Commentary: The trouble with YouTube

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Most adults are experienced at filtering the rivers of ‘information’ encountered each day online. Not so for kids; they take what they watch as gospel, and that’s a concern for animal agriculture.

We love our pets, and it would take way more space than is available here to detail even a fraction of the crazy, over-the-top, extravagantly expensive lengths people go to shower their dogs, cats and other animals with what they believe is the good life.

Total it all up, and the “Pets” market segment represents a $55.6 billion dollar industry, according to 2103 statistics from American Pet Products Association. The biggest segment, naturally enough, is the $21.26 billion spent annually on pet food for an estimated 160 million dogs and cats living in U.S. households.

APPA’s data are all very authoritative. However, deep down in the group’s statistical breakdown of pet-industry revenues is a short disclaimer: “Food category includes treats.”

That’s of interest, because since 2007, FDA has been monitoring illnesses in pets linked to the consumption of those treats, principally pet jerky. According to a bulletin issued this week, FDA’s Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network has received thousands of reports of illnesses that agency officials believe are related to the consumption of jerky treats. Those incidents involve more than 3,600 dogs and 10 cats and include 580 deaths, FDA stated in a news release.

The reasons that six years have elapsed since the initial reports, and the exact causes are still unknown, are obvious: FDA doesn’t require registration of pet food, so no comprehensive ingredient database is available. And when pets die—even after a sudden or unexpected illness—a necropsy is rarely conducted, so no cause of death can be determined.

Almost 90 percent of the pet illness reports FDA has received involve gastrointestinal disorders and kidney or urinary complications, which underscores the likelihood that pets are eating something that’s probably contaminated. Along with pathogens such as salmonella, FDA has investigated such potential contaminants as:

  • Heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium or lead
  • Pesticide and antibiotic residues
  • Mold and mycotoxins
  • Nephrotoxins, such as ethylene glycol or melamine

That last item ought to ring a bell, because melamine is a toxic industrial chemical implicated in several foodborne outbreaks. In 2007, Menu Foods Limited—at the time the largest North American manufacturers of wet cat and dog food—was forced to recall more than 60 million containers of pet food after investigators discovered that melanine and other chemicals—including rat poison—present in their products had sickened hundreds of cats and dogs and killed at least 104.

In 2008, melanine contamination was responsible for widespread illness and several infant deaths in China when it was discovered to have been illegally added to baby formula as a cheap way to boost protein content.

If it’s online, it must be true

Obviously, pet food—and baby food—contamination is a serious issue, one that a variety of media has covered. But I wasn’t prepared for the impact of “coverage” from one source—YouTube—until I was alerted to it by my 10-year-old son Brendan.

He breathlessly urged me to watch a video clip from a series called The Animalist, which features a kid-friendly host talking about issues involving animals. You can probably guess the topics—animal abuse on “factory farms,” the horrors of puppy mills and the urgent need to rescue and adopt as many dogs and cats as possible.

Kids—ask your parents’ permission before adopting any animal.

The content wasn’t a surprise. But what I really didn’t understand (until now) is that YouTube is worshipped by pre-teens and tweenagers, to the point that for that demographic, it’s become a parody of the punch line adults laugh at: “If it’s on YouTube, it must be true.”

My son enthusiastically tells anyone who will listen that his fondest dream is to have his own YouTube channel, and he absorbs the two-minute Animalist clips religiously. Here’s the problem: Despite the fact that the digital network is part of the Discovery Channel’s family of properties, the content served up on the Animalist is not only dumbed down for its young audience but is blatantly slanted toward a so-called eco-friendly agenda.

For example: In discussing the pet treat outbreak, Alex, the Animalist host, spent a minute or so outlining the threat to pets from contaminated jerky treats and referenced FDA’s investigation, although criticizing the agency for not doing more to ensure pet food safety.

But then he suddenly shifted gears and started interviewing a representative from Paw Patch Pastries, a company marketing “healthy,” organic pet treats. In a ludicrous segment, the woman noted that, “It’s so hard to find pet treats without salt or other additives.” Her solution? Organic vegetarian treats sold by her company.

Quote right, the host chimed in, and I quote, “You should probably stick to feeding your pet healthier, natural foods, like fruits and vegetables—carrots, apples, melons or green beans. That’s a better choice.”

Yeah—if your pet is a silverback gorilla.

Otherwise, his advice is completely ridiculous for cats—pure carnivores—and only slightly less so for dogs.

After all the hand-wringing over this animal health controversy, which ultimately leads back to unregulated, unscrupulous Chinese ingredient suppliers, the solution isn’t purchasing bags of high-priced organic veggie treats for your pets, as the Animalist gospel commands.

Instead, the best advice is the recommendation offered by FDA officials in a statement simply labeled, Treats Are a Treat.

“Treats are not a part of a fully balanced diet,” the agency explained, “and eliminating them will not cause any harm.”

Here’s my question: Can we get FDA to issue a similar “guidance” for pet owners?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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