They Eat What We Are: NYT Magazine ventures into nutrition and pet food (Part 1: A summary)
I know this is a late-in-the-day, cop-out post for those of you accustomed to my opinions, impressions and analysis. I must confess to being lazy as a result of a wicked flu that’s dogged me for three days now and my prep for a conference I’m supposed to attend tomorrow (it remains to be seen whether my illness will allow me to wake up at five AM and drive the four hours to Orlando).
The title of this post refers to last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article on pet foods and nutrition. In case you didn’t catch it and you don’t feel like poring over the 3,000 or so words that make up the piece, here’s a summary for you. My impressions will follow tomorrow, as I just don’t have the energy to comply with my daily duties today. I encourage you to read the article if you can, though. If you have any trouble downloading it, I’ll be happy to email it to you—just drop me an email.
Equal parts canine nutrition and pet food industry exposé, the article describes (in a degree of salaciously explicit detail) the experiments carried out by Dr. George Fahey at the University of Illinois. It’s not clear from the article whether he’s a vet or a PhD nutritionist, but his research into canine metabolism is carried out on female hound mixes in the Animal Science department of the university—not in a vet school setting.
Dr. Fahey’s discussion of canine nutrition vis a vis his research dominates the first and last quarters of the article. Much is made of the methods the good doctor employs in assessing the nutritional requirements, digestibility and metabolic needs of the dogs in his colony. Not least because his research dogs are impressively outfitted with surgically implanted intestinal tubing—the better to judge the digestibility of certain foodstuffs they’re fed.
A PETA member’s worst nightmare, no doubt, but a necessary tool, the article argues, to assess the differences in quality of a variety of pet foods and individual ingredient. His research, academic and independently funded as it allegedly is, takes place in a high-security environment with (apparently) extremely well-cared for animals. The article argues that his surgical tactics take the pressure off the pet food industry when it comes to the inflammatory issue of “vivisection” (though the animals are rarely euthanized for the research in question).
After a brief foray into describing the shift in the now-$15 billion pet food market from sustenance to optimization (given the humanization of dogs subsequent to changing values with respect to their importance in the average US family), the article then details the history of the pet food industry from its inception.
It makes a point of highlighting the conglomerization of the industry and current trends towards decentralization with owner demand for pet foods that reflect their own increasingly persnickety perceptions of value in pet foods: “The increasing specialization of the pet food industry today may well reflect not just our desire to keep our pets healthy but also our increasing urge to shape them in our own image.”
A good bit of discussion goes into Dr. Fahey’s scientific goals and personal philosophies. He argues that pet foods must be assessed at least partially in terms of what people really want—palatability and small stools. The remainder of his research is focused on which foods seem to achieve these goals optimally—along with basic sustenance, of course.
Next up, a description of how pet foods are made and how our pets “…continue to feed on scraps from the human food industry’s table.”
Then, a trip to the vet school at the University of California at Davis where research happens in real clinical settings. Dr. William Pritchard (presumably a vet) goes into the lack of independent funding into pet nutrition, in spite of the industry’s size and potential. “Complexity and individualization,” he states, are the wave of the future in pet nutrition.
I hope I’ve teased you enough into reading the whole thing for yourself. It’s an absolutely worthwhile read (though I have bones to pick) for any owner interested in what goes into their pet’s nutrition.