When I was in graduate school, a fellow student recommended a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Published in 1962, it was already considered a classic in the philosophy of science by the 1980’s. Kuhn is responsible for defining and popularizing the concept of “paradigm shifts.” He explains that historically, scientific advancement has occurred as a series of relatively uneventful periods punctuated by intellectually abrupt “revolutions.” These are discoveries that are so new and unexpected that they change the entire way in which we do science, think about a topic, or even live our lives. Once accepted, these new concepts completely replace those that preceded them.
Paradigm Shifts: A paradigm shift is a change from one way of thinking to another; a new way of looking at an old problem. These shifts do not just happen, but rather are driven by people of great minds or by events of great import. For example, the development of agriculture changed humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary community builders, and for better or for worse, allowed us to populate and dominate the entire planet. Similarly, Darwin’s theory of evolution changed not only how we looked at all other species on the planet, but (with some continuing resistance) how we look upon being human itself. Paradigm shifts also can be caused by new inventions. The invention of the printing press in the 1400’s led to the unprecedented preservation and distribution of knowledge and had a major role in the scientific revolution. In our own time, the introduction of the personal computer and the internet have had cultural ramifications that have impacted our personal and professional lives in ways that could never have been anticipated. These transformations all involve a replacement of old belief systems or way of doing things with an entirely new paradigm.
At the risk of over-dramatization, it appears that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift today that affects how we think about commercial pet foods and how best to feed our dogs. Although not a life-changing event for most people, or even perhaps not for most dog people, the changes that we are seeing in the pet food industry and among owner attitudes during the last seven years are unprecedented and certainly worth examining.
If you remember, the pet food industry was literally “born” in the early 1960’s as a consequence of the development of the extrusion process. Producing dry foods that provided complete nutrition, stored well and were convenient allowed dog owners to feed their dogs a single product for a relatively low price and to feel good while doing it.
Pet Food Choice Explodes: Starting in the mid 1980’s, research that studied the nutrient needs of dogs increased dramatically both at universities and within the private sector (pet food companies). This expansion occurred in large part because of the increasing importance that dogs had to our lives and the creation of an entire pet industry around that relationship. The advances in our understanding of canine nutrient needs and feeding behavior led to improvements in both the quality of many foods as well as an explosion in the number of brands and products that were available to dog owners.
By the new millennium, more than 90 percent of Americans were feeding a commercial dry (extruded) dog food to their dog and the explosion of life stage and life style foods has occurred almost exclusively within the extruded dry product segment. In addition to puppy and adult foods, we saw the development of products that target different adult sizes, activity levels, breeds, and health conditions. The variety of ingredients included in foods has similarly expanded, with the inclusion of new protein sources, grains (or no grains), types of fat and “functional” nutrients.
On the business side of things, the 1990’s and early 2000’s witnessed unprecedented growth in sales, followed by an epidemic of pet food company mergers and acquisitions. Small, privately owned pet food companies and their brands were gobbled up by a small handful of multi-national corporations. Over time, a single company became the owner not only of multiple brands of food but also numerous product lines within brands. By the early 2000’s, the majority of pet food brands sold in the United States were owned by the “five giants” of the pet food industry: Mars Petcare; Nestle-Purina PetCare; Colgate-Palmolive (owner of Hills); Procter and Gamble (P&G) Pet Care; and Del Monte Foods (recently renamed Big Heart). These five are now further consolidated down to four, when Mars purchased all of P&G’s pet food brands (Eukanuba, Iams and Natura) in April of 2014.
Pet Food Recall of 2007: The pet food paradigm shift that began in the early 2000’s accelerated tremendously in the spring of 2007. Sadly, this change came about not in response to a new discovery or an innovative type of pet food. Rather, it was set off by a massive pet food recall of unprecedented proportion that was caused by the intentional adulteration of a common food ingredient. The problem began when numerous dogs and cats started to become suddenly ill with renal failure, many never recovering. Although we now know that the company that was responsible, Menu Foods, had started to investigate the problem by early March, it took weeks of consumer complaints before a voluntary recall was initiated.
Worst nightmare: I remember that time well. My mom and I were attending a Canine Freestyle seminar together in St. Louis, Missouri. My mother, a trainer also, had been a board member of NADOI, and this seminar was held in conjunction with the organization’s annual meeting. During a seminar break, a long-time friend of my mother’s came and sat with us. She tearfully related that she had lost her beloved, young, German Shepherd earlier that week to renal disease, brought on by the tainted food. The most heart wrenching detail that I remember from that conversation was the distraught woman telling us of her continued attempts to entice her sick dog to eat the tainted food prior to knowing that it was the food that was actually causing her dog’s illness and eventual death. She spoke of warming the food and adding little tidbits to it, in an attempt to nurture her boy back to health. For me, and also for my mom and others in the room, this put a highly personal face on the daily statistics of pet illness and loss that we were reading about in the media. It is an understatement to say that losing a dog in such a way is every dog lover’s worst nightmare.
Over the following months and into early summer, the extent of the problem became appallingly evident. According to Dr. Stephen Sundlof, who was the head of the FDA’s Center of Veterinary Medicine at the time, the root cause of the contamination came from a switch in ingredient supplier. Buyers at Menu Foods had recently changed to a new supplier of wheat gluten, an ingredient that is included in canned foods as a thickening and binding agent. They had switched to an Arizona-based company called ChemNutra that was importing the ingredient from China. ChemNutra offered wheat gluten at a price that was about 30 percent lower than the cost of making (not selling) the ingredient in the US. It eventually became known that the Chinese suppliers were intentionally adding two non-food compounds, melamine and cyanuric acid, to wheat flour in order to make the flour appear to be the more expensive ingredient, wheat gluten. The adulteration had the effect of raising apparent protein levels of the ingredient in a deceptive manner, thus allowing the company to charge a higher price for what was actually a very low quality product. When present together in a pet food, we now know that melamine and cyanuric acid crystallize into a complex that accumulates in the kidney, leading to kidney damage and death. By the end of the disaster, it was estimated that over 5,000 pet food products had been tainted and were recalled and thousands of cats and dogs were sickened or killed.
This event, along with several subsequent pet food recalls for salmonella and aflatoxin (a toxin produced as a result of mold contamination to corn or wheat ingredients), led to changes in dog owners’ understanding of how pet food was made in the United States and to a dramatic shift in overall perceptions of the pet food industry. Perhaps the biggest shock to dog owners was the revelation that a single manufacturer, in this case Menu Foods Limited, was responsible for the production of dozens of brands of pet food that were owned by a wide variety of pet food companies, including the “big five” discussed earlier. As a result, different brands of foods were often produced using the same ingredients that originated from a common supplier. Perhaps even more significant was the realization that many pet food ingredients were sourced from outside of the United States, often in countries such as China, that had few or insufficient regulatory standards. Collectively, the truths that were revealed in the wake of the largest and most devastating pet food recall in history led to a rapid loss of consumer confidence and to increased skepticism of pet food companies and their products.
Other cultural shifts: While pet food recalls are dramatic and highly salient examples, several other cultural changes have also contributed to the pet food paradigm shift. It is common knowledge among people who work in the pet food industry that trends occurring in the human food industry quite reliably predict what we can expect to see occurring a few years later in the pet food industry. A recent example of this is the increased popularity of grain-free dog foods. These foods have their origins in the gluten-free and eventually grain-free movement in human diets. Grain-free brands of dog food were virtually non-existent before the year 2000. Today, almost every pet food company includes a dedicated grain-free brand or product line and some companies sell nothing but grain-free products. Similarly, as interest has grown about where and how our own food is produced, so too has there been increased interest in knowing more about the origin of the foods that we feed to our dogs and cats. Owners are increasingly sophisticated in their knowledge of foods and are more willing than ever before to scrutinize ingredients and label claims. Market segments that were once considered small and “niche” are now mainstream. Some owners wish to choose only foods that include organic ingredients, some eschew any foods that may contain genetically modified organisms, and others are switching to raw diets for their dogs. Many are concerned about the source of ingredients that go into foods as well as about who is producing their dog’s food. And, some are equally concerned with the environmental or animal welfare issues surrounding their own and their dogs’ foods or with consuming only foods that originate locally or regionally.
Not just your grandmother’s kibble anymore: So, let’s take a look at where exactly the pet food paradigm shift has led us. During the last 5 years, the pet food industry has witnessed an explosion of innovation and the development of new feeding philosophies and products. The development of extrusion in the early 1960’s almost instantaneously revolutionized the pet food industry, in large part because it led to the mass production of foods that were convenient, economical and that could be stored for long periods. Because the extrusion cooking process efficiently cooked starch and resulted in both increased digestibility and enhanced taste, dry foods contained a relatively high proportion of starch, plus various sources of animal- and/or plant-based proteins, animal or plant fats/oils, and vitamin/mineral “pre-mixes.” Convenience has been an attractive feature of extruded dry foods for many dog owners. Not only are these foods easy to store and feed, but they can now be purchased at every supermarket and big box outlet found in America’s shopping centers. Owners can purchase dry dog foods at grocery stores and mass market retailers such as Walmart, Target and even Walgreens. Together, these large retail sources are responsible for more than 70 percent of dog food sales. The pet superstores are responsible for about one-fifth of sales, followed distantly by small pet supply stores. Generally speaking, the perception of owners is that higher quality (i.e., premium) foods are available at pet supply stores, while the lower quality brands, which are also lower in cost, can be readily purchased at grocery store chains and mass market retailers. And generally speaking, these distinctions are true.
Notwithstanding the continued popularity of extruded foods, there are a number of completely new approaches to producing dog foods that have been developed in recent years as part of this paradigm shift and that provide a new set of choices to dog owners. Several of these approaches are used primarily to produce safe and storable raw foods, such as dehydration and freeze-drying. Others are a new approach to cooking and storing foods that contain ingredients other than those that are typically included in dry foods, in some cases, using ingredients that never leave the “edible” (USDA term for human grade foods) supply stream and so are classified as being produced from human grade ingredients and using human food production methods. While these foods still comprise a relatively small portion of the pet food market, I think they reflect the enhanced innovation and exploration into new possibilities that are coming about during the new age of pet foods as well as a response from dog owners who are demanding higher transparency from the pet food industry, along with higher quality and safer foods. The table below summarizes several of these approaches and provides a few brand examples for you to explore, should you so choose. (Note: The table does not contain a complete list of brands, but rather is intended to provide a randomly selected group of brands as examples).
||Dehydration involves removing most of the water from the mixed and ground raw ingredients. Gentle heating during dehydration kills microorganisms and partially cooks the food. Portions are rehydrated with warm water immediately prior to feeding.
||The Honest Kitchen, Addiction, ZiWi Peak
||Ingredients are mixed and then frozen under a vacuum to allow which allows product moisture to sublimate directly from the solid phase to the gas phase. Portions are rehydrated with warm water.
||Stella & Chewy’s, Nutrisca, Orijen, SoJo
||Ingredients are gently cooked (not extruded), shaped into tubes or patties and refrigerated.
||Ingredients are gently cooked (not extruded), then frozen. May be complete and balanced or a pre-mix to which other ingredients are added at home
||Evermore, Bil-Jac, Buddy’s Kitchen
||Ingredients are combined, frozen, and packaged as rolls, or individual meal-size patties
||Stella & Chewys, Nature’s Variety, Bravo!
||A frozen or freeze-dried mix of either non-meat ingredients (to which the owner adds cooked or raw meat), or of meat ingredients (to which the owner adds vegetables, fruits, grains)
||Fresh Oasis, SoJo, Bravo!
||Baked or extruded kibbles coated with freeze-dried (usually raw) ingredients
||Great Life, Instinct (treats)
NOTE: This essay was excerpted from my 2014 book “Dog Food Logic” (Dogwise Publishing, 2014), Chapter 7, pages 116-119. To continue reading and learn more, just click the image below. (Also available on Amazon). This essay kicks off a new series of Science Dog blogs that will examine new research in canine nutrition and feeding. Coming Soon – “The Nature of Natural”!