Sextiped Valley column: Trusting the Untrustworthy

Laurie Raymond
Sextiped Valley

Yet again, we’ve learned of several popular brands of pet food recalled after testing positive for sodium pentobarbital — the drug used for euthanasia (humane death) of pets by veterinarians and shelters.

All these brands are made by companies owned by Smuckers — that’s right, the jam and jelly folks. Although now they are a giant global food conglomerate and among the top three pet food producers in the world.

What made Smuckers go into the pet food business? In a word, profitability. The industry anticipates $27 billion in revenue this year. The global market is just beginning to take off. To compete in this high-growth industry requires enormous capacities: for cheap ingredient sourcing, manufacturing, marketing and distribution. Marketing is most important to their bottom line.

The typical pet food company starts small, carving out a niche based on quality, promoting and selling its products through the independent pet store channel, exploiting the knowledge of those retailers to build the reputation of the brand. At first it limits production, distribution and ingredient sourcing to a defined region, expanding as consumer demand creates growth opportunities.

At this point, the company is often bought by a bigger company, although sometimes the owners elect to seek venture capital in order to finance their growth. Either way, the initial commitment to quality ingredients is the first thing to be sacrificed. It becomes necessary to buy ingredients on the open commodities market. And here is where a huge black hole of invisibility makes honest competition (and hence accountability) impossible.

Under U.S. law, all animal products destined for food — whether for animals or humans — must come from animals killed by slaughter.

This includes meat meals and animal fats, which are the rendered animal parts cooked/sterilized, which are most often sold for pet food.

Livestock killed for food in slaughterhouses are never killed by sodium pentobarbital. Euthanasia drugs are expensive, tightly controlled substances, and the meat would not be admissible into the food chain. When sodium pentobarbital ends up in pet food, it gets there in ingredients purchased as meat meals or fats from rendering companies, which collect carcasses from all non-slaughter sources: zoos, veterinarians, animal shelters, grocery store and restaurant waste, road kill, farm deaths and medical wastes.

There are over 450 rendering companies in the U.S., and their outputs are used in products from detergents to fertilizer to pet food. Some renderers specialize and could honestly label their products. But the pet food industry wants consumers to be unaware of the vast spectrum of quality and reputation among this huge segment of its supply chain.

So, rather than competing on quality of ingredients and trustworthiness of processors, the industry maintains a blackout of all identifying information.

What puzzles me most is why, despite the cries for transparency and accountability from consumers, this industry intransigence is tolerated? Does it correspond to the way — cynical yet dependent consumers as we’ve become — we continue to buy, yet we increasingly distrust not only the products of industry but also the pledges of integrity from professions and government entities that we see as increasingly untrustworthy upholders of honest standards? Entities we used to count on.

The FDA, which regulates pet food, has openly stated that it will not enforce the legal requirement that meat in food for animals be from livestock killed by slaughter. It says, trust us, it’s safe. Thus do government safety regulators abdicate in favor of an industry that puts profits over everything.

Many veterinarians sell low quality “prescription” pet foods with little evidence for their medical efficacy and whose labels reveal a lot of junk ingredients. Do we trust our vets? When? And what happens when we learn to distrust them on pet food yet need to trust them when our pets need medical treatment or surgery? Has our laziness and acquiescing to being duped paradoxically resulted in our need for expertise beyond ordinary competence, just to choose between product brands or purchase professional services?

As professionals and government watchdogs lend their prestige, in the form of credentialed practitioners, to serve industry, which long since abandoned most ethical constraints, they begin to reap the whirlwind of distrust. They brought it on themselves by ignoring what it takes to be trustworthy, betraying the foundations of their authority.

And we, who give “trust” provisionally and with cynical reservations, continuing to buy, and buy in, but without confidence in any standards, must face the consequences of having allowed this situation to evolve. I’ve been talking about pet food, but obviously it’s more than pet food. We do know that trust is absolutely essential to a society that anyone would want to live in. But if there are no recognized obligations of trustworthiness, how long can the minimum necessary trust survive?

Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.

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