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.