Sextiped Valley column: Choose pet food carefully
Here we go again. Another maker of expensive, high quality dry dog and cat food loses its ethical bearings and prepares to sell out to one of the Big Four international makers of junk pet food.
Champion Pet Foods (Orijen and Acana brands) are negotiating to sell to Purina. The story of how it went from a commitment to be the best to a willingness to sell to the worst illustrates what I have been saying about this industry for years, as again and again, I have purged popular brands from my shelves that once were decent products.
I monitor and re-verify the claims made about the brands I sell. More than a decade of rapacious consolidation in this industry has seen profitability skyrocket at the expense of quality and transparency, in my opinion. The original Champion boasted of using only fresh, whole, regionally-sourced ingredients. You could trace each to its family farm of origin. As it grew, selling products in 26 countries on five continents, I knew those family farms couldn’t possibly supply all its meat, poultry and fish. It had to be buying in the global commodities markets. But when I asked, they refused to answer directly, their marketing still implying the same supply chain standards.
Recently, a manufactured scandal. A nonprofit called the Clean Label Project (CLP) publicly alleged to have discovered, through lab testing, “high levels” of heavy metals in Champion products. Nancy Kerns, editor of the Whole Dog Journal, had had high hopes for its stated mission: “focused on health and transparency in consumer product labeling.” But after looking into the organization, she determined that its dog food commentary “is currently so flawed as to be without any practical use.”
Linda Case, a PhD animal nutritionist, commented on Kerns’ article: “CLP has been around for a couple of years now. Several nutritionists and scientists, including myself, voiced serious concerns about their methods, lack of transparency, lack of evidence-based conclusions regarding potential harm, and arbitrary assignment of ‘scores.’ When posted on their (Facebook) page, these concerns were all immediately deleted. This group also responded to legitimate questions from pet food industry professionals with derision and attacks. (So, if you have not yet received a scathing response from them, whoever they are [no one seems to know], be ready for it).” The scathing attack against WDJ followed, as predicted.
The CLP inexplicably gives 5-star ratings to some of the known worst dog foods — and 1 star ratings to some of the best. So, when I heard about Champion negotiating with Purina, I had to wonder: is CLP’s real mission to plant misleading and damaging “information” about a profitable, high-end company in order to soften it up for a bid by one of the industry giants? While I’m skeptical of conspiracy theories, conspiracies do exist. And there is a lot of money at stake in this cynical and deceptive industry.
I have carried Orijen and Acana in my store for nearly 10 years, putting up with the company’s abysmal customer service because the product quality still seemed high. Knowing the shadowy reputation of the CLP, I was unpersuaded by the dubious “findings” of heavy metal contamination. But selling to Purina? And then, just this week, I read of a new study in which a correlation was made between grain-free kibbles that use a high percentage of starchy vegetables and the degradation of usable taurine, an important amino acid, during the typical high-temperature processing. One Acana product was the common factor in a number of dogs who developed dilated cardiomyopathy from taurine deficiency. When Champion was told of the connection, its response was a dismissive, “we make our foods for normal dogs, not dogs with special needs.” This wasn’t an accusation of negligence but a sharing of new information that could help them correct a serious problem. Their answer told me all I need to know about Champion.
Anyone with real knowledge of nutrition will readily admit that we are far from knowing everything important about the science of food. This is why I advise my customers: If you must feed kibble, buy the best you can afford. But don’t be swayed by advertising. Find trustworthy advisers, and alternate among good brands. Most important, always include some fresh, whole, real foods in your companions’ diets. Variety and appropriateness for the species will serve you well. To paraphrase food guru Michael Pollan’s advice to suit carnivores, “feed food, not too much, mostly meat.”
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.