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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Big Kibble

The Hidden Dangers of the Pet Food Industry and How to Do Better by Our Dogs

Shawn Buckley and Dr. Oscar Chavez

St. Martin's Press



May you be as good a person as your dog thinks you are.


Elise Maitland long considered her dog, Michigan, a member of the family. She’d been reluctant to adopt the collie-Labrador mix initially; as a single mom of four, she wasn’t eager to take on a fifth dependent. But Michigan, then just a puppy, quickly won her over with his protective nature. He seemed determined to help the Ontario, Canada, mother keep an eye on her kids.

Labradors are the most popular dog breed in America, for good reason. They are loved for their friendliness, and for their affectionate, boisterous, outgoing nature. Collies—the Lassie Come Home dog—are known for their loyalty and intelligence, and for being devoted to their human families. Michigan was a perfect combination of the two breeds, and he helped keep his family safe and happy for a dozen years.

But then one day, something upsetting happened. Michigan suddenly lost control of his bowels. The next day, it got worse, with bloody fluid oozing out of the family’s beloved dog. Elise got Michigan into the car after midnight and drove to the emergency clinic, more than thirty minutes away.

The clinic kept Michigan overnight. A few days and more than a thousand dollars later, Elise finally took him home, his diagnosis unclear. He never fully recovered, and died about a year later of kidney failure. What could have caused this otherwise healthy dog to develop kidney disease?

His food, as it turned out.

As Elise later learned, thousands of pet parents throughout North America had been unwittingly feeding their dogs commercial dog feed laced with melamine, a plastic that can lead to kidney disease and kidney failure if eaten. But why would Michigan, or any other dog, have eaten melamine? No pet parent would intentionally feed a dog melamine.

As it turned out, two Chinese manufacturers and a U.S.-based importer were involved in a scheme to add melamine to wheat gluten to boost its apparent protein levels in lab tests. Before they were caught, they’d sold it to a dozen pet feed manufacturers in North America that incorporated it into more than one hundred and fifty different brands, which then got poured into the bowls of tens of thousands of pets around the continent. Finally, this intentional contamination of dog feed was discovered and led to the biggest pet food recall ever, in 2007.

For many dogs, however, the recall came too late. Michigan ingested the melamine in his daily bowl of Ol’ Roy, the private label feed sold by Walmart that is one of the least expensive kibbles on the market. On the other end of North America, a very fancy little Japanese Chin, owned by a retiree living outside Orlando, Florida, died of melamine poisoning from more expensive canned feed. The melamine turned up in homes across the continent, from the biggest names in pet food, including Nestlé Purina PetCare and Mars Petcare, to more boutique-sounding ones such as Natural Balance and Royal Canin.

William Howell, pet parent of the poisoned Japanese chin, had specifically bought expensive pet feed, thinking it would be safer for his dog. He described watching his little, long-haired dog “writhe in pain” for several days, before he finally decided to euthanize him to end his suffering. “Somebody should be held responsible,” he later said.1

Somebody should be held responsible, but no one was, at least not in a way that would protect pets in the future. Both Elise and William were part of an eventual class-action lawsuit that included some twenty thousand pet parents. The suit settled for $24 million in 2011. This sounds like a lot of money, but for thousands of individual pet parents involved, their share of the settlement failed to cover the costs associated with caring for their sick dogs—let alone make up for the emotional loss of their pets. “The five hundred dollars I received did not even pay the vet bill, let alone a new pet,” Elise later told a news reporter.

The melamine contamination was one of the worst pet feed scandals in recent years, but not, unfortunately, the only one. Nor did the scale of the disaster lead to changes that truly protect our dogs. A decade later, in 2017, the ABC News station covering the Washington, D.C., area looked into reports of pentobarbital poisoning in dog food, hiring a lab to test more than two dozen brands of wet dog foods. When they got to Gravy Train, nine out of fifteen cans of the brand tested positive for pentobarbital.

This investigation came after yet another, earlier report about pentobarbital in dog feed killing dogs in the Pacific Northwest. Pentobarbital is a barbiturate, a powerful drug commonly used for euthanizing animals, such as dogs and cats in shelters, and horses. It should not be in food, in any quantity, ever. Most commercial pet food is made from “feed-grade” ingredients, not “food-grade.” (Despite the appetizing pictures on the cans and bags.) Feed grade ingredients do not have to come from the same sources or follow the same protocols for safety and sanitation as food intended for human consumption. Rules and guidelines that do exist for feed are not always enforced, nor is there consistent oversight from state to state.

These stories are among the most shocking cases of contamination in pet food in recent years, but they are by no means the only ones. Pentobarbital, for example, has been found in pet food for years, as well as other adulterants—some that have killed thousands of dogs.

* * *

Big Pharma. Big Tobacco. Big Kibble? Like these other highly profitable, rapacious industries, Big Kibble is big business: pet food and treats earned $30-plus billion in sales in the United States in 2018; $91 billion globally.2,3 As with Big Pharma, major stakeholders in Big Kibble source from overseas factories not subject to U.S. regulations as a way to cut costs. They fund veterinary schools and incur favor with future doctors. They lobby against regulations here that would prevent them from conducting business as usual, even as problems arise that kill customers, suggesting it’s time to shift gears.

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 the pet food industry as a whole has served as the repository for waste products of the human food chain practically since its inception, and this poses real threats to our dogs, as we’ve seen. In recent decades, some players in the Big Kibble machine seem to have grown ever more profit-focused, elevating the bottom line above the well-being of their customers—our pets, who do not have a voice of their own.

While dog food was an amazing invention of the late nineteenth century, today a handful of multinational corporations dominate Big Kibble: Mars Petcare Inc. is the largest, followed by Nestlé Purina PetCare, J. M. Smucker, and Hill’s (a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive Co.). These corporations own many of the most popular and lesser-known brands, despite the multitude of names and prices on the shelves. Partly in response to the growing concern of pet parents about the quality of the food in the wake of repeated recalls—about one every five days, according to the FDA—these companies have begun gobbling up independent brands, too. Big Kibble sources many ingredients from the same handful of suppliers, meaning one tainted batch of protein, vegetables, or grains can wind up in hundreds of brands of dog food—even those you think are independent or that are labeled “all-natural” or “holistic.”

Recalls aside, Americans have grown far more conscious of what’s on our own plates in recent decades. Many of us choose fresh, organic, locally grown food when possible, and scientific research continues to demonstrate the benefits of this way of eating. What we feed our dogs has always reflected our concerns about ourselves, and many pet parents are starting to ask what, exactly, is in the kibble in their dogs’ bowls. The answers have been trickling in, and they’re disturbing. Benign-sounding ingredients on the labels can mask some pretty disgusting, and even dangerous, material. The ultraprocessed nature of kibble poses problems, too; if even 15 percent of an adult human’s overall diet comes from ultraprocessed foods, as a recent study shows, the risk of cancer and chronic disease rises. You wouldn’t feed your child—or yourself—nothing but cheese puffs and packaged cereal every day for life. Yet Big Kibble would have us believe that this is the best way to feed our pets, citing the “complete and balanced” nutritional profile of their product as “proof” that the continual ingestion of processed food is healthy.

Dog lovers are sitting up and taking notice, waking up to the fact that we cannot keep feeding our pets kibble as usual. At this point, the desire for better-quality food for dogs is largely a consumer-driven phenomenon. We see it as very similar to the consumer-led backlash against Big Tobacco.

For generations, it seemed as if practically everyone smoked, and they lit up everywhere: at work, in hospitals, in schools, at home, in front of the baby. We could smell it in our homes, feel it in our lungs, but everyone did it. How could it be bad? Seven top tobacco CEOs testified before Congress in April 1994 that they did not believe cigarettes were addictive. They admitted that cigarettes may cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other problems, but insisted that the evidence was not conclusive. The FDA had oversight of breakfast cereal and pharmaceuticals, but it didn’t get similar authority over cigarettes until forty-five years after the first U.S. Surgeon General’s report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. In other words, our government gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco a full half-century after there was plenty of good evidence that smoking was addictive and could be deadly, and that being exposed to secondhand smoke was unhealthy, too.

The antismoking movement was slow to take root—partly because Big Tobacco blew one of the world’s largest smoke screens of misinformation in our faces. But as more scientists began publishing reports about the dangers of smoking and of secondhand smoke, the public raised an outcry. The movement away from cigarette smoke everywhere was irreversible, once people fully understood the dangers.

To us, the similarities between Big Tobacco and Big Kibble are notable in terms of the marketing muscle and profit motivation, and the fact that monitoring and avoiding Big Kibble has been largely a consumer-driven movement, to date. As more and more pet parents hear about recalls and what’s in the bag, they are looking for alternatives. When they try feeding their dogs fresh, whole foods, they see dramatic improvements in their health. As we’ve seen through our work, seemingly healthy dogs with mild issues such as allergies, ear infections, and diarrhea get healthier; seriously sick dogs with advanced diseases thrive.

Big Kibble is aware of this shift in consumer consciousness. The industry trade group, the Pet Food Institute, recently hired a thoughtful, savvy publicist who is encouraging pet food companies to be more transparent with customers. Even if what they’re sharing doesn’t always look so appetizing, the argument goes, pet parents will find out sooner or later. Many pet parents are already beginning to ask what’s really in the bag.

More transparency sounds good to us. Some kibble companies, however, are taking a different approach: launching expensive marketing and advertising campaigns to address the desire for real food without actually changing what’s in the bag. In one recent, beautifully shot national TV campaign, adorable dogs scramble over countertops toward steak and carrots in a home kitchen, ready to make their own dinner by themselves. Rachael Ray arrives with a bag of food, the implication being that what’s in the bag is the same as what’s on the counter. Even the voice-over promises the kind of food you’d want to feed your pet: “Simple, natural ingredients, like real meat and wholesome veggies.”

There is no T-bone steak, human-grade chicken breasts, or whole carrots in that bag. It’s all marketing. Hot air. Or, in this case, hard kibble.

We Americans love our dogs. We increasingly see them as four-legged members of our family. We want the best for them. When it comes to commercial kibble, however, even the so-called “best” is not good enough.

Commercial pet food was an innovation of the late nineteenth century, and one that offered pet parents huge benefits—ease, convenience, and a sense of security. Dog food, at its best, was designed to meet pets’ nutritional needs. We admire much of the work of these pioneering dog food companies: creating a new industry revolving around dogs, helping build veterinary nutrition as a science, contributing to veterinary education, launching some truly impressive (and nervy) marketing campaigns. But Big Kibble, as an industry, has stagnated, clinging to midcentury notions about processed food and refusing to acknowledge and incorporate a half century of science, at the expense of our dogs. Human nutritionists and the average consumer know far more about the value of fresh food now than we once did. It’s time for veterinary nutrition to evolve.

Through our decade-plus work in the pet food industry, we have come to believe that a diet of nothing but processed feed made from low-quality ingredients suppresses the immune system of dogs. As pet parents around the nation have seen again and again, it can also lead to serious health problems. When that processed food is made from tainted ingredients, it can be deadly.

For years, pet parents lacked the information they needed to make better choices—or much in the way of better options when it came to prepared food. This is beginning to change, which is good news for pets everywhere. Journalists, bloggers, and aggrieved pet parents are sharing news of recalls online, posing hard questions to Big Kibble, and broadcasting whatever answers they can get. Recipes for home cooking for dogs and the nutrient blends needed to balance them are increasingly available in stores and online. And companies such as ours, JustFoodForDogs, are offering pet parents a real alternative—dog food made from human-grade ingredients.

Ours was the first to sell human-grade food for dogs, made in restaurant-style open kitchens. While this isn’t a book about us, it is a book about our mission. We’re no longer the only company offering pet parents the option of fresh, whole food for dogs. The concept we launched in 2010 has become its own pet food category. We couldn’t be happier. As more people learn about what’s in the bag, they’re searching for alternatives. Brands in our category are scrambling to keep up with the demand.

Copyright © 2020 by Shawn Buckley and Oscar Chavez