Photo © Matt Glidden

Blog | February 17, 2012

Family Farm Food for Me, Family Farm Food for My Dog?

by Matt Glidden

There’s a new addition to my family! My wife and I have adapted to a new schedule and new routines. Sometimes there are late nights spent roaming the neighborhood and lots of new responsibilities. Yes, we’ve adopted a rescue dog named Bernie and he’s been with us for a few months now.

My wife and I both had dogs growing up, but Bernie is the first dog we can call our own as adults. As we hurriedly stocked up on items before he arrived (a dog bed, leashes, collars, toys, food bowls, treats, training supplies and lots more), I realized how much there is to think about. And what to feed him is one of the biggest and most confusing questions. With thoughts of the 2007 melamine-tainted pet food scandal still in my head, I set out to look at the options available.

I spend a good amount of time thinking about what to feed myself. Not only which new restaurant to try out, or which recipe to try when I use up those country style pork shoulder ribs in the freezer, but where my food comes from. So naturally, the same question arose when thinking about what to feed my dog — how will it affect his health, the environment and the family farmers who grow it?

A trip to the store

I discovered, after perusing the aisles and aisles of foods at the pet store, that it’s even harder getting real information on pet food than it is for “people food” (as I’ve come to call it). Walk down one of those aisles and you’ll see bags covered with dozens of different health claims. Each one seems designed to make you feel guilty if you don’t buy it. You do want your dog to have healthy hip joints, strong teeth and a shiny coat, don’t you? The scene reminded me of the cereal aisle at the grocery store where each box claims to be more scientifically-calculated to maximize your health than the last. “Step back, cholesterol, heart disease and cancer, for I’ve got the power of SuperCereal™ (‘Now with the power of antioxidants!’) on my side!”

The other strange thing I noticed on dog food and treats is how they mimic the flavors and food we eat. I saw bags of heavily processed treats touting their various flavors; be it “filet mignon,” “porterhouse” or “prime rib flavor.” Things got more ridiculous from there — whereas most brands identified their various varieties based on what they contained (like “Chicken, lamb, and potatoes”), I saw one called “Grammy’s Pot Pie.” And do dogs care if the fake spare rib-shaped treats they’re eating are “slow cooked to perfection with hints of hickory and molasses?”

How safe is pet food and what’s the best kind?

I quickly realized that, just like with people food, processed pet foods are full of these ridiculous gimmicks and need a little investigation into the ingredients and a skeptical look at their claims. But how safe are they? And, on a basic level, what’s the best kind?

First I’ll easily settle the second question: there is no best kind of dog food. You know how some people follow a raw food diet? There are dogs who are fed in a similar way, often following the charmingly-acronymed BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet for their pets. The theory is, according to Wikipedia, “that processed foods are ‘not what [the] dog was programmed to eat during its long process of evolution’ and…that foods similar to those eaten by the dog’s wild ancestors are more biologically appropriate.” That seems to make sense to me, but there isn’t a lot of scientific research to confirm it.

Doing a little research has left my head spinning. People much smarter than me seem to come down on both sides of the issue. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has warned against feeding bones to dogs and the American Veterinary Association doesn’t endorse the health benefits of raw food. The British Veterinary Association has said that “there is no scientific evidence base to support the feeding of raw meat and bones.” Other vets express concern about the possibility of pets spreading bacteria from raw food, discuss the dangers of bone fragments being swallowed, and also question the nutritional benefits of raw versus cooked food.

As far as meeting the dietary needs for pets, I see there is actually not a lot of nutritional difference between brands because pretty much all of them are “complete and balanced.” Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor who co-wrote the book Feed Your Pet Right told the San Francisco Chronicle in an interview,

If you want one-stop shopping that meets all the nutritional needs of your cat or dog, look for the words “complete and balanced” on the package. That’s code for meeting all the nutritional standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) – the non-regulatory agency that sets the pet food standards.

Next is the ingredient list…The first five should be real foods – not wheat gluten or something that doesn’t sound like real food.

As for that safety question: there are certainly pet food recalls. In 2007, dogs and cats died after eating food containing ingredients from China that were found to contain melamine. That was the highest profile pet food recall and got lots of national attention, but there are still other recalls that happen on a smaller scale. The American Veterinary Medical Association maintains a site with information on the latest recalls, while the FDA has its own site with recall data going back to 2007. So I’ll plan to take a look from time to time and see if there are any repeat offenders to especially avoid.

CSAs for Dogs?

In thinking about whether feeding Bernie a raw diet made sense, I wondered if there were specific CSAs out there for dogs. I didn’t expect to find one, but then again, farmers are often wondering how to sell cuts of meat that don’t necessarily appeal to us fussy consumers. Most people who feed their dogs a raw diet will tell you they do it for the dog’s health and that’s certainly important to me. But just feeding Bernie a raw diet based on the cheapest ingredients I can find at the grocery store isn’t good enough — I’d want to know that the meat was not just healthy, but that the animals were treated well and the farmer received a fair price for his or her work. I get my meat from a CSA, can Bernie do the same?

Lo and behold, he could, but only if we first move to New York City or Georgia. But there are a couple out there: Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in New York found that a good way to use those cuts of meat that don’t get bought up is to sell them for dog food, mixed in with local, seasonal produce from New York farmers. And Moonshine Meats, working in Georgia, has what they call a “Man’s Best Friend Share” that offers grass-fed “beef liver, heart and other choice organ meats” combined with diced vegetables.

Those programs are specifically designed and marketed for dogs, but then I remembered the “extras” offered in the monthly email from my CSA farm. It includes additional items like beef livers, hearts and tongues that don’t show up in my normal share, but that Bernie would probably love to chow down on.

I also discovered that Local Harvest, a tool I use to find good food at farmers markets and other locations also has a category for pet food.

Further Reading

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