How Do Vets Recommend Pet Food? (Part 1: Industry)
OK, so here’s a live wire issue for you: How do vets choose which foods to recommend? What goes into this decision? How educated, effective and ethical is it really?
Some of you are smart; you’ve been around the block more than a few times and now you’re jaded on the vets and nutrition thing. I don’t doubt that you have a reason to be. Nutrition is one of the few areas in which we vets don’t necessarily excel. And we’re not alone. That’s a perfect mirror of the human medical paradigm, too.
Nutrition is a big black box when it comes to science. We just don’t know as much about the intricate workings of the highly integrated system of organs involved as we’d like to think we do.
I’m just as cynical as you are. I speculate this dearth of knowledge exists (at least in part) because there’s not a lot of money to be made in human medicine when it comes to food. So our science is weak on nutrition because commerce drives most of our medical developments — and there’s little cash to be had in the slippery science of nutrition, despite the pressing social need for it.
Take the issues of obesity and diabetes in humans. There’s lots more money to be made off drugs than in nutritional and behavioral solutions combined. The system is built so that scarce research dollars get channeled into money-making ventures wherever possible — to the detriment of obese diabetics (especially within low-income populations where drugs are less affordable) and the overburdened service arm of our inefficient healthcare system.
Vet medicine lags even further in real science on nutrition, though the relatively recent explosion in pet healthcare and food markets might have you suspecting otherwise. Just as drugs seem to run the show in human medicine, packaged foods, made by an oligarchy of pet food producers, play an identical role in the veterinary version of nutrition research.
Add in the “grassroots” commercial factor — where vets have been recruited to sell foods at a sizable margin based on our “expert knowledge”— and it makes the already-cynical among us feel even more justified in our skepticism.
Here’s a little history lesson:
When vet medicine began to get more specialized and pets surfaced as the new focus of our profession’s attention (thanks to the cultural shift in attitudes on the importance of pets in American family life), nutrition science in schools was present in abundance — due to the influence of agricultural animal medicine in the curriculum.
But vet schools were forced to re-shape their research and curricula to support pet medicine’s emerging potential. In the process, many schools effectively outsourced nutrition, preferring to concentrate on the sexier, more service-oriented sciences.
This made some sense at the time—since industry already had nutrition in the bag, as it were. Our dwindling funds were better spent in other areas, were they not? Especially now that states didn’t want to fund us because we’d moved away from agribusiness support. If we wanted to survive (and survival was indeed in question for a lot of schools, including mine for a time) we had to accept some help from industry, didn’t we?
So our researchers were hired away to more affluent industry jobs with gleaming labs and cozier retirement packages. In turn, the pet food companies promised to work closely with us in the development of their foods while sponsoring our research and funding scholarships to our students.
Never mind that a veterinary school should be an independent research institution free from industry influence. Never mind that the pet food companies had near-full control of our profession’s future when it comes to food. Sure, there were some holdouts. But all schools were affected to one degree or another.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss how this historical change in research and education has effectively shaped how we practice vet medicine today — and what it means for you and your pets.