Anthropomorphizing our pets can compromise their health, according to Sean Delaney, a veterinary nutritionist in Davis, California, who has worked as a consultant for dozens of pet food companies. The slaughterhouse slurry, or meat meal, that Mariscal and Vogel of Smallbatch vehemently oppose? Delaney points out that dogs and cats are evolutionarily hardwired to consume the livestock leave-behinds that gross us out: feet, eyes, brains, etc. “These by-products are actually quite nutritious for an animal that once took down whole prey,” he explains. “The bloodless, deboned meat we get from the butcher shop doesn’t deliver the same vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes.” Not all meat meal, though, is created equal. And therein lies the rub.
In theory, the Food and Drug Administration regulates pet food. In practice, limited resources and the need to prioritize human safety have led the FDA to effectively cede federal oversight to the Association of American Feed Control Officials. A private organization with no regulatory authority, the AAFCO can’t enforce its voluntary guidelines, which emphasize nutritional requirements over sourcing. So while the association establishes such standards as minimum protein levels, it’s not strict regarding where that protein comes from. The end result: few national safeguards to prevent, or even discourage, the use of questionable meat meal.
And by “questionable,” we mean nightmarish. A YouTube video that’s been circulated over the years shows former AAFCO president Hersh Pendell acknowledging that pet food producers may purchase meat meal from rendering plants known to accept euthanized shelter animals. Other reports have disclosed the inclusion of roadkill, restaurant fryer grease, spoiled supermarket meat, and the remains of diseased zoo animals.
Although Delaney concedes “there are bad players in the industry,” he believes the horror stories have been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, it’s tough to be sure you aren’t serving your shelter mutt a less-fortunate shelter mutt. You can decrease the chances by examining listed ingredients. Specificity (“chicken meal” or “lamb meal,” as opposed to generic “meat meal”) suggests the absence of, say, cancerous zebra tissue but doesn’t guarantee it. A 2014 study at Southern California’s Chapman University analyzed 52 different pet foods and revealed that 16 of them contained meat from a species not listed; seven lacked one or more of the meat species listed; and one contained DNA from a species that could not be identified.
Modern Farmer partnered with Dog Food Advisor to review the offerings of five different brands, representative of distinct market categories—mass market, premium “natural,” certified organic, certified humane, and raw ingredient. Dog Food Advisor provided expertise about nutritional makeup (ideally, high in protein, with meat or fish listed as the first ingredient) and the presence of unspecified slaughterhouse by-products (meat meal). Then we weighed in on agricultural and environmental concerns: sustainable sourcing practices in general, as well as exclusive use of ingredients that are certified organic and certified humane.