Saturday, March 31, 2007

(still) more thoughts on pet food

*edited to add*: Now Purina is in the game- Alpo Prime Chunks and Gravy recalled late last night (of course).

*edit #2*: Apparently the news is saying everything from "Hills Feline m/d is recalled" (which is true) to "All Hills dry pet foods are recalled" (which is definitely not true). JUST the Feline m/d- no other dry food products- are recalled.

Well, the pet food thing just got a little worse yesterday with a) the FDA's discovering of melamine in the tainted food, and b) Hills' recall of their prescription diet Feline m/d ("metabolic diet", for chubby cats). From what I can tell, melamine doesn't seem particularly toxic. According to VIN, a cat would need to eat about 4 kg of the tainted food to approach a lethal dose. One current theory is that melamine, which is chemically fairly similar to aminopterin, might be converted in the body to aminopterin. That would explain why melamine is present in the affected foods and in the kindeys/urine of animals who ate the foods, but why aminopterin is not necessarily present in all those places.

Anyway. Yesterday afternoon Menu Foods declared the recall a success and stated that all their foods are now safe. Shortly after, Hills announced their recall of m/d when they determined that the source of Menu's wheat gluten (called seitan when you feed it to people) was also the source of their own. Note that the first announcement of a recall was made late on Friday (the 17th), the announcement of the discovery of aminopterin was made last Friday (the 23rd), and the expanded recall and discovery of a new potential toxin was announced yesterday. Chris says this is a common technique in politics, to announce bad news just before the weekend so that people get all mad, then forget about it by the time Monday comes around. If we find out that Hills waited on this recall to make it on a more convenient day, they will have lost the trust of an awful lot of vets. Recalls happen, bad food gets into the food supply, and frankly with the globalization of food production, it's impressive that it doesn't happen more often. But to try to save your company's own skin by delaying the announcement of a recall, while however many pets are eating your (prescription) diet? That's disgusting.

Hills and vets have an interesting relationship. I think their sales line is "The #1 food vets feed their pets," and that's probably true. Some people claim that it's because Hills pays off vets to support their product... I've talked to a lot of people and that's simply not true. Some people say vets recommend it because they sell it, which is true in a lot of cases, but there are only a few companies that make prescription diets (Hills, Purina, and Royal Canin, I think). The main reason vets use and trust it is because vets are all scientists at heart, and Hills has a lot of research on their side. Their prescription diets do a lot of good things, and can replace or at least assist drug therapy in the treatment and control of certain diseases. They clearly spend a lot of time and money formulating their diets, and they get the science to back it up. They also invest a lot of money in vets and vet students. The sponsor a lot of our speakers, both related and unrelated to nutrition, and if we didn't have their funding we'd have a lot fewer opportunities. They even purchased all of us our copy of Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. So why have I still been so skeptical of them?

Maybe it's because I worked for Petco for way too long and have developed a large distrust of all things corporate. Everything in corporate is about CYA (cover your bum) and trying to look good to the public while making as much money as possible. Then don't do anything really beneficial for anyone but the company until you get caught. I'll admit that Petco made some remarkable changes to their animal care policies, but not until their San Francisco store got shut down for animal cruelty. In Hill's case, I think my skepticism came from reassurances that any pet food with a recognizable name (mainly Hills' Science Diet, Purina, or Iams/Eukanuba) is a good food, and what makes them better than the rest is their quality control. Little companies can't afford to be doing chem analyses on each batch of food they produce, while the big guys can. They can afford to make sure the food is safe and contains all the nutrients they say it does. And "pets need nutrients, not ingredients"- meaning that if protein comes from chicken, or soy, or grown in a petri dish, it doesn't matter because your dog's body will process them all the same way. Companies who make dog food using organic free-range chicken are selling more to pet owners than to pets.

I've heard those arguments over and over, and I believe them..... sorta.... I mean, their quality control has to be amazing, considering how many animals eat that food, since recalls like this put a black eye on the companies involved for a long time. And considering "super premium" food companies like Innova or Eagle Pack still only have about 5% of the share of the pet food market, deaths related to a toxin in their foods likely wouldn't even be noticed as being food-related, as it would affect so few pets.

But despite that, I still have a hard time buying the "nutrients, not ingredients" line. I understand it scientifically- your gut could care less what the source of those proteins are, it just wants to digest and absorb them. But at the same time, I can't believe I'd be just as healthy consuming a powder that contains all necessary nutrients as I would be eating a well-balanced diet that includes fresh foods (to quote Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."). Okay, so the body utilizes nutrients rather than ingredients, but ingredient type and source and quality all have to factor in to how well our body can extract nutrients from it, right?

My nutrition text states that to meet a dog's daily protein requirements, a kibble should have about 20% protein. Beyond that, protein is utilized not to build other proteins, but to provide energy. Carbs provide energy too, so most dog food companies use 20% protein and make up the rest of the energy needs with carbs, because protein is expensive while carbs are not. But who says that carbs are the best choice here? Cheaper yes, but would dogs do better with more protein? Does a high-carb kibble have any unintended side-effects? The Hills guy told us at a lunch talk the other day that n/d, their prescription cancer diet, is low carb because cancer feeds off of carbs. Lower the carbs, starve the cancer. So why not just use a low-carb diet all the time? It won't keep cancer from occurring, but if you never give it carbs to grow on in the first place.... But oh, carbs are cheap, protein is expensive.

This is my last point, I swear. This recall is coming from a breakdown in quality control somewhere. Perhaps not in the manufacturing plant, as they clearly didn't know to be testing for this toxin since they didn't even know what the toxin was. The breakdown came early on, when someone decided that importing pet food ingredients from China was safe, despite the fact the both of the toxins they've found are illegal for use in U.S. food production. Pets need nutrients, not ingredients.... but some ingredients have toxins from fertilizers and pesticides... Maybe Winnie doesn't need organic chicken, and maybe I'm buying her food for my own piece of mind. But at the beginning of all this, Hills' and IAMS' defenders kept insisting that this sort of thing could happen to any company, big or small. Now that they know what this is, I can say that it couldn't have happened to those companies who practice their quality control at the beginning of production- utilizing pesticide-free grains grown in the U.S.


Lynette said...

Interesting commentary. A couple of comments:

1) Do you think vets' feelings about Hills are affected at all by the fact that Hills provides free dry pet food to vet students at many vet schools, and funds vet student scholarships and nutrition programs?

2) Quote: "meaning that if protein comes from chicken, or soy, or grown in a petri dish, it doesn't matter because your dog's body will process them all the same way."

I certainly know this is not the case for cats. Cats are obligate carnivores and need MEAT. For example, that's why cats need taurine and arachnedic acid and dogs don't. Cats also lack enzymes necessary to process some food stuffs. Some excellent information on the subject is available at:

Specifically, Megan, you may find interesting Dr. Zoran's JAVMA article "The Carnivore Connection"

Bonnie said...

Hills made in roads in veterinary clinics with their testing before anyone was doing this. This was before they were owned by Colgate/Palmolive. It's a great marketing ploy and no doubt the company was sold for a huge amount of money.

Unfortunately, I am of the opinion of my former veterinary boss, in that Colgate sees Hills as a cash cow--and look what has happened.

I'm glad to hear a vet student questioning the issue of 'the body doesn't care where it gets the nutrients.' I'm an alternative healthcare provider. YES--the body does care. Not all nutrients are created equal.

Bonnie said...

Oops I can't edit: I mean to say not all nutrient sources are created equal!

Megan Watland said...

whoa, comments! I didn't notice these down here....

Lynette: I don't think people are too swayed by the free food, especially because there are several brands that do feeding programs (Hills, Iams, and Purina are here now, and I am working with Natura to start an Innova/California Naturals program). I think people are more swayed by the fact that soooo many vets recommend it, and by how much Hills supports us in other ways. Their name is all over the school, including on the back of our nutrition texts. Plus, Hills has the research factor, particularly for their prescription diets. That's enough to convince most science-minded people, myself included, that a diet works.

Also, I agree with you about the source of protein for cats. We talked a bit in nutrition about the practicality of ever feeding a cat a vegan diet, and that theoretically it could be done with hard work and a ton of artificially synthesized proteins, but that it probably would never be near a meat-based diet for quality. Which makes me wonder why we think high carb diets work for cats either.....

Bonnie- seems like a lot of vets are thinking that, especially with how Hills has handled notifying clinics of the recall. Vets should have found out from HILLS, not CNN. Hills is not putting vets first, even though vets are responsible for Hills being as popular as it is now.

Megan Watland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynette said...

Thanks for the reply, Megan.

Did you get a chance to look at Dr. Zoran's article? It's very good.

I believe with 100% certainty that commercial pet food caused illness in my pets. I agree with you, why not feed a low-carb diet all the time? I have personally worked with seven diabetic cats now (five of my own, and three fosters) - and five of the seven went off insulin with a change to a low-carb diet and temporary use of insulin. The others needed less insulin. Why not feed low-carb foods to begin with and avoid the risk of diabetes?

Likewise, I've worked with four cats with IBD. Likewise, their problems disappeared with the use of a grain-free wet diet. It makes sense to me - if corn, for example, is hard for me (an omnivore) to digest - is it a far reach to assume it's difficult for a cat, a strict carnivore? One that lacks digestive enzymes to process plant material?

Cats evolved from a desert species and were designed to get most moisture from their prey, not drinking. It's been shown that cats fed wet diets have more water intake and more dilute urine than cats fed dry food. Hills recently showed that cats fed a wet diet had less recurrence of urinary crystals than cats fed a prescription dry diet.

Yet these high-carbohydrate grain-ridden dry foods continue to be sold and recommended by veterinarians. I don't understand in the least.

I hope the new generation of graduating veterinary students will look at the information available and recommend better choices to their clients.

Megan Watland said...

I have not yet read your links, but after tomorrow I have a whole *six* days until my next test, so I'll have time!

I missed in your original comment that you asked about Hills funding nutrition programs. We do have two required nutrition courses and one elective course that are all part of the curriculum. These aren't funded or taught by Hills, Purina, Iams, etc- they are just like any of our other courses, taught by our clinical nutritionist.

Hills is one of a handful of companies that makes prescription diets, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a vet that says their diets aren't helpful in managing disease. That is really what the company was founded on, and what their research program is for.

But, I have been trying to figure out why so many vets recommend Science Diet. Clearly there are better maintanance foods out there. The only good answer I have is that Hills really was the first company to fomulate a veterinary diet, and they were built by vets for vets. Unfortunately things have changed since Science Diet was formulated in the late 60's, but I don't think their food has changed since then. It probably was the best thing available at the time........ and just dug its nails into vet med and has stayed put. It does work fine for a lot of pets, but if people never try anything else, they'll never see that "fine" is mediocre compared to what they'll get with other foods.

Who knows. I guess we will wait and see. This whole mess has at least gotten people thinking a lot harder about what they are putting into their pets. Nutrition has always been a little bit of a "second thought", as traditional medicine focuses on treating rather than preventing. I think vet med as a whole is moving towards the more holistic idea that prevention is always better. Change takes time, though.

Lynette said...

I think you've got great insight, Megan, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

Science Diet is what my cats were on when one became anemic (HCT less than 12%) due to gastro-intestinal issues, four became diabetic, and another became morbidly obese (over double his ideal weight). Those issues went away when we changed food. I changed to basic grain-free canned foods (9-Lives, Fancy Feast, Whiskas) and more recently added homemade raw (per and

I find it interesting that I volunteer at a shelter that feeds Science Diet dry food and about 20% of our population suffers from chronic diarrhea. Coincidence? Maybe... but I've seen so many cases where the adopter takes them home and changes food and the diarrhea goes away... and so many where the adopter takes them home and does not change food and it does not... I have difficulty dismissing it. I don't feel the corn that Hills puts in all of its foods - both non-prescription and presciption - canned and dry - does any animal any favors.


Anonymous said...

Good on you for questioning! As far as nutrients vs. ingredients, that's a Hill's mantra. I'm on a Usenet pet board and there was a Hill's rep on it for years saying that. The oft repeated you know.....

He disappeared about a year ago. But not before the Diamond recall happened. To which his response was that sort of thing wouldn't happen to Hills because they test all incoming ingredients. Hmmmm.

As for why vets recommend Hills: marketing. They adopted a marketing technique of going directly to the vets, doing "education" seminars. Many years ago someone who taught marketing mentioned they had a whole section on Hill's technique in a textbook.

Purina's done a lot of research too. Some of it contradicts Hill's (specifically WRT low protein-kidney issue). So who is right? I think that none of them are on some issues. Their research is aimed at formulating food. It's not general research on nutrition. Nutrition is an infant science even in the human realm.

It's not possible to make kibble unless it's around 50% carbs. That's what most research is based on and limited to - physical limitations of the form of food. So I'm not totally impressed with research associated with commercial food. It tells us what's needed in commercial food, not what dogs or cats really need. And I think there is a difference.

- b

Megan Watland said...

" about 20% of our population suffers from chronic diarrhea."

Lynette- We're covering the GI tract in Physiology now, and I asked my professor after class about what cats do with carbs from kibble diets, as they can't convert them to glucose to utilize them for energy. He said they are basically excreted just as they come in, which is thought to be one cause of chronic diarrhea in cats. So, you could be quite right about that, although it would be pretty universal with most kibbles. Are these owners switching to a lower-carb diet?

I also asked about connections between a high-carb diet and diabetes in cats, and he said that while studies haven't shown a connection between them, it is a pretty hotly-debated theory.

b- "It's not possible to make kibble unless it's around 50% carbs."

Not true- just check out Innova EVO, with a remarkable 7% carb kibble. Different processing can do impressive things.

Lynette said...

Hi Megan!

You asked: "Are these owners switching to a lower-carb diet?"

Some switch to an all-canned diet, or even raw diet... which would be lower-carb... would also more likely be grain-free and less processed. I've seen some success by simply feeding a corn-free diet.

Interestingly, the ones that changed to lower-carb or grain-free dry foods weren't successful. I know my IBD cats get sick on dry foods like Innova EVO - and I've seen diabetics have huge increases in blood sugar levels on low-carb dry foods.. and I've seen diabetics on insulin with low-carb dry foods go off insulin once the low-carb dry food is replaced by an all-canned diet. There is something about the higher heat processing which makes the kibble more glycemic. Low-carb dry foods are also very high in calories, and obviously low in moisture.

You said "Not true- just check out Innova EVO, with a remarkable 7% carb kibble. Different processing can do impressive things"

I know a veterinarian who's very involved in research - out of curiousity she paid for an independent lab to evaluate Innova Evo dry food. They found it was 13% carbs. It also contains potatoes - very glycemic. It's VERY high in calories.

I see a huge interest in the new low-carb dry foods, but personally I only consider them a "lesser evil" - they'll do nothing toward helping the obese cat, nothing toward helping keep kidneys or urinary tract healthy, little to help a cat with gastro-intestinal difficulties... they are just "less bad" not good.

The % carbs does highlight an important issue with regard to the pet food industry - that is, pet foods regularly make claims on their packaging that have little to no research or documentation to back them up. I've contacted companies before - e.g., if they say "dry food removes tartar" and asked them for copies of the research that backs that up - and they can't give it to me, presumably because it doesn't exist. Any other industry would be forced to prove any claims they put on their labels, but for some reason pet foods just say whatever they like and noone questions it.

As an example - Hills own research has shown that cats fed dry prescription c/d have recurrence of the urinary crystals the dry food is supposed to prevent - but cats fed canned food don't. Then why is c/d still prescribed, marketed, and sold as beneficial for cats with crystals?

Rural Ontario Liberal said...

Very informative site Megan. It's comforting to know that the new generation of vets is taking a more "evidence based medicine" approach and questioning the old assumptions for validity.

Do you have any idea where I can get the most up-to-date Recommended Daily Allowance of Nutrional Requirements or Nutrient Profile for dogs?

I recently started to make my my own dog food due to persistent problems with the commercial brands. I am currently working with an old 1985 RDA standard.

Megan Watland said...

ROL- The NRC released new standards in 2006:

But the book is quite pricey. I think the AAFCO standard book is cheaper, and should reflect the NRC changes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Megan,
The Nutritional Analysis listed on the EVO site (7% Carbs listed for feline dry) is not the same as Guaranteed Analysis, which is also required labelling and tells a truer story.
Why Don’t These Numbers Add Up to 100%?
What you are supposed to know but probably didn't know is that carbohydrate content is the missing component. One hundred percent minus the sum of the factors listed is understood to be the carbohydrate content.

I don't feed dry, so don't keep up, but I'd really like to know what this food looks like. Around 30+ years ago someone said that Iams dog food used to look like big Grape Nuts and was oily and very dense. Now that's a food that was probably lower in carbs, but I bet it didn't keep as well.
As for cats, I don't think kibble is really an appropriate food, period. And dry prescription kidney diets for cats absolutely amaze me.

- b