In 2001, I read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. It explained not only what I was putting into my body at the drive-through window, but also what my money was supporting, everything from the way factory-farm animals are treated to the way fast-food workers are managed.
I’ve not given a single nickel to a fast-food restaurant since. Not for a burger, not for a fry, not for a soda. Zippo, nada, bupkis.
In 2006, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It explained where the food in my grocery store originated, along with what my money was supporting, everything from the subsidized corn industry to the fossil-fuel industry.
I’ve not bought a single package of traditionally produced chicken, beef, or pork in the supermarket since. Not the wings, not the patties, not the chops. Diddly-squat, goose egg, zilch.
And now that I’ve seen the documentary Petfooled, I will never buy dog food the same way again, either.
The relationship that we Americans have with food—at least those of us trying to be conscious consumers—has been evolving, and fast. Think back just 15 years: Few grocery stores had an organic section brimming with everything from Asian pears to cashew milk. There was not a Whole Foods in all of Manhattan. And who had ever heard of kale or quinoa?
Today, the trend toward buying and eating healthier human food has exploded, but in the realm of pet food, this concept remains nascent. As with so many things involving our dogs, a lot of us have simply never thought about what we’re buying or why we’re buying it. Just as we didn’t previously question what was in our own food (or demand better of the companies that produced it) many of us have failed to ask: What’s really in that dog food? Is it actually good for my dog?
These are the questions the new documentary Petfooled challenges us to consider, in ways that should motivate us to change our shopping habits when it comes to our dog food, too.
One of the early scenes that snapped me to attention explained how kibble came to be so ubiquitous. According to the film, during World War II, a moratorium was placed on using cans as dog food containers because the metal was needed for the war. Pet food companies had to come up with other packaging, and wet food didn’t work in paper or plastic bags.
Thus began the mass production of kibble, right at the time in American history when everybody was moving to the suburbs, buying a house with a white picket fence and getting a family dog. And just as so few of our parents and grandparents ever asked about the kennel realities behind the cute puppies they bought from pet stores and breeders, or about what was happening inside our shelters back then, pretty much nobody asked what was going into those bags of kibble, either.
The reality, Petfooled explains, is that the shift in packaging gave pet food manufacturers a way to change primary ingredients without most dog owners noticing. Things like corn, wheat, and other less-expensive, “biologically inappropriate” foodstuffs, the film says, started showing up—arguably contributing to the rise in dog diseases from diabetes to obesity to allergies.
And why would the pet food companies change that financial-windfall formula, even if the metal cans are now back on the shelves? Most of us with dogs today have simply followed our parents’ lead, buying bags and cans of dog food without knowing what’s in them, and without thinking twice.
Even if we do try to read the labels today, discerning the dog food’s contents can be an exercise in frustration. Petfooled explains that if a bag or can’s label includes the words “dinner,” “formula,” or “nugget,” then it must contain only 25 percent of the meat or fish being advertised. If the label adds the word “with”—as in, “with chicken”—then the percentage of the ingredient required, Petfooled says, drops to just 3 percent. The word “flavor” on dog-food packaging can mean zero trace of, say, the juicy steak in the picture on the front of the bag, according to the film.
Most of us don’t bother to read the labels anyway; only a few times in recent history have we even thought there was a reason to do so. There was the chicken jerky scare in 2011, with the discovery that some treats from China were killing beloved pet dogs. Before that, in 2007, the big scandal was dogs dropping dead of kidney failure, leading to millions of packages of food being recalled.
Those incidents did get some of us to start reading labels, but even in that massive recall, the amount of pet food pulled off the shelves amounted to only 1 percent of all the pet food in American stores, according to Petfooled; the episode was a blip, one that the $23 billion pet food industry easily overcame.
The film’s creators say they reached out to all the major pet food brands for comment, and that none would participate in the documentary. That, of course, makes the pet food companies look about as trustworthy as the multinational companies that now control much of our human food supply, and that have gone to the extremes of demanding “ag-gag” legislation that makes it illegal for those of us with questions about our food’s origins to so much as take a photo inside of a livestock facility in some states.
When you think about it, the only thing that has gotten the biggest human-food producers to start changing their ways—even a little bit—is consumers demanding better by giving our weekly food budgets to upstart competitors. Our options for human food are finally now improving, some 15 years after I (along with millions of other people) realized what I was buying into by reading that first book and changing my shopping habits.
Petfooled rightfully urges all of us dog lovers to start taking the same conscious-consumer approach to the food we buy food for our pooches, so that we’ll see more grain-free dog food, raw dog food, and other “biologically appropriate” options in pet supply stores in the years to come.
I’m on board. I’m reading labels. And I’m not giving another nickel to dog food brands that may actually be bad for my pups. Zero, nil, skadooch.
Petfooled is available Jan. 10 on iTunes and VOD.
Kim Kavin is the author of The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers.