Pet Food Recalls and All Natural, Holistic and Family Owned Labeling

As of yesterday, another pet food brand has been added to the recall list. The recall of Solid Gold brings the total number to 14, and a lot of people speculate that, with Diamond Pet Foods being the country’s largest co-packer of private label kibble, there are possibly more still to come.

The recall of Solid Gold has come as a surprise to a lot of people, because this is a company that has been at the forefront of the marketing of their food as “All Natural’, “Holistic” and “family owned” – the trifecta of buzz phrases guaranteed to make pet food consumers believe that these brands are immune from the recalls that seemingly plague “Big Business” owned brands. Even as brands like Canidae and Natural Balance are being pulled (two more foods sold as “All Natural”), I am still seeing people profess a belief that their preferred brand could never be recalled, because it’s “only made from natural ingredients”, or “it’s not a big company – it’s family owned, which means they care about their food”.

In light of the fact that I don’t seem able to convince most people to stop falling for claims like “all natural” and “holistic”, I thought instead we could try to clarify what these claims actually mean, as opposed to what people believe them to mean.

The words “all natural” convey to the average consumer an image of fresh, natural, whole food ingredients, as opposed to chemicals created in a laboratory. Fair enough, but the operative word here is ‘image’, as opposed to reality. After all,  Salmonella is technically ‘natural’ – it’s not cooked up in the lab, but is a naturally occurring, living organism. Rabies is ‘natural’, too, and so is botulism. The poison mushrooms that grow in the field near my house are “all natural”, too, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t kill my dogs if they ate them.

Marion Nestle does her typical wonderful job in breaking down exactly what AAFCO requires from pet food companies who label their foods as “all natural” –

Because the government has never bothered to define “natural” for human foods, this word essentially means anything the manufacturer says it does. For pet foods, however, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has an official definition:

Natural: A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes.

Got that? You can render or extrude a pet food to mush, but it’s “natural” if you haven’t added anything synthetic—unless you had to. AAFCO also says that “natural” must not mislead; if it appears on the label, every ingredient in the product must meet the definition. But even AAFCO knows this is impossible. Pet food companies typically buy vitamins, minerals and other additives from factories overseas, where, as we learned in last year’s pet food recalls, quality controls are sometimes nonexistent.


Read the rest here – it’s really wonderful, and also examines the phrases “organic” and “human grade”.

A claim of “all natural” is a convenient phrase for pet food companies to use on their labeling, because there is such a wide reaching scope of just what companies are allowed to designate as ‘natural’. A  writer for discovered this when doing research human foods which are labeled “all natural”, and yet which still contain MSG  –

I published an article about autolyzed yeast extract containing MSG, and I was contacted by the manufacturer of a popular veggie burger product who claimed that my article was incorrect, that their product didn’t contain MSG, and that they used nothing but all-natural ingredients. I replied by reading their PR person the list of ingredients printed right on their own box (which included autolyzed yeast extract), then I showed them documentation supporting the fact that autolyzed yeast extract always contains MSG, and that autolyzed yeast extract is used for only one purpose in manufactured foods: as a chemical taste enhancer. It has no other purpose in the realm of food science.

At this point the spokesperson for this veggie burger manufacturer admitted that, yes, their product did contain free glutamic acid, which is another way of saying MSG, but that it was from an all-natural source

Read the rest:

The same sort of mislabeling trickery is even more rampant in pet foods, where labeling laws are murky at best, and regulation shaky.

The phrase “holistic” when applied to pet food is even more meaningless. What it means, exactly is open for interpretation at the best of times, considering that the common definition is –

Characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
Characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical

In traditional medicine, this would mean including ingredients that play a specific role in balancing the “chi” of the being consuming them, or so some people say. You can’t really define a term that has no commonly accepted definition, and again, it’s a term that has no regulated meaning.

In the common vernacular of the kibble industry, “holistic” usually means someone told the marketing department “We have no idea what it means, but people seem to like it, so stick it on the bag someplace”.

Right now if you Google the phrase “Holistic Pet Food”, and you’ll the first page of results will include four of the currently recalled pet foods, including Solid Gold, Canidae and Eagle Pack.

Apparently ‘holistic’ doesn’t exclude there being salmonella in your food.

A personal pet peeve of mine is when consumers and companies tout ‘family owned’ as a sure fire badge of food quality. I don’t happen to have anything against small family businesses, but I’ve seen first hand in the pet food industry that, while bigger isn’t better, neither is smaller. A company needs enough capital behind it to progress beyond the ‘making it on our garage’ phase. Testing, research, nutritional analysis, safe and sanitary production facilities – these all cost a lot of money. A ‘small company’  that wants to succeed and has a demand for their product quickly grows into needing capital for this kind of purchase, which often leads to them selling out to an investment partnership that gives them the capital they need, at the price of now being answerable to a board that wants to see profits at all cost.

The second option is even worse, which is when “small family run” equals  “so small we don’t own our own plant”, which equals “co packed”, which more and more frequently equals “Diamond”.

Of course, if all you want to see in your pet food company is that they’re family owned, don’t forget that Mars Pedigree is still one of the largest ‘family owned‘ companies in the world.


UPDATED: Diamond Pet Food Recalls Expand to 14 Brands (and counting)

From the Honest Dog Blog comes the newest list of brands recalled for Salmonella contamination, as of Monday, May 7 2012:

The number of brands included in the rolling pet food recall related to salmonella contamination at a Diamond Pet Food manufacturing plant has now grown to 13. The updated list includes:

  • Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul
  • Kirkland (C0stco brand)
  • Country Value
  • Diamond
  • Diamond Naturals
  • Premium Edge
  • Professional
  • 4Health
  • Taste of the Wild
  • Natural Balance
  • Wellness
  • Canidae
  • Apex
  • NEW! Solid Gold

Read the entire post for more details, including information on possible incorrect production codes and SKUs.

Read more

Following the Food Chain

I am not always the most attentive shopper. I’ve a tendency to grab items at random off of the shelves, rarely, if ever, managing to remember to check provenance to make sure that my picks have come from a local producer whenever possible. I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself that buying most of my fruit, veg and meat from independent local producers is good enough, but occasionally reality jumps up and says “not so fast”.

Take the long distance snow pea fiasco. You know what snow peas are, right? Those little flat pea pods used in asian cooking. I like to throw them into my stir frys for some crunch, when they’re not too pricey. Lately, the one market I shop at for staples has had little packets of snow peas for just ninety nine cents.  That’s a great price for a veggie that usually sells locally for $2.99 per pound, so I’ve been grabbing packets whenever I shop in this store.

A few weeks ago, I found one of these snow pea packets in the bottom of what I fondly refer to as “the crisper of doom”. It’s where good lettuce goes to die a slow, watery death when I periodically decide that making salads is the devil’s work, and instead live off of coffee and cheetos for a week at a time. Then, overcome with guilt and feeling deservedly despicable, I clean out the crisper, moaning about how, if I only had a pig, none of this expired produce would be wasted.

Buried under the semi liquid lettuce and the lonely avocodo that was developing its own eco system was the packet of snow peas – still bright green, fresh looking and apparently untouched by age or decay. Odd, this, because snow peas, while hardy, and not exactly indestructible, or at least not in my previous experience. I pulled the packet out, and finally had a good, hard look at its contents and its labeling.

Turns out that my ‘reasonably priced’ snow peas faced a long journey to get to the bottom of my crisper – they were imported. From China. I took a look at Google maps, and it seems that this is a trip of about 19,000 kilometres (part of which Google suggested I accomplish via kayaking across the Pacific).

19,ooo kilometres, to sell a .99 cent package of snow peas. The economic math just doesn’t seem to add up, does it? Apparently, though, it does – this is a fast moving item at my local grocery store, and I’ve seen the same snow pea packets at a few other stores, as well.

Then there was the pickle conondrum. Shopping at the same market, I was perusing my shopping list and noticed we needed pickles. Around the next aisle was an end cap display of  “Farmer’s Pride” baby dill pickles, on sale for just $1.59. A good price, even though I’m usually a name brand pickle type of girl, so I grabbed a jar. It wasn’t until I was home that I took a good look at the label, and realized that “Farmers Pride” had come to me all the way from India (about 18,000 kilometres, and Google had no suggestions for methods of crossing the ocean).

Snow peas, at least, are neither breakable nor heavy. You can jam a lot of packets of snow peas into a single crate, or so I’d assume. Pickles? Not so much. Glass breaks, and has to be packed with care. Shipping a load of fragile glass jars of pickles across an entire ocean and two continents would seem to be a journey that would involve more than a dollar sixty price tag. I’ve bought imported food stuff from India before – curry sauces and chutneys – and I don’t remember ever paying less than $5 or $6 per small jar.

Again, the economic math doesn’t seem to add up – but to the producers in India and China, it certainly seems possible to make a profit shipping goods all the way around the world to North America, even if they’re cheaply priced goods.

The same profit margin applies to pet food ingredients. Years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of a pet food company finding it cost efficient to get their animal meals and proteins shipped all the way from China. Now, however, we know that this is standard operating procedure at more and more North American manufacturers.

Take the salmonella outbreak recently reported on in the American Journal of Pediatrics. The article says, in part, that the salmonella strain responsible for the illnesses and deaths was Salmonella Schwarzengrund.

I’m not up on my Salmonella strains, so I googled around to find out some more about, and discovered this, on the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics website:

Salmonella schwarzengrund (strain CVM19633) is the predominant cause of salmonellosis in Southeast Asia, a major source of imported food products to the United States

The Journal of Pediatrics article says that the Salmonella Schwarzengrund outbreak they studied was traced back to a single (un named) pet food manufacturer and plant. There is never any mention of where the original plant contamination was traced to, but I have to wonder – were they using imported animal proteins, and in particular, were they using animal proteins imported from Southeast Asia?

The big question for consumers who do pay attention to labeling becomes “how do we know?”.  How do we know if the pet food we’re buying contains imported ingredients? The short answer seems to be “we don’t”. Labeling on consumer goods, pet food included, is frustratingly oblique.

A food that is made entirely of cheaply imported ingredients can still be labeled “Made in Canada” or “Made in the USA”, so long as those ingredients are combined and turned into the end product in the named country. Worse still, food can be made in an entirely different country altogether, and still be labeled “Packed in the USA”.

The closest definition I can seem to find applies to Canada, and refers to the labeling term “Product of Canada”. In this case, the CFIA states that for the label to be accurate, the following conditions must apply:

A food product may claim Product of Canada when all or virtually all major ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the food product are Canadian. This means that all significant ingredients are Canadian and non-Canadian material must be negligible. Ingredients that are present in a food at very low levels and that are not generally produced in Canada, including spices, food additives, vitamins, minerals, and flavouring preparations, may be used without disqualifying the food from making a Product of Canada claim.

The issue, again, is that there can still be ‘other’ ingredients from outside Canada – and even then, there’s no real regulation of the way this labeling must be applied to pet food, since the pet food industry in Canada is entirely self governed.

In the US, pet food labeling is jointly overseen by the FDA and by AAFCO. There are numerous labeling laws in place, but NONE of them cover details of where the ingredients within the pet food were sourced from.

As consumers, it seems we’re on our own with this one when it comes to pet food. We can ask the government to step in, but ultimately it’s going to be on us to try to make sure we know not just where our food was made, but where the ingredients it contains have come from.

Start by contacting the pet food company you use. Ask them simple, clear questions – do you import any of the animal protein ingredients in your food? Starches? Other ingredients? Most companies will answer these questions truthfully – it’s not worth the lawsuit to lie to a single consumer. If a company can’t answer your questions, ask them to have someone call or email you who can.

If a company won’t answer your questions, take that as a “yes”, and choose to buy from someone else.

Finally, if all else fails, do what so many of us have chosen to do – and make your own. Just make sure the read the labeling on the ingredients you choose to put into it.

I broke the baby

Turbo Charged Pickle

Turbo Charged Pickle

Well, it’s been a fun week. Someone at work gave me two bags of a new brand of raw dog food, and I stupidly decided to feed it to the babies. The result? Food poisoning, in all seven puppies who ate it. Bad food poisoning, no less – the kind that’s like a scene from the Exorcist, complete with projectile vomiting and diahrrea.


A very expensive vet visit later, and a battery of fecal testing testing confirms only that it’s some kind of bacteria, probably campylobacter or clostridium, but likely not salmonella. We’ll have lab results in a few days. All the babies had to go on antibiotics, but thank goodness they’ve all recovered in near record time. Just 48 hours later, and it’s like it never happened at all.

As much as I am a proponent of raw feeding, the problem is that if it’s not made using the very best ingredients and with rigorous testing, there will always be a risk of incidents like this. In commercial raw especially it’s essential to know not just the ingredients, but how they’re made, how they’re testing for contaminants, and if the company follows proper food handling protocols. Sadly, I’ve learned that an awful lot of companies are somewhat lax about cleanliness and quality of processing and ingredients. Too risky for me, thanks.

Topping it all off, Leah got a quick and painful lesson in why we don’t go near the sensitive parts of boys. After she bit Elliott on the winkie (while he was peeing, no less) he retaliated by chomping her on her tender little face. Poor Leah – she probably won’t have a scar, but it definitely left a mark, and scared both her and I half to death. Nothing says “please make it stop” like a tiny baby puppy who’s screeching in pain.

Super Sad Leah

Super Sad Leah

The trauma was all too much for Leah – the food poisoning on top of the face bite combined to make her ear drop back down again, a not untypical Frenchie puppy reaction to stress. Think of it as a Frenchie mood barometer – it will come back up when she’s back to feeling 100% again. In the meantime, Sean has been asking her if the other puppies are calling her “baby” and making fun of her flopsy ear. I’ve been telling it just makes her look even more adorable than she already is.

New photos of the rugrats after the cut.

Read more