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A Dog Eat Dog World

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Dawn Echols got a nasty surprise recently when she and her son were feeding the family dog a can of chunky beef and chicken Pedigree dog food.

"Mixed in with a spoonful of the food was what appeared to be a dog claw," Echols said. "It really makes you wonder what you're feeding your pet."

It turns out the answer is probably worse than most folks imagine. Yes, some news reports have accused pet food manufacturers of feeding Rover to Fido. While dogfood's never been considered a delicacy, with brand names like "chunky beef and chicken," most pet owners might get the impression they're feeding Fido plump whole chickens and choice cuts of beef. Guess again.

According to the Animal Protection Institute (API), these are simply false images promulgated by pet food manufacturers -- an $11 billion per year industry. In a recent study, the API explored the ingredients of pet food that is typically mass distributed to supermarkets and discount stores. Even though dogs aren't exactly known as finicky eaters, what the study found is enough to turn even a dog's stomach.

First of all, the report pointed out that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. (Which, to be fair, aren't too palatable either -- a visit to a slaughterhouse is probably the quickest route to vegetarianism). When cattle, swine, chickens, lambs, or other animals are slaughtered, the choice cuts, such as lean muscle tissue, are trimmed away from the carcass for human consumption. Whatever remains of the carcass -- heads, feet, bones, skin, hair, toenails, hooves, blood, intestines, lungs, esophagi, ligaments, possibly diseased and cancerous body parts, and almost all other remains not consumed by humans -- is sent to rendering plants and used in pet food, animal feed and other products. Rendering is a cheap means of processing materials for industrial use, and it isn't pretty.

At the rendering plant, slaughterhouse material is dumped into huge containers. A grinding machine slowly pulverizes the whole mess. After it's chipped or shredded, it's cooked at temperatures between 220 F. and 270 F. for 20 minutes to one hour. The grease or tallow that rises to the top is used as a source of animal fat in pet foods. The remaining material is put into a press where the moisture is squeezed out to produce meat and bone meal. The Association of American Feed Control Officials describes "meat meal" as the rendered product from mammal tissue, exclusive of blood, hair, hoof, hide, trimmings, manure, and stomach contents.

The API report indicates that not only do some of these products provide a questionable source of nourishment for pets, but that feeding companion animals these types of products increase their risk of getting cancer and other degenerative diseases. Furthermore, the cooking methods used by pet food manufacturers, such as rendering, do not necessarily destroy the hormones which were used to fatten livestock or increase milk production -- or drugs such as antibiotics or the barbiturates used to euthanize animals.

It gets worse. Some news reports have accused the pet food industry of using everything from household pets, zoo animals and even roadkill in the production of their products. In 1990, John Eckhouse, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a two-part expose on the rendering of companion animals in California. While the pet food companies vehemently denied that this was happening, a rendering plant employee told Eckhouse that "it was common practice for his company to process dead pets into products sold to pet food manufacturers."

Several years later, Ann N. Martin, an animal rights activist and commercial pet food critic, began her own investigation into the issue. As recounted in her article "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" (Summer 1996 Earth Island Journal), Martin contacted several companies that picked up euthanized animals from veterinary clinics and disposed of the bodies. Known as "recollectors," officials from these companies confirmed that unless cremation was specifically requested and paid for, the dead pets were typically disposed of by rendering and the materials sold to pet food companies. Amazingly, there is no federal law that prohibits the use of rendered dogs and cats in pet food.

However, Linda Grassie, public information specialist for The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, says the FDA understands that many pet food manufacturers will not accept ingredients made from rendered dogs and cats. "The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that pet foods, like human foods, be safe, contain no harmful or deleterious substances, and be truthfully labeled," Grassie said.

In response to Echols' disturbing discovery in the can of Pedigree dog food, Alice Nathanson, a Spokesperson for Kal Kan, a sister company of Pedigree which is owned by Mars, Inc., stated that her employer has stringent polices in place to prohibit such materials from ever entering their supply chain.

"All of the meats used in our products come from animals that have gone through the USDA inspection process -- the types of meats that humans eat," Nathanson said. "We work to maintain the highest quality standards in all stages of our manufacturing process starting with our supply of raw materials to the production of our finished products."

Steven Payne, PR Manager of the Pet Food Institute, a public and media relations resource for the pet food industry, stresses that while the practice of using rendered companion animals in pet food may not be illegal, it's against industry practice.

"We represent the makers of about 95 percent of the country's dog and cat food, including Pedigree, and they don't do it" (use rendered companion animals), Payne said. "Our members have gone so far as to sign certifications that they don't do it. There are some independent rendering plants that will take euthanized companion animals, but very few, and the vast majority of pet food companies won't deal with such material. Most have very exacting product specifications for their ingredients. The risk is simply greater than the payoff. If a rendering company ever gets caught doing it (selling rendered companion animals) they'll never do business in the pet food industry again."

One industry spokesperson who talked on the condition of anonymity said that another reason why using companion animals in pet food is so rare is simple economics. "The rendering process is done to retrieve fats and protein," he said. "Dogs and cats are primarily bones and fur, it just doesn't make good business sense."

The API report concluded that while the purchase price of pet food doesn't always determine whether a pet food is good or bad, the price is often a good indicator of quality. For example, the report points out that it would be impossible for a company that sells a generic brand of dog food at $9.95 for a 40-lb. bag to use quality protein and grain in its food. The cost of purchasing quality ingredients would be much higher than the selling price. Bottom line, there are hundreds of different pet foods available. And while many of the foods on the market are similar, not all of the pet food manufacturing companies use poor quality or potentially dangerous ingredients. *

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