Pet Foods -- Are You Getting What You Pay For?

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Pet Foods -- Are You Getting What You Pay For?

With the crazy growth of the Pet Industry – this year anticipated to be over 58 Billion dollars – our pets are not necessarily the beneficiaries. More money than ever is spent swaying consumers to spend their dollars on food, treats, collars and toys. For the purpose of this article the focus is on food – meat to be specific. Providing information for the consumer to make a more informed, albeit gross, decision when it comes to pet food.

Having been both in retail and now manufacturing it is murky water to wade through trying to find the facts. Some of the ugly truth is how poorly the industry is regulated with both manufacturing and ingredient sourcing. At this point in time, no plant inspections are required to manufacture pet foods and many of the ingredients on the label are not exactly what you think they are.

Let’s look at meat proteins. We have meat, meat meals, and meat by-product meals. Most consumers understand that meat is the ideal, followed by meat meals, with by-product meal bringing up the rear (no pun intended) in terms of quality. What you may not know is that the meat listed on an ingredient label as “Chicken” ranges a variety of qualities and there is no distinction required on the label. For example, when watching some of those television commercials or looking at print ads they show this (image 1) for the “chicken” in their food:


I can guarantee that is not the meat going into kibbled pet food. The same holds true for canned pet foods. Many raw food companies are also using a lesser quality meat than whole muscle meat. Meat by definition according to the AAFCO guidelines is: “the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for use in animal food.” (1) There is nothing in that definition indicating how the “meat” is obtained and whether it is whole muscle meat (think steak or whole chicken breast), commenuted or mechanically separated meat (think hot dogs), or denatured meat (think charcoal colored meat).

So what is mechanically separated meat? And how is it separated? It is a process used both in human food production as well as pet food production. It is a process by which the left over carcass is ground down to a paste like product then put through a high pressure sieve to extract the “meat” from the bones. Any bones particles should be caught by the sieve. With this process there are tendons, veins, and arteries that are ground up as well. The mechanically separated meat is a very nutrient dense product. For consumers, both two legged and four legged some of the problems come with what is legally allowed to be added back into this product to make it “more appealing”. I don’t know about you, but the idea of eating meat paste lost its appeal quite some time ago! Legally – both human and pet companies can add colors back in so the meat is “fresh and pink” instead of the grey color it would be after the mechanical separation process. . “When the meat is mechanically separated, it loses the color as well as the flavor and in order to give MCDM the flavor and a hue, artificial colors and flavors are added; and to make it bacteria free, the meat is treated with ammonium hydroxide.” (2)


This is the end result:

There is a lot of confusion right now with the term “denatured meat”. There are several ways to have a denatured product. From a meat producers stand point denatured meat is the process of using either a color or chemical agent to mark meat/meat products so they are identified as “Inedible – Not Intended for Human Food”. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) allows for the meat to be identified with a distinct color, odor or taste so it cannot ever be mistaken for human food. “Unless it is identified as required by regulations to deter its use as human food (9 CFR 325.11(e)(1)-(5) and 381.193), no carcass, or part or product of a carcass, capable of use as human food that is adulterated or misbranded can be offered for transportation in commerce unless it is denatured.” (3) The following “identifying agents” allowed by the USDA for use as denaturing agents:

* Crude carbolic acid;

* Cresylic disinfectant;

* FD&C green No. 3 coloring;

* FD&C blue No. 1 coloring;

* FD&C blue No. 2 coloring;

* Finely powdered charcoal or black dyes;

* Any phenolic disinfectant conforming to commercial standards CS 70-41 or CS 71-41 which shall be used in at least 2 percent emulsion or solution.

* A formula consisting of 1 part FD&C green No. 3 coloring, 40 parts water, 40 parts liquid detergent, and 40 parts oil of citronella;

* A 6 percent solution of tannic acid for 1 minute followed by immersion in a water bath, then immersing it for 1 minute in a solution of 0.022 percent FD&C yellow No. 5 coloring;

* A solution of 0.0625 percent tannic acid, followed by immersion in a water bath, then dipping it in a solution of 0.0625 percent ferric acid;

* No. 2 fuel oil, brucine dissolved in a mixture of alcohol and pine oil or oil of rosemary, finely powdered charcoal;

* A 4 percent by weight of coarsely ground hard bone; or

* A 6 percent by weight of coarsely ground hard bone; or

* ‘other proprietary substance’ approved by the USDA

To read more about the denaturing process more information can be found at the link provided at the end of the article. Just as with mechanically separated meat, artificial color can legally be added back to denatured meat to bring the color back to “normal meat color”. More information regarding the dyes used can be found at the link at the end of the article.

Again – pet food companies are NOT REQUIRED to list anywhere on the label if they use mechanically separated or denatured meat. In USDA facilities that produce meat for human consumption, they are required to denature any meat product that is destined for pet food processing so there is no possibility a person would eat it. I personally tried to purchase meat from a large USDA facility for my raw food and the on-sight inspector would not let it out of the plant without a chemical denaturing once he knew it was for pet food. Needless to say, I did not, could not, go through with the transaction but am always weary of other companies practices knowing what I have been up against to find “clean meat”. There are a few exceptions, one being the type of facility the pet food is processed in. If the pet food is processed in a USDA plant the plant must use human edible products (USDA inspected meats) if the equipment is shared; if using un-inspected products (many companies use the term “out of USDA inspected facilities’) the pet food must be processed using separate equipment and can be denatured meat. The confusion with “denatured meat” has been compounded by HPP (High Pressure Processing) or simple cooking which denatures the protein, which is completely different than the chemical denaturing I am referring to.

Bottom line – good quality meat is not cheap for humans or pets. The pet industry advertising has been able to confuse many knowledgeable consumers. One of my pet peeves (pun intended!) are the made up terms used by the pet industry. There is no such thing as HUMAN GRADE INGREDIENTS – that was a term coined by the industry to make consumers feel better about the products they are purchasing – with one exception to my knowledge. One company that I am aware of has gone through the two year pain staking process of being able to use that distinction on their packaging. The correct term for a high quality human product would be “human edible”. There is also no such thing as “Hormone free – Antibiotic free” meat. ALL MEAT is weaned off hormones when it goes for processing – that is a requirement of the USDA. The correct term for an animal that has never been introduced to hormones or antibiotics is “No added hormones or antibiotics”. VERY SUBTLE difference!

Meat meals and meat by-product meals are used in processed diets like kibble and canned foods, not raw diets. The next two pictures of a “waste barrel” I personally took are out of a USDA human food facility. The barrel was being picked up by a local pet food processing facility that contracts with several plants to utilize their “waste products”. In the second picture you will see pieces of plastic I have circled. I was too grossed out to move things around to get a better picture of how big the piece of plastic was. The plant manager went so far as to tell me his employees think nothing of throwing a wad of chew in those barrels when they come back from lunch. Doesn’t matter how high the temperature is when the product is rendered (cooked) there is still too much garbage! (image 3)



(plastic circled in red)

I have been inside many different processing plants that process all different types of products including a huge plant that does all the mechanical separation of meats for many of the large kibble manufacturers; countless human meat processing facilities; and a local rendering plant. As a consumer you expect to trust what you read, expect to trust the manufacturer to do their job, and expect to trust your retailer to know the differences in companies and their manufacturing practices. The ugly truth is that many of the manufacturers today are only concerned with their bottom lines and profit margins and it is the pet population paying the price. It is a difficult task to sort out all the information that is purposely designed to confuse the consumer. We have more choices than ever and there are some incredible companies doing great things to make a positive difference, you just have to work a little harder to find them. I encourage you to ask questions! LOTS of questions! If there is nothing to hide, the questions are easy to answer and you want to know you’re getting what you paid for.


For more information regarding the denaturing process:

For more information regarding the color dyes allowed back in denatured meat:





Scott Ziehr, Program Administrator, Colorado Department of Agriculture, Consumer Inspection Service; personal interview

(chicken breast image)

(mechanically separated image)