Elizabeth Hodgkins, DVM Expert Opinion on Pet Food Industry

Supplemental Testimony for Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Hearings
April 12, 2007
Chairman Kohl, Senator Bennett, Members of the Subcommittee,
Thank you for allowing me to add to my spoken testimony before the subcommittee.

Today, the pet food industry operates within a marketplace of its own deliberate design. Through astonishingly successfully marketing efforts of the industry, pet owners and their veterinarians have come to believe that household pets must consume commercial foods, and only commercial foods, day in and day out, throughout their entire lives, in order to remain healthy. In fact, many veterinarians today teach their clients that any deviation from this ridged commercial dietary protocol will invariably lead to illness, and perhaps even death. Veterinary nutritionists uniformly insist that “homemade” diets, those prepared by owners at home from human food ingredients, are likely to be contaminated, unbalanced, and dangerous for pets, in almost any amount.

Those who agree with this view argue that pet owners are not qualified to compose complete and balanced, safe diets for their pets at home. Certainly this cannot be because pet owners lack the intelligence to learn to do this. Rather it is because the pet-owning public has no access to educational programs about the basics of pet nutrition and how to prepare homemade diets through qualified experts in industry, government or the veterinary profession. The pet food industry has knowingly substituted itself for the pet owner in the decision making process when it comes to the nourishing of pets. This co-opting of the pet owners’ initiative in choosing how to feed their pets has been facilitated by the widespread presence of AAFCO life-stage or lifetime nutritional safety and adequacy claims on commercial pet foods. These claims tell the pet food purchaser, in no uncertain terms, that the food bearing the claim can be trusted absolutely to provide safe, complete, and balanced nutrition for the pet. Every one of the pet foods implicated in this latest recall bore this AAFCO safety and adequacy statement on its label.

Can it come as any surprise that these pet owners feel betrayed when a calamity such as the present contamination incident occurs? Worse, they feel lost and helpless, because they have not even the barest pet nutrition education upon which to rely for deciding how to provide alternatives in such a crisis for their four-footed family members.

Contrast this with the government’s and the human medical community’s view of human nutrition. No physician attempts to control the diet of any patient to the extent that the pet food industry controls the pet owner’s beliefs about proper pet nutrition. Humans are allowed the freedom to purchase raw meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a wide variety of canned, frozen and dry packaged meals, and supplemental ingredients for their daily diet without alarm or constraint from the government or the medical community. Despite this unlimited freedom people enjoy to choose all dietary elements for themselves and their families, there are almost no health or medical claims made on the packaging of these foods and certainly no claims for complete safety or nutritional wholesomeness. As a result, consumers have no unreasonable reliance on the nutritional quality of these foods. Rather, in recent decades human health interest groups and the government have sought to influence and improve people’s food choices through education, in school, and through public interest advertising. When human foods become contaminated, as is nearly inevitable from time to time, we humans know enough about what good nutritional alternatives are available to make safer choices. Because we enjoy such a wide variety of different foods from different sources in our diet, we never feel at a loss about what to eat at our next meal to avoid contact with known contaminated foods. Further, because we do eat such a diverse diet, the effects of consuming a single contaminated food is mitigated greatly in any particular individual.

Pet’s consuming a contaminated “complete and balanced” commercial diet as a sole source of nutrition every day, and whose caregivers have no idea how or where to go to avoid the danger, are not so fortunate. The effects of contamination and nutritional inadequacy will fall hard on these pets, because there is no dilution provided by dietary diversity.

In its successful efforts to become the undisputed sole provider of the only intelligent source of nutrition for pets, the pet food industry, knowingly or inadvertently, has imposed upon itself a burden for providing almost impossibly clean, safe and unquestionably adequate food for the lifetimes of this country’s pets. I cannot imagine that any human food producer would ever desire to accept such a burden.

If the pet food industry desires that commercial pet foods remain the preeminent choice for nourishing American pets, it has no choice but to accept fully the responsibility for providing safer and more nutritionally adequate foods. Doing so will not be easy. There will be costs associated with taking the steps to regain and deserve the trust of the American pet food purchaser. Many companies will have to exercise greater care in selecting and testing their ingredients than they presently do. Many will have to review how they formulate their foods, and the industry as a whole will have to test and prove more convincingly the nutritional adequacy of those formulas.

I believe we can devise a system in which there will be an incentive for the better pet food makers to authenticate the safety and nutritional superiority of their products more thoroughly. The government need not shoulder the costs and administrative burden of enhanced regulatory procedures for enabling the industry to produce safer products; rather, we can choose to allow the marketplace, and pet food purchasers themselves, to stimulate and reward this much needed improvement by adopting a “truth in pet food labeling” initiative.

I propose that:
1) AAFCO and FDA adopt a presumption that all safety and nutritional adequacy claims for pet food are disallowed and all foods bearing such claims are deemed misbranded. Pet foods may be marketed without claims, as is the case with human foods, with the pet food purchaser and veterinarians aware that the product carries no label claims for safety or nutritional adequacy.

2) A new system of claims be devised for the benefit of those companies that wish to make claims, for the education of pet owners and veterinarians, under some system of greatly enhanced testing and scientific validation of those claims:

a) Simple safety claims, such as “the ingredients of this food have been tested for common contaminants and found free of such contaminants,” might be available to those companies that could provide documentation that ingredients used in their foods were in fact, tested individually according to strict guidelines, and deemed worthy of such a claim by scientific standards.

b) Nutritional adequacy claims, such as, “this formula has been tested in a scientifically valid number of animals for a scientifically valid lifetime period to prove that it is complete and balanced for exclusive long-term feeding of the adult dog (or cat),” might be available to those companies that wish to invest the considerable time and resources to actually prove their product deserves this claim

c) Medical efficacy claims, such as those presently used on “prescription-type” pet foods, would be allowed only for foods that had been thoroughly and scientifically tested, to the satisfaction of third-party scientists, for genuine efficacy in medical conditions in pets Alternatively, medical efficacy claims could be made for “prescription-type foods” without valid scientific testing (as is presently the case) with the disclaimer “these claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”

This proposal, first and foremost, puts the pet food buyer and his veterinarian on notice that pet foods without claims must be taken at face value and caveat emptor applies. Today, because all commercial foods bear unjustified assurances, there is no such fair notice to these pet care givers; instead, unqualified faith in untested foods is the norm.

Because of the very competitive nature of the pet food industry, it is inevitable that some, maybe many, companies, will desire to make meaningful claims for their products. When pet food companies cannot make gratuitous sweeping claims as they do now, but must either forgo claims altogether or apply for select claims under scientifically valid standards for testing and proof of those claims, prominent companies will rise to the challenge of meeting those standards, and better tested, safer, and more efficacious foods will emerge.

Companies with products bearing those allowed claims will have a competitive advantage within the marketplace. Many, if not most, pet food purchasers will elect to buy foods for which properly substantiated claims are allowed by regulatory authorities, and less safe, less efficacious foods will have a distinct competitive disadvantage. Foods that do not bear legitimate safety claims will be less popular, and many fewer pets will be exposed to the dangers of contaminated ingredients at any point in time.

  Dr. Hodgkin's Rebuttal to Pet Food Industry Response to Hearings Held April 12, 2007

oday, April 13, 2007, the pet food industry has issued a broadly published statement and Q & A to counter testimony and questioning that occurred yesterday in Washington DC before the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee investigating the recent pet food contamination recalls. Much of what has been published is incorrect and the industry’s way of trying to do damage control. The following is the text of the industry’s message and my rebuttals to that message: (pet food statements are in italics, my rebuttal in bold):

The pet food industry remains a partner in the investigation with the FDA and has cooperated with state and federal regulators since evidence leading to the recall first surfaced. The industry will continue cooperate fully with any other official investigations relating to this incident.

The FDA’s investigation is ongoing and has not reached any conclusions about how any foreign substances entered the process. I think it’s presumptuous to additional regulatory measures at this time. Only when we have this information can we make an accurate and informed decision.

The industry representative insisted that the industry is cooperating fully in this investigation, yet when asked how long it had taken Menu Foods to report to the FDA about the toxins in their food, he admitted that he did not know. The time to report, which is well documented at 3 weeks, would have been something he would have known had the industry been fully involved and cooperating with this investigation. The industry wants this to go away, not be fully investigated so that better quality control measures can be implemented.

How Pet Foods Are Regulated ― Pet foods are one of the most highly regulated food products. They are required by law to provide on their labels more information than most human foods. State departments of agriculture provide standards and enforcement policies for regulation of manufacture of pet foods resulting in safe foods. Ingredients in pet food must be acceptable to state authorities. In the March 23 press conference Sundlof also stated that regulation of pet foods is the same as human foods.

Pet foods are far from regulated as human foods are. 4D meat (meat from dead, dying, diseased or disabled animals) CANNOT be used for human food, but it CAN be used in pet foods and is used routinely by at least some manufacturers. Other ingredients that would not be allowed in human foods, such as rendered tissues, are allowed in pet foods. Further, human food health claims are very difficult for human food makers to get. Virtually ALL pet foods contain unsubstantiated claims for safety, completeness and balance that NO HUMAN FOOD in the world would ever be able to get. While some pet foods are likely to be adequate food for pets, many are not, yet there is no testing done to differentiate the good from the bad in this self-regulated industry. FDA has delegated the responsibility of pet food regulation to an association known as AAFCO. AAFCO itself ADMITS it has NO regulatory AUTHORITY or enforcement capabilities, so although there are several layers of APPARENT regulation, there is actually no regulation of pet foods today.

Pet food manufacturers are responsible for producing safe products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state governments provide the rules, guidance and oversight under which safe pet food is produced. FDA requires pet food to be wholesome, contain no harmful or deleterious substances, and to be truthfully labeled.

Yes, pet food companies are responsible for producing safe products, and they have failed many times in the past, at least 3 times in the past 18 months. To say they are responsible for doing something is quite different from saying they are ACTUALLY doing it. The facts speak for themselves on this point. The pet food industry has breached the FDA’s mandate of them because they are self-regulated!

How Ingredients and Finished Pet Foods Are Tested ― Pet food ingredients undergo significant testing for safety and quality assurance including screening for mycotoxins (including aflatoxin), bacteria (including Salmonella and E.Coli) and nutrient content. Furthermore the finished product is analyzed to ensure appropriate nutrient levels, evaluating protein (including 11 amino acids), fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

This is an untruth. Many if not most pet food ingredients undergo no testing whatsoever. If this statement were true, we would not have repeated pet food aflatoxin toxicity problems as we do. We also would not have had a recent and very serious toxicity problem in a major pet food from excess Vitamin D supplementation. This statement merely describes what is SUPPOSED to happen, not what really DOES happen. The facts speak for themselves.

A Consumer's Guide to Pet Food: Valuable Information for Pet Owners ― Veterinarians agree that pets are living longer, healthier lives since the use of commercially prepared pet foods became widespread. Decades of research have gone into the development of pet food to make sure the special nutrition needs of pet dogs and cats are met.

Veterinarians DO NOT agree about this, they can’t, it is totally unproven. Evidence about changes in the life span of pets over the past several decades is sparse, and no scientist would dare draw the conclusion that pets today live longer on average than pets 30-40 years ago because of commercial pet foods, for example. What does seem clear is that today’s indoor pets live much longer than those that live outdoors. The evidence for this conclusion is strong.
Those who would give commercial pet food even partial credit for this increase in life expectancy in the indoor pet, however, have absolutely no evidence to back up this conclusion. There are many factors that affect the life span of pet animals under indoor and outdoor circumstances. Indoor pets are more protected from death due to automobiles and predators, they are more protected from exposure to infectious disease and often receive more medial care than outdoor pets, to name just a few of the important differences between these two groups. It is easy to sweep commercial food consumption right along with all of these other factors as contributing to longer life in today’s pets. Unfortunately for this particular factor, there is no reason to believe it has anything to do with the longer life of house pets. Let’s look at an analogy to understand how this might be so.

Humans in the US enjoy longer life expectancy today than they did fifty years ago. During those decades of improving average life span, those same people have consumed ever-increasing amounts of fat-laden, sugary, carbohydrate-rich “fast” food and other types of over-processed “convenience” foods. We are far more obese today than in decades past, and human nutritionists nag us endlessly about changing our diets to include better quality, fresh whole foods. Imagine anyone believing that this increasing consumption of highly processed “fast” foods and increasing obesity is the reason, or even makes a positive contribution to our increasing life spans! We are living longer in spite of our diets, not because of them. Many other factors, such as less tobacco smoking, the use of seatbelts, better prenatal and postnatal care, and astonishing high-tech medical advancements for defeating disease and injury account for our increasing life spans. Our convenience-oriented diets are actually working against longer life, but cannot defeat all of these other strong protective factors in our lives.

So it is with our pets. When they live indoors, they live longer than if they lived outdoors, but commercial foods likely have no part in adding those extra years. Like our own “overprocessed” diets, they may even be depriving our pets of even greater health and longevity. If you hear anyone make the flat statement that pets are living longer BECAUSE of commercial foods, demand to see the scientific data for that statement!

QUESTION:  What does "complete and balanced" mean?
ANSWER:  Unlike most foods for people, many pet food products are designed to be the sole source of nutrition for a pet dog or cat. Products that are labeled "complete and balanced," as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), have been tested to make sure they meet the complex nutritional requirements of a healthy dog or cat.

No, they have NOT been tested to make sure they meet the requirements of healthy pets! Only a very few “sample” diets have even been tested on any animals for even 6 months. Considering that cats have a natural lifespan of 20 years or more, and dogs can live 10-20 years depending on breed, 6 months is NOT long enough and 6 animals is not anywhere close to a statistically valid number to even prove a 6 month claim. This is one of the most serious and most misleading of the untruths that pet food companies make about their foods.

QUESTION:  What does it mean on a pet food label that a product has been tested using animal feeding trials?
ANSWER: There are two ways a pet food company can test the nutrition of its products. One method is the use of standardized animal feeding trials, designed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), to make sure their products meet the complex nutritional requirements of dogs and cats. The animals in these tests are fed the food for six months and are closely monitored to make sure they stay healthy. A product using this test will have language similar to the following on the label - "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Nancy's Food for Dogs provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages."

This is almost a completely truthful answer, because it admits that this “study” only last six months. This answer omits two important factors: there are only a handful of animals tested, and only a few sample diets are even tested on those few animals for those few months.

QUESTION:  Are fillers used in pet food?
ANSWER:  Every ingredient used in pet food is there for a reason. Decades of research have gone into making pet foods that meet the nutritional needs of dogs and cats. The makers of pet food do not put in anything that's not needed.

There is almost no research on any pet food anywhere that can be considered scientific by any genuine scientist. Whether reused vegetable oil and rendered animal scraps and wood cellulose is “needed” by any dog or cat is very highly questionable by intelligent and well trained experts. The cat has absolutely no need for carbohydrates, for example, yet all dry cat food has PLENTY of this cheap ingredient that is required for dry food processing. Further, the acids that pet food companies put into “urinary tract diets” can and do even cause other diseases, proving that those acidifiers are not only not needed, but are even harmful to many cats. Pet food companies absolutely DO put things in pet food that are not needed and that can even cause harm.

QUESTION:  What is ingredient "splitting?"
ANSWER:  Some people incorrectly believe pet food makers split up ingredients to give the illusion that some ingredients are at higher concentrations than others. Pet food makers are required to carefully label their products according to stringent government regulations. Just as the case with food for people, pet foods must clearly state what ingredients are included in the product. Each ingredient in pet food is there for a reason and to serve a nutritional purpose.

The "stringent" ingredient regulations have been developed by the industry in concert with AAFCO. AAFCO has no real authority over the pet food companies, and goes along with the desires of an industry that, by the admission of the FDA, is a good way for by-products of American agriculture to “dispose” of those by-products of agriculture that are not fit for or undesirable for humans to eat. Many ingredients in pet food serve no nutritional purpose in our pets, but keep farmers and ranchers from having to throw them away.

An example of ingredients splitting: Pet food companies who wish to disguise the amount of cereals in their products will list several different cereals in stead of using just one (not top quality cereals either) so that what meat IS in their products will legally be listed as the one of the first ingredients. In many, if not most of these foods, cereal actually makes up the majority of the food, but consumers see “chicken” as one of the top 2-3 ingredients and think that chicken is a predominant component of the food. This is “smoke and mirrors.”

The regulations may demand that the ingredients be listed in order of predominance, but there is NO prohibition against the sleight of hand described in this example. The pet food industry is an ineffectively regulated 15 billion dollar industry that produces everything your pet eats, day in day out. This should make you want to know a lot more about what is going into those cans and bags, and into your pet!


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