We are what we eat. Now, many who have joined the Real Food Revival to find fresh, quality foods for themselves are beginning to apply that same standard to their pets. The result: More and more people are buying natural pet food for their companion animals, especially cats and dogs. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic pet food sales are growing at nearly three times the rate of organic human food.
Pet owners also are finding an increasing number of options — more than a dozen brands of natural and organic cat and dog food are now available, as well as some foods for smaller animals such as birds and ferrets. You can expect to pay up to twice as much for these premium foods compared to conventional options, but you (and your pets) get what you pay for.
Natural pet foods generally are minimally processed and are preserved with natural substances, such as vitamins C and E. Whereas “natural” is an undefined and unregulated distinction, “certified organic” pet foods must meet strict standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that spell out how ingredients are produced and processed. These standards do not allow the use of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, artificial ingredients or genetically engineered ingredients.
Phil Brown, a veterinarian who helped develop the formulas for Newman’s Own Organics pet foods, says “natural” has come to mean that the food is free of chemical preservatives and artificial colors, but does not guarantee that the food is free of pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics.
“Natural pet foods can be good foods, but just how good is up to the company,” he says. “I like organic because it has defined parameters.”
Besides pesticides and hormones, natural and organic pet foods are free of other undesirable ingredients such as hair, blood, waste and “meal,” which come from the rendered carcasses of livestock animals. All of those are acceptable ingredients for commercial dog and cat food, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which regulates the U.S. pet food industry.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a longtime advocate of holistic medicine, helped start Pet Promise, a line of dry and canned foods for cats and dogs. He decided to get involved in the pet food industry because he wanted “really good food” for his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Jambo and Daisy.
“I couldn’t find any products that met my specifications,” Weil says. “The major problem with the content of conventional pet foods is the use of ‘animal byproducts,’ which are low-grade wastes from the beef and poultry industries.”
Weil says the optimum nutrition for pets comes from meat, poultry and fish of a quality similar to what we would eat. It should be “raised in sustainable, humane ways without added drugs and hormones, and with quality grains, fats and macronutrients.”
Nutrition is just as significant for dogs and cats as it is for humans. “It is one of the most important determinants of health and resistance to disease,” Weil says.
Those who want to give their companion animals better nutrition need to become informed about the ingredients in pet food and look for the best available products, Weil says. However, some of the most expensive “scientific and veterinarian-formulated products” are not the best, so Weil advises pet owners to learn to interpret ingredient lists.
Avoid pet foods that contain byproducts, chemicals and synthetic preservatives. If meal is listed, it should be from a specific animal; be wary of “byproduct meal.” A specific form of meat or meal, such as chicken or turkey, should be the first ingredient listed. Check that the nutritional content has been validated by feeding trials — look for certifications from AAFCO. Another good sign is a reference to the use of “human-grade ingredients.”
“It gives assurance that it was handled properly,” Brown says. “When I worked as a pet food inspector, I saw dump trucks unloading materials onto a cement floor. ‘Human-grade’ on the label assures better ingredients and handling of the food.”
Over the years through his veterinary practice, Brown says he has seen an increasing number of nutrition-related problems in dogs and cats, such as obesity and degenerative diseases.
“Animals age better with better care,” Brown says. Inferior nutrition wears down animals’ immune systems and incites skin and coat problems. “A lot of the wheat and corn allergies we see in dogs and cats might be from pesticides and hormones used in food,” he says. “We know that even at low levels of exposure pesticides increase the risk of cancer. If there is even the potential for a problem, why feed it?”
The increasing popularity of natural and organic pet foods also supports small-scale and sustainable family farmers and ranchers.
Dave Carter, co-founder of Pet Promise, has 30 years of experience in agriculture and is the former chair of the USDA National Organic Standards Board. Currently he’s the executive director of the National Bison Association. He says he never thought he would get involved with the pet food industry.
“I have been working to save the family farm,” Carter says. “I had become disenchanted with the food industry and looked into organic production and co-op development to try to break out of the industry chains. What will save the family farm is a reconnect between the consumer and the producer.”
That thought led Carter to natural pet foods. He was looking for a market for the ranchers he works with and noticed that consumers were demanding high-quality pet foods.
“When we started looking into pet food and really started digging into it, we realized that 4-D animals — dead, dying, diseased, disabled — were ending up in conventional pet foods. Consumers really don’t want these things in their pets’ food.”
The ingredients of Pet Promise products are simple, Carter says. From the beef, which comes from Coleman Natural Meats, the company uses the trim, hearts and liver. From the poultry, which comes from Petaluma Poultry and MBA Brand Smart Chicken, the company uses the meat, hearts and liver.
Carter says the organic and natural pet food industries are logical extensions of the Real Food Revival: “When I got involved with organic producers, they were saying ‘buy our products to save the family farm.’ Then it was ‘buy from the family farm because it is healthier, it doesn’t have pesticides.’ Now people feeding organic and natural products to themselves and their kids have started asking ‘what about Fluffy?’”
As pet owners become more discerning and discriminating about what they buy, and as better products become more widely available, Brown says the future is bright.
“We’ve evolved from feeding our pets table scraps and generic diets, to premium and natural pet foods, and now to organic, which, to me, is the pinnacle of feeding pets properly,” he says. “Our animals now live longer and healthier lives because of better care and nutrition. It’s our charge to do the best for our pets.”
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