With around 9 million dogs and 8 million cats in the UK, and massive increases in both furry populations likely in the future, we all need to be more aware of our pets’ ecological paw prints. What represents a healthy diet is a contentious subject, but whether you feed your dog nothing but raw, meaty bones or fill your cat’s bowl with dry kibble, shouldn’t we be asking the same questions that we do about our own food?
What exactly is in your pet’s food? Regulations and recommendations
According to the UK’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), pet food is covered by a complex web of more than 50 pieces of legislation, including laws on farm animal feed and human food, as well as specific pet food regulations. There are maximum limits for undesirable substances in feed, minimal recommended nutrient levels and regulations on permitted additives. Most manufacturers follow these guidelines and should state ingredients on packaging or on their websites, however the guidelines are not legally enforced.
A European regulation currently covers labelling, claims, and other forms of marketing communication, but manufacturers are legally allowed to put categories (e.g. ‘meat derivatives’) rather than specific ingredients, so ingredients lists can be frustratingly vague. If additives are added by the ingredient supplier (e.g. antioxidants added to meat) the manufacturer doesn’t need to list it in the product’s ingredients and can state that the food has ‘no added artificial additives.’ The only way to be sure exactly what’s in your pet food is to ask specific questions. So do your homework – there’s a very helpful ingredients glossary at allaboutdogfood.co.uk – and interrogate your pet food manufacturer.
Where and how?
Once you know what the ingredients are, ask how they were produced. Was the meat raised to higher welfare standards? Are the vegetables local or from non-intensive agriculture? UK regulations limit the animal products that can be used in pet food. The gov.uk website guide shows raw food is the most tightly regulated: meat and game fit for human consumption but rejected for commercial reasons, and the appetising ‘material from animals that passed an ante-mortem test, that is unfit for humans to eat, e.g. liver with fluke’ are the only allowed sources. Processed pet food can use a wider range of ‘animal by-products’ (ABPs) such as hatchery waste, egg by-products, and heads of poultry.
The fact that makers are allowed to list ingredients by category highlights the fact that the pet food industry “uses by-products from the human food chain [and] raw material supplies can vary during the year” and that “manufacturers may therefore use ingredients from different animal species based on supply levels,” according to the PFMA.
Producers who use organic and high welfare ingredients, which generally come from smaller-scale agriculture, are often more transparent in detailing the ingredients they use, but even they have issues. Eco-conscious producer Honey’s Real Dog Food has a detailed brochure stating that all their ingredients are grown or reared in Britain, rather than just processed here. They also state that all meat is either free-range, organic or wild, but even they can’t name all their producers. “If we are dealing with a wholesaler we send them details of our strict buying policy and visit some but not all of their suppliers,” states Vicky Marshall, Honey’s MD.
How an animal dies is as important as how it lived. The vegan team behind online retailer Ethical Pets only sell Yarrah pet food because, they say, it was the only company they found that does “an annual audit of all the slaughterhouses and the farms they use…and all their slaughterhouses use CCTV”. If you’re concerned about animal welfare but don’t feel able to do your own research, writer on ethics Julian Baggini suggests that “the simplest proxy … is certified organic.”
Similarly, we should demand that any fish used in pet food comes from certified sustainable fisheries, such as Beco Pets’ MSC-certified cod and haddock kibble. Farmed fish is often produced unsustainably, relying on wild-caught fish for feed and polluting surrounding waters. Organically farmed fish offers the highest standards, but can still cause issues. On eco brand Yarrah’s website, the company explains that, in its opinion, “legislation in the field of organic fish farming does not go far enough to protect animal welfare. For this reason, Yarrah switched to MSC fish in February 2011.”
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet the answer?
Commercial meat-free food for dogs is available from companies including Benevo and Yarrah, which meets European guidelines for pet nutrition. Cats are another matter: They’re ‘obligate carnivores’, meaning they must have certain animal proteins in their diets. However, some vegan cat owners and environmental campaigners argue that these nutrients can now be created from non-animal sources and these are often added to meat-based pet foods already.
Plastic, Pouches, and Packaging
Unrecyclable packaging is a massive problem. Hackney-based Emma Marshall claims that 120,000 tonnes of pet food pouches go to landfill in the UK every year, and is working to change this with her Pets 4 the Planet campaign. It’s probably best to avoid single-meal portions sold in unrecyclable plastic pouches altogether.
Another trend, raw feeding, has led to the proliferation of shrink-wrapped frozen portions delivered in polystyrene boxes. Thankfully, producers are starting to offer more sustainable solutions, such as Cotswold Raw’s wool-based insulation and Naturaw’s compostable sugarcane tubs. In terms of packaging, delivery and storage, probably the most sustainable solution is to buy kibble in large recyclable paper sacks, such as the Lily’s Kitchen range.
If you are already purchasing sustainable ingredients locally from ethical businesses that use minimal packaging for your own meals, why not use these to make your pet’s food yourself? This seems to be the latest trend, with books and websites popping up recipes and options all over the place. Some vets claim it’s extremely difficult to meet your pet’s nutritional needs without the resources of a commercial producer. It’s frustrating that experts are keen to warn about the problems of making your own pet food but less keen to share how exactly to do it properly, especially in the UK. There are US-based websites, including petdiets.com and balanceit.com, that have diets created by vets with specialist nutritional training, though the latter sells a supplement needed to make its recipes nutritionally balanced. If you do go down this route, keep an even more careful eye on your pet’s health and maybe take them for more regular check-ups.
Beyond the food and packaging, we also need to consider the general ethics of the companies feeding our pets. How do they treat workers; what do they do for the local and wider community? As with all these issues, businesses can make vague claims about their ‘do-goodery,’ so look for independent verification. Lily’s Kitchen is a B Corp organisation, which means it must ‘meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.’ Goood is a German brand relatively new to the UK market, which puts sustainability right at the forefront of its brand, with recycling packaging and carbon neutral production, planting trees around the world. It’s also currently seeking charity partners to help homeless people in the UK with supplies for themselves and their dogs.
As always, ask. It’s down to all of us to hold producers – and the legislators who make the rules within which they work – to account, telling them what we want and checking they’re doing what they say are.
Clear? Probably not. Like all sustainability issues, it’s complicated. But consider the following points, and you’ll be working to do your best for your pet and the planet.
- Organic certification is a good indicator of sustainable/high-welfare production if you can’t get specific info from a company.
- Don’t assume ‘human-grade’ cuts of meat are best. Maybe our pets eating things we wouldn’t is more sustainable.
- Consider packaging – buy as big as you can, avoid individual portions in unrecyclable packaging.
- Consider energy used in processing and storage. Low-temperature processed kibble might be better than raw food that needs to be kept frozen.
- Be sceptical of vague wording and unregulated terms, such as ‘where possible’, ‘natural,’ and ‘healthy’.
- Look at buying from small-scale manufacturers, as locally as possible, with whom you can build a relationship…and ask them lots of questions!
- Consider home-preparing your pet food, but be aware of the complex nutritional needs of your pet – consult your vet and preferably a vet with specialist nutritional training.