The Dog Food Project
Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. - Roger Caras
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The "Yuck" Factor
This page addresses question in regards to animal ingredients dogs might eat in a "natural" diet but why for the most part they are not considered quality ingredients in commercial foods.
I have heard all these horror stories about "byproducts" and "generic ingredients". What exactly are they?
Byproducts are basically anything left over of animal carcasses after the parts destined for human consumption have been removed. This can include organs, intestines, heads, feet, and so on. If you check the "Ingredient Details" page on this site, you will find official definitions. Pay close attention to their wording!
Example of a high quality product:
AAFCO definition for "chicken meal":
The dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts of whole carcasses of chicken, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, or entrails.
Example of a poor quality
This does not mean that blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents are not present in beef and bone meal, just that none of the mentioned things can be added to the mix. In other words, a number of entire cow carcasses (including all the above mentioned parts but not the quality muscle meat) could end up in the grinder to make beef and bone meal, but the manufacturer is not allowed to add ONLY the blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents of additional cows.
In both products you will have parts that humans would not want to eat, but one of them is made up of both the meat and bone of the slaughtered animal while the other contains only the less nutritious parts.
As a rule of thumb, nothing that is of at least some value will be wasted to go into the "byproducts" dumpster if it can be used somewhere else and bring in more profit. In this case it also won't appear as "byproduct", but as something a little more specific, such as "chicken liver", "spray dried chicken", "chicken liver digest", "chicken stock/broth" and so on. The "good" byproducts go into other things, not into pet food that is sold for often less than 50 cents per pound. The only exception to this rule is if the manufacturer actually declares what's in the ingredient, such as "chicken byproducts (organ meat only)".
Generically named meats generally come from questionable sources. If a manufacturer uses specific types of meats, they will gladly feature that on their pet food label as "chicken meal", "beef liver" and so on instead of using more generic terms. There are reasons for these concealing names, again pay close attention to the wording.
Example of a high quality
Example of a poor quality
Note how the first product is described as derived from "slaughtered cows" while the second one only mentions "mammal tissues" of no particular species which is not required to originate from a slaughtered animal. By definition this leaves it at the manufacturer's discretion to include materials declared unfit for human consumption, from 4-D animals (dead, dying, disabled, or diseased) as well as "any parts of the carcasses of any animals that died otherwise than by slaughter" - for example roadkill and euthanized pets that happened to end up at the same rendering facility.
Even if roadkill and euthanized companion animals are excluded, you are still looking at many animal-based ingredients that are not suitable for human consumption, and thus must be soaked in carbolic acid, citronella oil, fuel oil or other chemicals to denature them, to ensure they will not be used for human food. For more information, please read the Federal Meat Inspection Act, especially section 641 and 644. Most of these chemical substances do not break down or disappear even when the animal material is rendered at high temperatures. They will end up in poor quality pet food and can be the cause for many health issues.
Every article I read says that in the wild, dogs would eat the whole animal, so why should byproducts be avoided in commercial foods?
There is quite a difference in nutritional value between for example a whole chicken that has one head, two feet, blood, viscera, feathers and a handful of organs and intestines but also skin, meat and bones, and say a 40 pound bag of dog food of which the 20% animal protein included consists of only chicken feet, heads, bones and feathers and maybe some livers and hearts. If at all, because chicken livers and other organ meats are used separately as pet food ingredients or also sold for human consumption. Have a look around at the pet store some time and see how many treats and canned foods made with chicken liver (or consisting entirely of chicken liver, like freeze dried treats) you can find, then remind yourself that each chicken only has one little liver but a lot of products ranging from human ones to pet feed are competing to include it. The best, undiseased, non-discolored ones go to the poultry shelf in the grocery store, the next grade into more expensive pet products and the rest you can imagine.
I wouldn't oppose any pet food that was made with whole chickens (just minus the feathers please) or other animals still including their heads, feet and intestines. It's not the "yuck" factor of parts that humans do not eat that makes me object to dog food that uses byproducts as main or major source of animal protein, but the fact that they largely consist of those parts that are absolutely and truly not usable for anything else, except maybe fertilizer - which is still the better use for them in my eyes, but I guess people are willing to pay more for pet food than for fertilizer.
The statement that wild canids and primitive dogs eat a completely different diets than domestic dogs is correct, but they get to pick and choose between what they scavenge and whatever prey they manage to catch, they don't just eat the less nutritious parts and leave the good muscle meat behind day in and day out, the entire time of their life. As a matter of fact, they also rarely live to be as old as domestic dogs - one reason being teeth problems and other diet-related health issues that are also seen in domestic dogs, and of course they also die because of diseases and parasites, right down to heartworm. I always get very sceptical when dogs (who have been domesticated and shared much of man's diet for thousands of years before commercial dog food became the common thing to feed) get compared to wild canids who fend for themselves and are subject to completely different environmental influences. There are of course still similarities, but i don't think most people give evolution enough credit.
How do you know byproducts don't have much nutritional value?
Let's recap: by definition, byproducts are those parts of animal carcasses other than the cuts of meat the animal was slaughtered for. This includes organs, intestines and their contents, blood, hair/feathers, feet, heads and so on. While organ meats are highly digestible and contain a lot of nutrients the dog's body requires, a ground up mixture of byproducts containing mainly heads, feet, viscera etc. is not. It does contain protein, but then so do leather shoes, and they are much less digestible. The percentage of protein on a dog food label is defined as "crude protein" - it shows the protein content, but no information whatsoever how much of it is actually digestible and thus really nutritionally available to the dog. Ten different products, all with for example 22% "crude protein" content, can have a wide range of digestibility, based on the quality of ingredients. In other words, if a dog eats a food that is not very digestible, he won't be able to extract the nutrients required to maintain good health and you end up with more waste product in your back yard. To evaluate how digestible the product you are feeding is, compare the amount of food you feed every day and the amount of waste your dog produces (obviously the moisture content will differ but you get the idea). As a rule, you have to feed a much smaller amount of more digestible food to begin with, so the difference is twofold.
If I trust a manufacturer, are meat byproducts such a bad thing?
If you are concerned with the food you are feeding your dog, trust in a manufacturer and their philosophy is the main requirement to be comforable. The main difficulty with trying to find out the true quality of a dog food is that the AAFCO is (successfully) hampering better labeling laws. Currently there is for example no way to find out if manufacturer A's "chicken byproducts" are of a better quality or than manufacturer B's. All you see is generally "chicken byproducts" without any explanation what is actually in them, whether they have been bought from a rendering company, or rendered by the manufacturer. You don't know how this sort of offal is handled at the slaughterhouse, during transport and at the rendering plant. It is certainly not handled with such care as whole meat products. For me personally, the fact that a manufacturer uses byproducts other than clearly defined organ meats in a food is enough to steer clear of it.
If AAFCO would allow manufacturers to use terms that describe the ingredients in more detail (or IFN's - international feed numbers assigned to all feed ingredients), you would not have to think in terms of a "worst case scenario" when looking at pet food labels. So in the end it definitely does boil down to how much you trust a company and their products. Personally I am far more inclined to trust a product that uses no byproducts, no generically named animal ingredients, but most important no ingredients that may pose health risks like sweeteners, synthetic preservatives, artificial colors and so on. Luckily there are manufacturers who are very forthcoming in informing customers about the quality of ingredients they use. Each time one of them steps forward and eliminates the last bit of doubt about an ingredient, they earn a little more of my respect and trust. A good example of this is Eagle's recent article about the preservation of their fish meal. Manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients that they themselves did not add to their product. US Coast Guard regulations are that any fish meal not destined for human consumption must be preserved with ethoxyquin, so unless the manufacturer informs you otherwise, you can be sure that even while the ingredient list does not show it, ethoxyquin can be present in the food. Eagle quoted their special permits for preserving naturally on their website, other manufacturers make the effort of including ingredients that are specifically organic, hormone-free and/or antibiotic free and so on.
I don't believe when a company uses words like "meat ___" or "animal ___" that they mean "any animal", no matter what kind or from what source they get it.
Take some time and read the definitions of dog food ingredients. Pay close attention to details in the wording of different ones, compare them and ask yourself why something is worded in just that specific way. Words and phrases that are present in the definition of one item, but absent in another do tell a lot about what could or could not be in a product. (See the paragraph about generically named ingredients and also the Federal Meat Inspection Act, especially section 641 and 644.)
Personally I am not as concerned about whether my dog is eating the meat of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats or any other animals generally raised for slaughter, but much more about the quality and possible contamination of ingredients that are not defined in more detail. I do not like the idea of paying good money for a dog food that could include meats from supermarkets discarded after the "sell by" date, parts of diseased animals possibly treated with high doses of antibiotics and other medications or carcasses of animals that died under various circumstances prior to slaughter. All these have one thing in common: they are usually not stored, handled and preserved from decay with the same care as more valuable meats.
I heard human food companies use their waste and market it as dog food? Is this true and what kind of waste are we talking about?
What we are talking about here is not exactly "waste" but byproducts (from meat as well as milled grains and other sources) left over from human food processing are found in many poor quality and even higher quality foods, especially when the pet food company is owned by one of the giant companies that also own plants for processing human foods.
Whenever you buy a package of cereal, convenience foods, frozen dinners or even ketchup or other food items, you have already paid for the item itself as well as for any byproducts resulting from its manufacturing process, yet there is a chance you are going to pay again if you pick up a bag of dog food made by a pet food manufacturer owned by the same corporate group. Brewer's rice, soybean meal, cereal food fines, tomato pomace, egg- or potato product, beet pulp and other ingredients are all inexpensive byproducts left over from human food production, no matter how much that dog food commercial is trying to convince you about the high quality of their choice ingredients. Most of them have had their most nutritious parts extracted already and serves as nothing but cheap fillers with little to no dietary or health benefits. Consider the price of heavily advertised dog food brands (including the cost for advertising), the corporation behind them including other companies they own and look up the definitions of the ingredients they use on the "Ingredient Details" page.
I am confused about how different manufacturers disagree on some ingredients. While one might make something sound like the worst thing that could be in a food, the other claims it's a perfectly acceptable ingredient.
Regardless of their philosophy and methods of dog food manufacturing, each company has to defend their share of the market and profits, so each one develops a marketing strategy designed to let their products stand out. If you compare side by side, you will see that there are many things they all have in common, like saying that gentle cooking methods preserve more nutrients.
Then there are topics that they are in wild disagreement about, for example ingredients that are said to be likely to cause allergies, like beef, wheat, corn and soy. The most important factor is though, that every company will try to convince consumers that the ingredients chosen for their brand (of course within a range of limitations), are prefectly healthy and nutritious - they can't outright tell people "if you want a better product, you will have to spend a few more dollars per bag of food". A manufacturer that makes a cheaper food will tell you that meat and bone meal or blood meal are rich in protein and highly digestible and corn or soy as a main ingredient are appropriate nutrition - after all they want to sell the food.
When you get to the mid-range brands, they are often also produced by corporate giants with a huge marketing budget. Foods for which people are willing to pay more money, so of course the manufacturer can either buy better ingredients or just cleverly redesign the label, use a few specific products to boost the protein and fat levels, add some dried vegetables and exotic sounding ingredients, slap a "natural" or "premium" label on the bag and sell it for nearly twice the price of the regular product line.
Finally, there are the smaller, independent companies that produce true quality foods and take great care to include whole, healthy ingredients that provide more than just sufficient amounts of nutrients, and finally substances that offer considerable health benefits but are often entirely ignored in lesser quality brands. Visit the website of any of the "national leading brands" and see how often enzymes, probiotics or balanced omega fatty acids are mentioned.
One argument I do not want to leave out here is also the quality of a particular ingredient. I am convinced that for example premium grades of many ingredients will not be as likely to cause health concerns as poor quality, feed grade ones that may be contaminated with all kinds of toxic substances that make them unfit for human consumption. In my opinion a dog is more likely to develop allergies on a poor quality diet, which contains common feed grade components like corn, soy meal, wheat byproducts, beef byproducts, generic fats and synthetic preservatives than on a high quality food made from non-condemned, antibiotic and hormone free beef and organ meats, human grade grains, whole, unfragmented soy and nutritionally valuable fats and oils that are naturally preserved.
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