If after reading this new exposé of the pet food industry, “Big Kibble: The Hidden Dangers of the Pet Food Industry and How to Do Better by Our Dogs” by Shawn Buckley and Dr. Oscar Chavez, you don’t decide to try to change how you feed your cat or dog, I don’t want to know what’s in your own refrigerator. While some of what is in this new nonfiction release is not news to savvy pet caregivers (I like to consider myself at least somewhat savvy), there is plenty to shock them.
I really appreciate that Buckley and Chavez name names and call out the unhealthy — and often dangerous — manufacturing practices and ingredients that are included in the pet food we believe we are carefully buying for our beloved dogs and cats. What they call “Big Kibble” is mainly food distributed by the five largest kibble companies in the world. And even small, boutique makers of pet food like Merrick and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish have been gobbled up by the larger corporations: Mars Petcare Inc., Nestlé Purina, J. M. Smucker, Diamond Pet Foods, and Hill’s (a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive). I appreciate that while condemning many of the practices that these huge pet food companies employ, the authors are careful not to paint the actual employees with the same brush. There is an attempt to paint an even-handed view of the large corporations. In the introduction, they write:
“If you talk to individuals working at any point along the Big Kibble production chain, of course you’ll find plenty of caring, conscientious dog lovers. We’re not trying to suggest that individual employees at any of these companies have nefarious aims, or even that they’re adopting a willful blindness to the practices of the corporations for which they work. People working in pet food tend to love pets. Even the companies themselves do plenty of good things. Purina, for example, has some of the most dog-friendly offices in the nation.”
BUT, and that’s a huge “but,” one of the basic problems is that there is little oversight monitoring the pet food industry. We consumers rely on the regulatory agencies to police the food we buy for our pets, and apparently that’s a mistake. We learn the FDA doesn’t oversee feeding trials that the companies perform; the companies themselves not only perform the trials, they interpret them. The authors talked to a supervisory veterinarian at the FDA, and he informed them that in his twenty-five years at his job, he didn’t think there was one instance in which a feeding trial was questioned by the FDA. It’s kind of like the wolf guarding the hen house — the companies producing the pet food decide that their food meets industry standards.
There is much in the book about the deceptive practices employed by pet food companies when describing the food we buy. If a product is listed as “lamb,” it actually only needs to contain 25% lamb, and if water is added for processing as with canned food, and it’s called “lamb dinner” or “lamb platter,” then the feed only needs to contain 10% lamb by weight. Furthermore, the industry AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines have an interesting interpretation of the word “with.” If a product uses the word “with” in the description, it only has to have three percent of that ingredient in the product. Buckley and Chavez present the example of Blue Buffalo’s “Grain-Free Coastal blend” dry dog feed “prepared with Dry and Raw Wild-Caught Pollack, Halibut, Sole, Nutrient Rich Organs and Cod.” That food is only required to have a minuscule percent of those fish in the final food. Interestingly, state regulators actually prevent companies from declaring that the protein in their pet food is made from USDA certified beef or chicken. The authors write that they believe this intervention “… comes from the desire to prevent companies using human-grade ingredients to boast about this fact, thereby calling attention to the lack of such ingredients in other products. How can customers choose something they don’t know is there?”
We learn about dog foods contaminated with melamine that had been added by unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers to boost the protein in wheat gluten. Those foods have been sold to numerous manufacturers — and have killed many dogs. Just a few years ago, many dog food cans contained pentobarbital, a powerful drug used for euthanizing animals like dogs and cats and horses (and even humans). Perhaps even more shocking is the information that when the FDA finds even a serious violation (like pentobarbital in the food), they don’t shut down the factory; they just issue a notice of violation.
Chapter 6 is the chapter you don’t want to be reading while eating anything. It contains by far the most stomach-turning information in this book, which is saying something. The food we buy for our pets, thinking that we are giving them healthy nutrition because that’s what the packaging tells us, are often filled with something called “4 D meat,” which is meat from animals that are dead, dying, destroyed, or diseased. That sounds bad, but it gets worse. Such “meat” can include decomposing animal carcasses and can be toxic. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has specific warnings about transporting what is called “deadstock.”
‘”Biosecurity is important when transporting deadstock because deadstock can remain infectious long after an animal has died.” A disease can jump from a dead animal to a live one, the agency warns. In a decomposing animal, the agency notes, it can happen that “liquefied tissues and bodily fluids escape from the body; these fluids, which may be infectious, can be difficult to contain and can easily contaminate the environment, drivers, equipment and the transport unit.”‘
And the environment, perhaps? Read on in chapter 6 to learn what other truly awful, downright disgusting things go into pet food. Unless you make your own pet food — and recipes are included — you cannot be sure that the ingredients in the food you buy at the pet store to feed your dog or cat are of high quality. The authors do offer another alternative, though. Chapter Nine is about the company owned by the two authors, JustFoodForDogs, which offers food made from USDA approved meats and real fruits and vegetables. A minor peeve is that this chapter reads like a commercial for their product. But to be fair, they also include a source for information about buying USDA quality food from other companies and refer readers to Susan Thixton’s “The List” that is available for purchase (https://truthaboutpetfood.com/the-list/). It’s a list of suppliers whose food is all USDA approved, and it’s very detailed regarding ingredients, whether the meat is sourced from animals raised humanely, and cost per animal. She calls The List “Pet foods I’d trust to give my own pets.”
While those kinds of pet foods are expensive, especially if, like me, you have multiple dogs and cats, after reading this book and being completely horrified by what is and isn’t in the processed food I’m feeding my dogs and cats, I’m in the market for a chest freezer, and I’ll be trying to make their food myself so I know exactly what is in it. It’s obvious that both authors are not only very knowledgable about this subject, they are also passionate about providing the best quality food possible for our pets. They love their animals as much as we do.
The preceding is just a bit of the plethora of information this book has to share. There is much more information in this extensive read, but for anyone who has a dog or cat, for all people who want the best for their beloved companions, this book is an important source of information. It will change how you shop, how you read labels, and what you know about the healthiest way to feed your pet. I’m sure that most of you, like me, feel that the term “pet” doesn’t really describe what our dogs and cats are to us. I want to know that I’m feeding them the high-quality food that I feed myself. Read this important book — your dogs and cats will be healthier for it.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by St. Martin’s Press, the publisher, for review purposes.