What’s in a name? If it’s pet food, the odds are good that the ‘gourmet’ description on the label doesn’t match the actual contents in the can. But is that actually a bad thing?
Pet food holds a unique place in cultural lore.
On one hand, it’s the iconic symbol of ultimate degradation: Elderly people in poverty forced to eat dog food out of a can, the idea being they can’t afford anything else.
On the other hand, if you’ve witnessed any of the ads for high-end dog food, they’re the canine equivalent of soft drink commercials for people: Happy, healthy dogs romping across a pristine park, or maybe bounding along a beach, the picture of health and vitality.
All thanks to a hearty serving of whatever’s in the dog’s dish. The product doesn’t usually warrant a close-up, but who cares? The dog in the commercial is wolfing it down like it was an outtake from filming “The Call of the Wild.”
Cat commercials are even worse. In those flights of fantasy, the well-groomed owner, and the even better groomed cat, engage in a pirouette pour deux that culminates in the serving of an elegant (by feline standards) glob of some (allegedly) gourmet concoction that, again, the cat starts gobbling down like it hasn’t eaten all week.
The pitch is similar to what advertisers try to do with baby food: Market the product to the adult, not the kid; they’re only interested in quelling their hunger. Babies don’t care about fresh ingredients, quality cuts and the culinary care with which it’s all prepared.
Most of the time, that arrangement works out well. The parent or pet owner embraces the comforting, if fanciful, product descriptions, and the cat, dog or baby gets to shove something edible into their mouth.
It’s all good.
What’s really inside the can?
Until some do-gooder decides to rip the lid off the pet food industry, which was the point of a story this week in Nature World News titled, “Pet Food is More Mystery Meat Than We Thought.”
The article was based on a study published in the Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica detailing how British researchers from the University of Nottingham compared the DNA in 17 dog and cat food brands with the ingredient statement.
“The researchers looked for the presence of cow, chicken, pig, and horse DNA,” the article stated, which identified the presence of generic “beef” or “chicken” or “pork.” Of course, only the truly ignorant actually expect that “beef” means filet mignon, or that “pork” means slices of Honey-Baked Ham.
But the labeling problem goes beyond terminology, the authors argued.
“It may be a surprise to shoppers to discover that prominently described contents such as ‘beef’ on a tin could, within [industry] guidelines, have no bovine skeletal muscle (meat),” the lead author, Kin-Chow Chang, said in a statement.
Here’s another surprise: In the wild, canine or feline animals don’t prefer the muscle meat. They go for the organs first, because that’s where the most concentrated nutrients are found: in the “offal” we humans disdain.
(And by the way, can’t someone come up with a better name? Other than “rump roast,” offal is probably the single worst descriptor in the entire industry).
According to the study, seven UK brands that were labeled as containing “real beef” or the description “with beef” only contained up to 56% bovine DNA. Some brands contained only 14% beef, while only two of the seven samples contained more beef than pork and chicken combined.
Given the price of beef, that’s not surprising, although whether it’s Fluffy, Fido or Junior, everyone should be eating food that’s properly labeled.
But the idea that there’s not a predominance of skeletal meat in that $1.29 can of dog food? You’re doing your pet a favor if he or she is eating a product containing the organ meats we’re too dainty to consume.
There is one final absurdity the authors tried to gin up in their article.
“The pet food industry [needs] to show greater transparency to customers in the disclosure of the types of animal proteins in their products,” Chang stated. “Full disclosure of animal contents will allow more informed choices to be made on purchases, which are particularly important . . . to avoid potential religious concerns.”
Okay, you can follow religious strictures in your own diet all you want. But there remains a fundamental difference between people and pets: Animals don’t have religious concerns.
There is no such thing as a Catholic cat or a Jewish dog or any connection whatsoever to the dietary restrictions of any religion for any animal alive on earth.
Forget religion: pets should be eating foods as close to their natural diet as possible.
And you know what? People should, too.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator