Friday night of the long week end, a small crowd has gathered at the Cecil Street Community Centre for a forum on what just a few months ago would have been a snore of a topic: pet nutrition. No doubt this is an impassioned bunch. Some lost pets to tainted food. Others came close.
When Elizabeth Hodgkins, a California vet and former researcher with Hill's Pet Nutrition and a veterinary biotech firm, takes the mic to tell the crowd that more recalls lie ahead and that far larger threats are in store, the room is still. Tainted wheat gluten, says Hodgkins, is just the tip of the iceberg. An alarmingly unregulated $38 billion industry is selling us a bill, or more aptly, a bag of goods.
The pet food industry has always been a dumping ground for poor-quality ingredients unfit for human consumption. In fact, the feds are just getting around to banning potentially BSE-tainted bovine material like brains, tonsils and spinal tissue this coming July. The Pet Food Association of Canada says we can expect to see some of our favourite U.S. brands stopped at the border because of it.
But worse than dodgy meat bits, warns Hodkins, is the predominance of cheap grain fillers, especially in dry kibble that's up to 50 per cent carbs. Stuff like corn and wheat might sound harmless to human ears, but grain-based gluten and concentrates make for cheap and poorly processed protein substitutes. And beyond their role in two deadly recalls (both the melamine and last year's aflatoxin scares involved grain-based proteins), they're fuelling an epidemic of obese pets suffering from diabetes and urinary tract woes. One look at my 17-pound tomcat recovering from pee problems confirms the thesis.
Hodgkins has dedicated her research to this connection since her cat first came down with health-crippling diabetes in the 90s. On a hunch, she yanked sugar-converting carbs from her feline's diet. The effects were so dramatic, she soon patented a low-carb, high-protein recipe for diabetic cats that was purchased by Purina.
Scan the Web and you'll find a rash of blogs and online pet forums loaded with pet owners who blame high-carb dry foods for their cats' diabetes and marvel at how they gave up insulin soon after switching to low-carb or carb-free diets.
"The larger problem," Hodgkins tells NOW, "is that pet food companies have convinced people to use their foods as exclusive diets. We've been told nothing must ever pass your pet's lips if it doesn't come out of this bag or this can. These are animals that evolved in 99.9 per cent of their history without our help."
Her biggest beef is misleading labels. South of the border, companies are allowed to claim to be complete and balanced for all life stages, although puppy and kitten food only has to be tested for 10 weeks. In the case of adult food, six months of testing suffices.
"I'm sorry, but that's not long enough," says Hodgkins - especially since, according to Association of American Feed Control Officials standards (a private body that's been delegated by the U.S. FDA to regulate feed nutrients), you only need to test that food on six animals. "Most testing will start with eight to allow for a couple to fall out. And believe me, a passing grade is not very hard to get."
Why should we care? Well, Canadians get up to 90 per cent of our pet food from the U.S. Besides, Canada doesn't have a regulatory body of its own that monitors much of this.
Bottom line? Company claims lead owners to place blind trust in pet foods when it should be a buyer-beware market, says Hodgkins.
All the high-protein talk can sound like a giant endorsement of Atkins for Cats, but any vet will tell you cats are by necessity carnivores. So why isn't every vet slamming the health ramifications of carb-heavy kibble?
"If you're looking for a study that says a high-carbohydrate diet is detrimental for cats, that study is not out there," says Margarethe Hoenig of the University of Georgia's department of veterinary physiology and pharmacology. She says her own studies have shown that cats on high-carb diets burn calories more slowly, becoming obese quicker (obviously a problem given that 35 to 40 per cent of adult cats and dogs are obese). Though the diabetes connection is less clear, it's not because rates of the illness among cats aren't climbing. There's been a dramatic three- to five-fold jump in the last few decades. The problem is that proper long-term studies haven't been done.
"Diabetes doesn't develop in four months, a year or two years. It takes years to develop, and there is no study out there that has looked at the difference between these two diets over a five- or 10-year period. It just hasn't been done long-term. Who's funding a 10-year study?"
Good question. Who's sponsoring any of the studies on animal nutrition? "A lot of the research is funded by the industry. We have to be very grateful, really, to the industry, because there is no federal funding for dietary studies in pets. Unless [that funding comes with] strings attached." When pressed to confide which companies are applying such pressure, Hoenig stays mum.
It's a point that gets raised at the Cecil Street meet by host MPP Rosario Marchese. He tells NOW, "University of Guelph is the main veterinary college in Ontario, and it has no nutritionist teaching in the [core curriculum]. Companies like Hill's and Royal Canin/Medi-Cal provide the only nutritional information that veterinary students receive, including free products. That is a problem."
Indeed, Marchese is tabling a private member's bill this week that will require Ontario post-secondary schools to report annually on all private donations they receive and come clean on any agreements signed between them and the private sector to smoke out just such connections.
Marion Smart, clinical studies and nutrition prof at Saskatoon's Western College of Veterinary Medicine, has surveyed every accredited veterinary college on the continent and found a similar pattern almost everywhere. "The pet food industry has seen this void and filled it by sponsoring and supporting nutrition programs in colleges. If the educators aren't willing to take hold of it, in a way the pet food industry is doing a service and a disservice to veterinarians."
Increasing humanization of our furry friends, says Smart, means people are willing to spend more and more money on their pets ($15 billion more since 98), and pet food companies are exploiting that fact.
"[The public] doesn't realize that there's a lot of hype associated with pet foods. Marketing departments (which industry-wide have a $400 million ad budget in the U.S. alone) seem to have control over what is said as far as 'holistic,' 'premium' and 'ultra-premium. '" They might add a few fancy herbs, says Smart, but the main ingredients are essentially the same.
Many so-called premium and organic brands also pump ingredients like carrots and beets, but, notes Smart, "Cats have no nutritional requirements for vegetables - just protein, and preferably animal protein." Plus, the high sugar content of many of these veggies doesn't help matters. Even natural "grain-free" brands on shelves these days have just replaced corn with starchy potatoes and tapioca.
And those so-called prescription diets vets sell? Same story. Smart says they may be somewhat better-researched than the rest, but their dry goods are still high in carbs and clearly share ingredient sources with non-prescription brands. Their names were on those recall lists.
Meanwhile, the Pet Food Association of Canada rejects any notion that its members' products may be nutritionally inadequate. Says PFAC executive director Martha Wilder, "We have volumes of research in the pet food industry on what's nutritionally appropriate for every species, and we're feeding for various life stages." Pressed about the rise in diabetes in cats, she says, "That's strictly anecdotal. There's no evidence of that.
"We're already doing a good job of self-regulating," offers Wilder. Where there may be a gap is on the recall side, and she completely supports government regulation in that area.
For its part, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association says it already offers a nutrient standard and monitoring system for pet food brands that sign up for it (about 10 per cent of the Canadian market). CVMA communications director Suzanne Lavictoire says its voluntary standard is more rigorous than the U.S.-based AAFCO system, requiring testing of every batch of pet food produced to make sure it's nutritionally up to par. Problem is, the bar it sets is based on questionable AAFCO levels. There are no maximum standards for carbs in cat food, for instance, and protein requirements are pretty minimal. As for the diabetes question, Lavictoire says longer lifespans are to blame.
Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow says it's time for a system-wide overhaul. She has tabled a motion in the House calling for immediate regulation of the industry and enforcement of Canada's existing rules against fraudulent advertising, which are tougher than those in the U.S. "If we set a high standard, if the pet food industry in Canada is of good quality, then people will want to buy Canadian."
Spending more on pet foods will have to be part of the equation if we want to get rid of those cheap fillers, says Hogkins. In the meantime, the vet says it's all about education and getting people to read ingredient lists.
I get a good scolding when I tell her my cat's on a low-carb natural dry food. "There's no such creature," warns Hodgkins. But he won't eat wet food, I plead. "He's addicted, and you need to get him off." Yes, ma'am.
"If people understand, they will act. They will make the appropriate demands. They'll stop buying the dry foods for their cats (use low-carb canned or high-grade raw food instead, says the vet). They'll only buy better-quality dry or wet foods for their dogs, and they'll force more truthfulness in labelling, either through government, direct pressure or lawsuits."
It may be her lucky month. Just two weeks ago, a class-action lawsuit was filed against pet food companies and retailers in the States for making misleading claims about how nutritious their foods are. And Canada? Well, Canadian Food Inspection Agency reps say they're investigating their options.
How to read pet food labels
Beef cat food
must contain at least 95 per cent beef
Beef entree or feast
at least 25 per cent beef
as little as 3 per cent beef