What Exactly Is in Pet Food? Sometimes, Dead Pets.

The state of the universe.
April 19 2013 5:45 AM

A Dog-Eat-Dog World

Does your pet’s food contain dead pets?

Adorable cannibal
Adorable cannibal

Photo by peanut_roaster/Thinkstock

If the package of dog food that you regularly purchase for your dog had a picture of a dead dog on the front accompanied by the words, “Fortified with 100 percent natural dog meat!” would you still buy it? Probably not. And yet this might very well be what you are scanning at the grocery store checkout and scooping into your dog’s bowl.

Dog food is made from many strange things, only a few of which are evident in the list of ingredients. The packaging tends to depict fat, healthy chickens; vegetables that look like they ought to win a ribbon at the county fair; and either thick, juicy steaks or sedate-looking cows. But at around $15 for a 15-pound bag of dry food, nobody is spending enough money to turn a T-bone into dog food. The stuff that ends up in dog food is material that can’t be sold as food for humans. We have different standards for what our animals eat from what we would put in our own mouths, but where should we draw the line?

Under Food and Drug Administration regulations, only about 50 percent of a cow can be sold for human consumption. The hide, bones, digestive system and it contents, brain, feces, udders, and various other undesirable parts are all left over after a cow is slaughtered and butchered. The stuff that can’t even go into hotdogs gets consolidated and shipped to rendering plants. Slaughterhouses that handle pigs and chickens also send their leftovers to rendering plants. So do many other facilities that find themselves with large volumes of otherwise unusable dead animal parts, including animal shelters and veterinary clinics that euthanize a lot of animals.

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A rendering plant has a huge grinder that is filled up with whatever comes in. Some rendering plants are pickier than others, and some process ingredients in different batches to comply with state or local laws. But on the whole, most tend to dump in whatever they receive and start the grinder when it is full: parts from slaughterhouses, whole carcasses of diseased animals, cats and dogs from shelters, zoo animals, road kill and expired meat from grocery store shelves (tossed in fully packaged, complete with plastic wrap and Styrofoam).

This material is slowly pulverized into one big blend of dead stuff and meat packaging. It is then transferred into a vat where it is heated for hours to between 220–270 degrees F.  At such high temperatures, the fat and grease float to the top along with any fat-soluble compounds or solids that get mixed up with them. Most viruses and bacteria are killed. The fat can then be skimmed off, packaged, and renamed. Most of this material is called “meat and bone meal.” It can be used in livestock feed, pet food, or fertilizer. It joins a long list of ingredients that you might prefer not to see in your pet’s food.

There is essentially no federal enforcement of standards for the contents of pet food. FDA technically has authority, but the agency has passed this off to a set of partnerships and nongovernmental organizations that encourage mostly voluntary compliance with the few federal standards. The Association of American Feed Control Officials takes the lead in setting and maintaining standards, but it conducts no testing of food and has no enforcement authority. In practical terms, regulation of the contents of pet food is largely accomplished by those individual states that bother to get involved. Some states, such as Florida and Nevada, have no regulations at all. Others, such as California, require that rendered pets be labeled as “dry rendered tankage” rather than meat and bone meal. However, even California allows rendered pets to be processed and sold out of state for pet food as meat and bone meal. The city of Los Angeles alone sends about 200 tons of dead pets to a rendering plant each month. There is no inspection of pet food or meat and bone meal shipped in from other states.

Many pet food manufacturers, including this site run by a pet food industry group, say that they are not using rendered pets to make a cannibal of your dog. But how would they really know? There is no simple way to look at a shipment of meat and bone meal and tell exactly what species are in the mix. The protein percentage of a load of cats and dogs looks basically the same as a shipment of carcasses from a poultry farm. The rendering industry gets very vague about what is in meat and bone meal, even in otherwise highly technical documents.

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