Find out What is Really in your Pet’s Food
What Do You Really Know About Rendered Pet Food?
By: Lynn Stratton
You may have seen a movie years ago called Soylent Green, in which the hero, to his horror, discovers that what the overpopulated Earth’s inhabitants have been eating for years is actually made of euthanized old people.
Would it surprise you to learn that what your beloved pets have been eating is at least partly made of euthanized pets?
It’s true. The companies that do their best to convince us that they have our pets’ best interests at heart and produce dog and cat food packages showing juicy cuts of real beef, lamb, chicken and fish, are actually packing those cans and bags full of dead animals of every sort: diseased cattle, tumor-ridden chickens, road kill, zoo animals, and even, yes, dogs and cats from veterinarians and shelters around the country, not to mention rancid restaurant grease, toxic chemicals and other unsavory additives.
Most pet food companies are owned by global conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble, maker of Eukanuba and Iams, Colgate-Palmolive, maker of Hill’s “Science” Diet, and Mars, which produces Cesar dog foods. But these products take on new meaning when you understand that the word “pet” can mean two different things.
The way these dead animals wind up in your pet’s food is through a process known as rendering. The industry group behind the rendering plants in this country is the National Renderers Association, or NRA, and they’ve helpfully posted a quite lengthy book on their Web site called Essential Rendering, which you can download.
According to this book, these are the products of the rendering process: meat and bone meal, meat meal, poultry meal, hydrolyzed feather meal, blood meal, fish meal, animal digest, and animal fats. It’s important to know the significance of the terms “meal” and “animal.” Meal is a product of rendering; once the collection of animal scraps and whole dead animals is collected, the entire mess is heated, has the moisture and fat removed, and what is left is meal. So you can make a meal that is poultry, or fish, or blood, or what’s referred to as “meat.”
Why meat? Because if you don’t know exactly what’s in there, you can’t call it beef, or poultry, or fish. Meat means anything that was alive, whether it’s the cow at the stockyard that’s so diseased it can’t stand up or the possum on the side of the road or the zebra that died at the zoo-or your pet, recently euthanized at your veterinarian’s office. Meat means it was a mammal that was until recently (we hope) alive. Same with “animal” fat, so-called because trying to determine how many animals and of which species went into that fat is impossible. If you see the words “animal” or “meat” on a product (even human food), put it back on the shelf and back away slowly. (By the way, rendered products go into your cosmetics, soap, and even your toothpaste; just FYI.)
So where do these “meats” and animals come from? The February 2009 NRA “Buyer’s Guide to Rendered Fats” says that renderers “process a variety of raw materials from various sources,” including these: packing house by-products, such as organ fats, offal, bones, and blood; boning house material that consists of bones and meat trimmings; meat market trimmings, including adipose and intermuscular fats, bone, cartilage, and meat trimmings; restaurant greases and recovered cooking oils (these are supposed to be processed and stored separately); and, yes, fallen animals.
It’s the “fallen animals” part that seems extraordinarily open to interpretation, and again, note the use of the word “animals,” not specific species, and “fallen,” which doesn’t exactly say how they fell. In fact, it’s worth knowing that there are two categories of renderers, those actually attached to meat packing or food production facilities, and the ones known as independent renderers. The independents are the folks who pick up dead animals and their scraps, whether they’re from your local supermarket or restaurant or from your local animal shelter or the side of the road. Then those truckloads are delivered to rendering plants, where the whole mess is boiled down into the euphemistically named “meat and bone meal” that winds up in your pet’s food.
And that also explains why your pet’s food can contain such things as bits of ID tags, flea collars, antibiotic tags from livestock, and even plastic. The “Buyer’s Guide to Rendered Fats” also notes that almost all tallow (a fat byproduct of the rendering process) “contains polyethylene (PE), which is a foreign material in tallow, to some degree. It finds its way into the rendering plant as meat wrappers mixed in with the raw material. Most of the polyethylene wrappers used by the meat industry are of low density type that will melt at lower temperatures and stay soluble in the tallow.” Well, that’s certainly good to know; at least it’ll be melted before your pet eats it or you brush your teeth with it.
But how do meat wrappers get into your pet’s food? When the truck heading to the rendering plant dumps its load of meat rejects from your local supermarket, including trimmings, refuse, offal (as bad as it sounds), and outdated packages of meat, they don’t bother to remove the packaging. Think about that for a moment: The Styrofoam trays and the plastic wrap go right into the cooker with everything else.
(In an odd bit of irony, Mars produces not only Cesar dog food but a product called Sheba, for cats. Sheba touts itself on its Web site as being a truly “premium” food for pampered pets, with pieces of actual chicken and fish “never sullied by the addition of artificial flavors or by-products.” Yet when you look at the labels on the Cesar line of dog foods, you’ll see that most if not all of them are made with those same by-products. Which is it, Mars? Are your pet foods “sullied” by by-products, or not?)
Unfortunately, the road kill, plastic wrap, and flea collars are probably not the worst things you’ll find in your pet food: You may also find sodium pentobarbital, the drug used to euthanize animals in vets’ offices and shelters nationwide. A class-action lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court, Miami, on behalf of pet owners against pet food companies, includes references to euthanized animals, and the pentobarbital that killed them, being in pet food. You can read the lawsuit and exhibits here: http://www.mflegal.com/petfoodlawsuit.
One of the exhibits in the lawsuit is a report from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine on pentobarbital residues in dry dog food, which shows that numerous brands contained the euthanization drug. (By the way, access the report from the lawsuit’s Web site; if you try it through the FDA site, you’ll find the report has mysteriously disappeared.) The FDA’s CVM lists ‘rendered ingredients’ in those foods: animal digest, animal fat, beef and bone meal, beef tallow, and meat and bone meal. And it says this: “Because in addition to producing anesthesia, pentobarbital is routinely used to euthanize animals, the most likely way it could get into dog food would be in rendered animal products. Rendered products come from a process that converts animal tissues to feed ingredients. Pentobarbital seems to be able to survive the rendering process [emphasis mine].”
The American Journal of Veterinary Research in January 2004 published a study which failed to find dog or cat DNA in the samples of pet food it tested but noted that the higher the ranking of “animal fat” on the ingredient list, the greater the likelihood that the sample would contain pentobarbital. (By the way, animal fat is that pungent smell you notice when you open a new bag of dry dog or cat food; the kibble is sprayed with it to make it palatable to your pet.) But Ann N. Martin, in her excellent book Food Pets Die For, quotes a researcher who told her that heating destroys DNA-and rendering, of course, is heating, taken to the extreme. They found no dog or cat DNA in the same samples that did produce pentobarbital? No surprise there.
A story in the Los Angeles Times in 2002 said this: “By far the bulk of rendered material comes from slaughterhouses. But some plants also mix in road kill, the trimmings from supermarket delis, dead farm animals and euthanized pets from shelters. Los Angeles city and county shelters send more than 120,000 dead dogs and cats to be rendered in a typical year.” In fact, in a particularly unholy alliance, the major pet food producers have partnered with animal shelters all over the country. The shelters get free food-most often Iams and Hill’s-and the producers get to plaster their advertising all over the shelters and come out smelling like roses. Too bad that when you follow the whole thing through, what you get is this: shelters send their euthanized animals to renderers, who turn the animals into “ingredients” which are sold to the pet food companies to become pet food, which is then shipped to the shelters to feed new animals, which will likely be euthanized . . .
The Pet Food Institute, of course, the organization overseeing exactly what it sounds like, insists there are no pets in their members’ products. The Pet Food Institute is in Washington, D.C. (surprise!), where they can do their best work to influence legislation, and has two categories of membership. The “active” members are all the major pet food producers, including those whose products you may be buying. “Affiliate” members include renderers such as Darling International (the largest renderer in the country, with facilities in numerous states, even this one) and Valley Proteins. (“Protein” is code for “rendered animals.”)
But take a look at this short short video clip of a reporter speaking with the president of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the folks who, along with the PFI, decide what goes into pet food. When asked by a reporter if there’s any way to tell from a label whether a product contains dogs or cats, Hersh Pendell says if the label says meat and bone meal, there’s no way to tell whether it contains “cattle or sheep or horse, or Fluffy . . .” (Pendell is, not surprisingly, no longer the president of the PFI.)
On the AAFCO Web site, in a list of questions and answers about pet food, you’ll find a question about whether parts from “sick, dying, or dead” animals are used. Their answer? “Animal by-products which may include materials from animals which died by means other than slaughter are explicitly defined as adulterated unless the materials are rendered in compliance with animal health and protein product regulations to destroy any potential microorganisms which may be in the products. The processes used are deemed to be adequate to control risk of disease.” In other words, sure, we use diseased or euthanized animals, even road kill, but rendered ingredients are fine, and of course they’re safe, even though they may have come from animals sick with all sorts of terrible diseases, including cancers and neurological illnesses, and they may even contain the actual drug used to euthanize animals.
So who’s looking out for you and your pets? Well, it’s not the industry organizations, and it’s not the pet food manufacturers, and it’s certainly not the FDA. It’s you. And if you’re armed with the terms you need to know and watch out for, your job will be much easier. Remember that any ingredient called by-product, meal, tallow, animal fat, or grease is almost certainly a rendered product, which admittedly limits your options somewhat. I recommend that you either buy foods referred to as ‘super-premium’ organic, which usually won’t include rendered products, or that you read every label very carefully and avoid those products you’re not sure of.
My other suggestion, and this isn’t as hard as it sounds, is to make your own pet food. It’s very simple to throw a whole chicken in a crockpot, then remove the skin and bones and mix the cooked meat with cooked barley (which my own dog loves) or another whole grain and some veggies. As persnickety as even my Harry is, he adores the food I’ve been making for him most of his life, and he’s often taken for a puppy by strangers, even though he’s nearly seven years old. There are any number of books (including Martin’s) and Web sites available which will give you simple, easy-to-make recipes for pet food-and, as I found, you’ll be happier knowing you’re not subjecting your fur kids to harmful, even potentially deadly, ingredients.
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Lynn Stratton worked for the St. Petersburg Times as a news archivist, copy editor and staff writer until recently, when she started her own writing and editing business. Before that, she taught at USF for 15 years. Originally from NYC, she spends her spare time walking her standard poodle, Harry, and working in her butterfly garden, where she's had 6 species of caterpillars so far this year.
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