than my dog and the issue isn’t so much that my dog would be eating mystery meat (he eats garbage all the time, that bad dog), but that the poor mystery animal gets no credit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more than one kind of animal’s liver in there, mixed in with the rest of the pasty, mechanically-separated animals.

As I stand in the pet food aisle staring at the labels of the four cans I have lined up - ingredients facing me for efficient comparing - two shoppers walk by, scoop up pet food and walk away. They make it look so easy. Meanwhile, I am trying to decide which animal food contains the least amount of products that would have harmed the animals, now ingredients. I stand there, distraught, and thanks to a vivid imagination, I imagine the animals being slaughtered inhumanely (because my Mom taught me to imagine the worst). A man says over the PA system, “Price check aisle one” and I wonder if it is code for, “Some chick has been starring at the pet food for 10 minutes – go make sure she’s not nuts”

I eventually chose Country Stew (because the first ingredient is chicken) for Fozzie and Whitefish (first ingredient was Ocean Whitefish – does that mean there is Land and Sky Whitefish too?) for Sara. I grimaced when I realized later – after Sara had devoured half a can – that Whitefish is another name for Atlantic cod, which is on SeaChoice’s list of fish to avoid.

I have a friend who lives in Vancouver, and he buys his cat meat from a pet butcher. His cat was diabetic and now he is healthy. I laughed out loud when I found a pet food section of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) website entitled, “Raw Diets (BARF), frozen or refrigerated”. BARF, I learned stands for Bones and Raw Food, and is not necessarily CFIA’s opinion of raw pet food. All pet food, canned or dry, is required to reach 85 C for an exact length of time, which is determined by the size of meat/bone. For this reason, the CFIA is hesitant – but allows raw meat for pet consumption to be imported under a separate set of strict regulations. Raw pet food is in fact so popular in Vacouver, that True Carnivores was featured in Modern Dog magazine.

I was surprised to find that we do have a raw pet food ‘butcher’ in Toronto – I was less surprised to find out it was located in Roncesvalles, where the average household can afford to splurge at pet butchers. I am more likely to go to the local butcher and ask for scraps.

The motivation to buy raw pet food may be mustered from a number of sources, but it was a video posted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that made me aware of the many facets of the pet food industry. PETA’s scare tactics are often more discouraging than helpful, but they do get to the point. What we feed our animals is a choice that affects not only their health but also that of the environment and our health as well.

Pet food originally introduced corn and cereals as ingredients because had been over-produced and would have otherwise gone to waste. Whether this was a strategy to reduce waste or to make a profit is for you to decide. Corn-based animal feed became the (mostly) unquestioned standard in North America. Production grew as more and more ways were discovered to transform corn into money. Millions of tons of (predominately) genetically modified corn is produced in North America annually. Because of its high yields and numerous uses in our fast-food addicted continent, corn is taking over farmland across North America, leaving the soil infertile and barren of sustainable crops.

Most of the corn grown in North America is inedible and requires processing (i.e., energy and pollution) to turn it into livestock feed, for which, 60% of corn in the Unites States is grown. Corn is also processed and turned into industrial alcohol, ethanol fuel as well as (what should still be considered inedible) corn oils, syrups, starches and sugars – all of which are for human consumption. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilema Michael Pollan connects the abundance of corn-derived products to the growing obesity rate in the United States of America.

From September to November in 2001, the United States produced 492.09 million bushels of corn, which were used for high fructose corn syrup; glucose and dextrose; alcohol for fuel; alcohol for beverages; cereals and other products. Within the same time frame one year later, the number had increased to 548.97 million bushels. In 2008, the number of bushels of corn produced – in the United States, in one month - reached a disturbing 1,207.71 million.

Needless to say, I’ve got a bit of a (corn) chip on my shoulder. But not only are my pets eating corn, so too are the animals that are slaughtered for pet food. It’s a cheap way to fatten up animals quickly (they are killed at age 14-16 months), which means more profit, quicker. Cows eat grass, not corn; A corn-only diet will kill cows. Fortunately they are slaughtered before that can happen.

Proctor &Gamble, Nestlé, Mars and Colgate-Palmolive profit by turning food unfit for human consumption into money-making pet food. How else do they get big if not by capitalizing on refuse? It is smart and they recycle what would otherwise be incinerated as waste. Together, the four companies make up 80% of the world’s pet food market.

This is one instance where I cannot applaud recycling. In this case, recycling is an outcome of not reducing. The land and energy required to produce corn simply because it is cheap to do so is not acceptable for a commodity that is the cause of pollution, soil degradation, sick animals, and fat Americans.

Attempting to trace the source of the meat used in pet foods is seemingly impossible and to find out what that animal had been fed is even more so. To genuinely think that the average person will read this and then go out and buy their pets raw, grass-fed beef is both optimistic and foolish.

One solution is stated in the title of Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book sites all sorts of frighteningly real facts about the environmental impact of owning a pet. Authors, Robert and Brenda Vale suggest that if you are unwilling to eat your pet or catch rats for your cat’s dinner then choosing pet foods containing poultry is a less Earth-harming alternative to fish and red meat.

More information:
- Click here for a listing of “green” pet foods companies around the world

- Click here for a list of healthy options available at Global Pet Foods, in the Beaches ( Toronto)

- Click here for Organic dog treats

- Click here for an article on ethical living and carbon emissions

- Click here for a video about the history of the pet food industry


  1. Great piece - pets are treated poorly by the Purina's of the World.


  2. Good research - What a lucky dog - and cat.


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