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Diet & Supplements > How to Know if the Poultry or meat in Your Pet's Food is Chicken, beef... or Roadkill

11 Apr 2012

Pet food manufacturers have a vested interest in defending their use of poor quality and even dangerous pet food ingredients. Nowhere is that more evident than at industry events like a seminar last year in Nashville in which a pet food company scientist gave a presentation on the “importance of rendered ingredients in pet foods.”

The pet food rendering industry exists for one reason – to turn animal and food waste not fit for human consumption into ingredients pet food manufacturers will buy.

What most pet parents who buy popular commercial pet foods don’t know is exactly what type of “raw materials” wind up at rendering facilities and ultimately, in the food they feed their beloved dog or cat.

Plenty of pet food consumers also don’t realize there’s a huge difference between “chicken” and “poultry” on pet food ingredient labels. There’s also a huge difference between “chicken” and “chicken by-products.” And these differences are extremely important when it comes to the health of dogs and cats.

The sad fact is, most of the biggest pet food companies are consumed with increasing profits, not your pet’s health. That’s why every pet parent should learn to read pet food labels and know the difference between good, acceptable, and poor/dangerous pet food ingredients.

In early October 2011, the poultry industry held a seminar in Nashville to discuss the use of poultry by-products in pet food.

A scientist employed by a major pet food company gave a presentation audaciously titled, The Importance of Rendered Ingredients in Pet Foods.

Of course, a more candid title would emphasize to whom rendered ingredients are important, which is primarily pet food manufacturers.

Rendered ingredients are often the opposite of "important" when it comes to nutrition for the pets eating the stuff.

At the same seminar, a member of the National Renderers Association gave a presentation on emerging markets for rendered products.

It seems in the U.S. we produce about 4 million metric tons of "animal protein meal" per year.

Pet food is the biggest growth market for rendered products.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss the food rendering industry, what types of raw materials are rendered for inclusion in pet food, and how easy it is to become confused by what's really in the commercial pet food you serve your dog or cat.

Food Rendering Primer

The rendering process involves combining "raw product" (defined shortly) in huge containers and grinding the mixture down to chips or shreds.

The mixture is then cooked at 220º – 270º F for up to an hour, which separates the meat from the bone.

The grease, also called tallow, rises to the top, is skimmed off the mixture, and becomes the mystery 'animal fat' frequently found on pet food ingredient labels.

The remaining product is put in a press which squeezes out all the moisture and pulverizes the material into a powder. Shaker screens are used to separate excess hair and large bone chips from the powder.

The result is meat and bone meal added to pet food formulas.

The "Raw Products" of the Food Rendering Industry

Apparently spurred on by the mad cow disease scare, in 2004 a report was made to Congress titled Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy.i

This report is useful in understanding the rendering industry because it simply states the facts, without editorializing. I think you'll agree the facts are plenty disturbing (and nauseating, for those with weak stomachs) on their own.

These are a few excerpts from the report (bolding by me), with points I want to make following each excerpt:

Renderers annually convert 47 billion pounds or more of raw animal materials into approximately 18 billion pounds of products. Sources for these materials include meat slaughtering and processing plants (the primary one); dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters, and other facilities; and fats, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and stores.

Point #1: In case you thought the rendered ingredients in your dog's or cat's food came only from (presumably regulated) slaughterhouses or animal processing plants, now you know better. Renderers also drive around in specially designed trucks picking up dead farm and ranch animals, as well as dead pets from animal shelters. They also collect fat, grease and other human food waste from food outlets.

Elsewhere, independent renderers collect and process about half of all livestock and poultry that die from diseases or accidents before reaching slaughter plants (Sparks 2002). U.S. farm animal mortalities in 2000 included approximately 4.1 million cattle and calves (totaling 1.9 billion pounds); 18 million hogs (1 billion pounds); 833,000 sheep, lambs, and goats (64 million pounds); and 82 million chickens and turkeys (347 million pounds), according to Sparks, which examined USDA data.

Point #2: Among the dead livestock and poultry that renderers collect are a large number of animals that died from disease or "accidents" – never even making it to the slaughterhouse.

Integrated plants operate in conjunction with animal slaughter and meat processing plants and handle 65%-70% of all rendered material. The estimated 95 U.S. and Canadian facilities (NRA) render most edible animal byproducts (i.e., fatty animal tissue), mainly into edible fats (tallow and lard) for human consumption. Edible rendering is subject to the inspection and safety standards of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) or its state counterparts, which by law already are present in the meat slaughter and processing plants. These plants also render inedible byproducts (including slaughter floor waste) into fats and proteins for animal feeds and for other ingredients. Because a meat plant typically processes only one animal species (such as cattle, hogs, or poultry), its associated rendering operations likewise handle only the byproducts of that species. The inedible and edible rendering processes are segregated.

Point #3: Note the rendering of edible products for human consumption is subject to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service standards. Also note that rendered inedible byproducts (not for human consumption) include slaughter floor waste. Is it any wonder the edible and inedible rendering processes are kept separate?

Independent operations handle the other 30%-35% of rendered material. These plants (estimated by NRA at 165 in the United States and Canada) usually collect material from other sites using specially designed trucks. They pick up and process fat and bone trimmings, inedible meat scraps, blood, feathers, and dead animals from meat and poultry slaughterhouses and processors (usually smaller ones without their own rendering operations), farms, ranches, feedlots, animal shelters, restaurants, butchers, and markets. As a result, the majority of independents are likely to be handling "mixed species." Almost all of the resulting ingredients are destined for nonhuman consumption (e.g., animal feeds, industrial products). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates animal feed ingredients, but its continuous presence in rendering plants, or in feed mills that buy rendered ingredients, is not a legal requirement.

Point #4: Independent rendering operations -- and there are many more independents than there are integrated operations overseen by the USDA (165 vs. 95 as of 2004) – deal primarily in rendering the inedible-for-humans stuff. Note that while the FDA regulates animal feed ingredients, it is not legally required to have a regular presence in independent rendering plants.

Back to the Pet Food Company Scientist's Presentation

In his presentation, the scientist discussed the making of dry pet food and the benefits (his word, not mine) of chicken meal and poultry fat in pets' diets. He stated that:

"The petfood world is very reliant on poultry byproducts. Chicken meal and poultry fat are important ingredients in pet food. Chicken fat is more than just an energy source. It also provides healthy skin and coats, enhances the aroma of the pet food, provides a nice sheen, and seals and shields dry kibble to increase shelf life."

First of all, the pet food company scientist seems to be using the terms "chicken" and "poultry" interchangeably. He first refers to poultry fat and in the next sentence switches to chicken fat. Chickens are poultry, but not every type of poultry is chicken

"Chicken fat" is considered a reasonably high quality ingredient in pet food formulas, as are most named animal fats. Poultry fat, on the other hand, is an ingredient to stay away from.

AAFCO definition of poultry fat:

Obtained from the tissue of poultry in the commercial process of rendering or extracting. It shall contain only the fatty matter natural to the product produced under good manufacturing practices and shall contain no added free fatty acids or other materials obtained from fat. It must contain not less than 90 percent total fatty acids and not more than 3 percent of unsaponifiables and impurities. It shall have a minimum titer of 33 degrees Celsius. If an antioxidant is used, the common name or names must be indicated, followed by the word "preservative(s)".

Knowing what we now know about the "raw product" of the food rendering industry, note that poultry fat does not necessarily come from slaughterhouse chicken – or even from chicken.

It can come from anywhere, including "4-D animals" – dead, diseased, disabled or dying prior to slaughter. It might be chicken, or it might be turkey, geese, buzzard, seagull, unidentifiable roadkill with wings, or a pet bird euthanized at an animal shelter.

Poultry By-Products

The scientist says, "The petfood world is very reliant on poultry byproducts."

Certainly the "petfood world" doesn't include pets, because dogs and cats, given the option, wouldn't rely on a pulverized mixture of rendered fowl necks, feet and intestines to supply their nutritional needs.

AAFCO definition of poultry by-product meal:

Consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcasses of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices.

Keep in mind by-products consist of the parts of animals that are NOT meat. Poultry by-products include parts of the fowl that have little or no nutritional value -- and there's no way to tell which parts have been mixed into your pet's food.

The scientist refers to poultry by-products as value-added ingredients. Value-added for whom? Certainly not the animals eating the stuff. He also describes rendering as environmentally responsible.

It doesn't seem appropriate nutrition for dogs and cats is a part of the discussion at all, does it? It's clearly all about what's important and of value to the pet food industry's bottom line – not the health or quality of life of the animals it is feeding.

For obvious reasons, poultry by-products are less expensive than, for example, chicken muscle meat, but they are also less digestible for dogs and cats. Pets deficient in high quality protein at the cellular level are often constantly hungry. An inexpensive pet food with by-products doesn't end up being much of a bargain if you're feeding twice as much of it to your dog or cat, attempting unsuccessfully to satisfy his hunger.

More Word Confusion

Back to the pet food company scientist's statement, "The petfood world is very reliant on poultry byproducts. Chicken meal and poultry fat are important ingredients in pet food."

Chicken meal is not a poultry by-product.

AAFCO definition of chicken meal:

Chicken which has been ground or otherwise reduced in particle size.

Why does the scientist continue to switch back and forth between words describing generally good quality ingredients (chicken fat, chicken meal), and words describing poor quality ingredients (poultry fat, poultry by-products)?

Why would a pet food company's quality assurance scientist be so imprecise in his discussion of The Importance of Rendered Ingredients in Pet Foods?

Did he mean to say chicken by-product meal, since the thrust of his presentation is the virtue of using rendered by-products?

AAFCO definition of chicken by-product meal:

Chicken by-product meal consists of the dry, ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines -- exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practices.

Chicken meal is vastly different from chicken by-product meal. The distinction between good/decent pet food ingredients and poor ingredients is a crucially important one. Trying to decipher an ingredient label to determine the quality of a pet food is challenging, to say the least.

One wonders if the word play among industry insiders is deliberate.

Become a Savvy Pet Food Consumer

Understanding pet food labels is difficult – especially when many pet food companies engage in marketing campaigns and word games intended to convince you the sky isn't blue.

Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy, March 17, 2004

Source: PetfoodIndustry.com October 26, 2011

Dr. Becker