Meet THE Authority on Optimal Nutrition for Dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • In part 1 of a 2-part interview, Dr. Becker talks with Steve Brown, founder of Steve’s Real Food. Steve has a very interesting background that led to his passion for creating raw diets for dogs.
  • Steve’s unprecedented access to pet food manufacturing facilities and his dog Zach’s refusal to eat fresh warm kibble right off the production line, prompted him to research and compile one of the most extensive pet nutrition databases in existence. And in 1999, he launched the very first commercial raw diet for pets, Steve’s Real Food.
  • Dr. Becker and Steve discuss the problems with many of the diet formulations board-certified veterinary nutritionists rely on. Steve also reveals why no shelf-stable (processed) pet food can truly be complete and balanced.
  • They also discuss the darker side of the pet food industry, the ways in which industry insiders have maligned even well formulated raw pet foods, and why the usual criticisms of commercial raw diets don’t stand up to scrutiny.
  • Dr. Becker and Steve also discuss the issues surrounding sterilized (high-pressure processed) raw pet foods, and why scientific research on fresh diets doesn’t exist.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I’m interviewing a very special guest, Steve Brown. Steve is a friend and one of my pet nutrition mentors.

Steve’s background is very interesting, especially in the way it led to his involvement in the pet food industry. He worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) years ago in the areas of solar design, energy conservation, and the logistics of technology transfer. He eventually moved to Silicon Valley to work, but once there, he realized the environment wasn’t very healthy. So he packed up the two- and four-legged members of his family and moved back east to Maine.

In Maine, Steve helped develop a low-calorie, healthy dog treat – Charlee Bear® Dog Treats. The treats were picked up by PetSmart and sold in all their stores. Then Steve proposed a variety pack of dog food for PetSmart, the company liked the concept, and soon he was given access to pet food manufacturing facilities across the U.S. That’s how he began to learn about the problems with kibble.

Very few people are granted access to the inner workings of pet food companies – they’re typically top-secret operations. So the fact that Steve has toured their manufacturing plants from coast to coast is amazing. And through that exposure, he learned the downside of the pet food industry.

Eye-Opening Visits to U.S. Pet Food Production Facilities

When Steve visited pet food companies, he almost always brought his dog Zach with him as his quality control specialist. They were at a plant in Mississippi and a kibble was being produced. Steve pulled some off the line, it was still warm, and he offered it to Zach to taste. The dog turned up his nose at it and refused to touch it. That was a Eureka moment for Steve. He thought, “Ah, there’s a problem here.”

The next step in the kibble production process is a sprayed on palatability enhancer, or “topcoat,” which is a mixture of fat, animal digest, and other things to entice dogs to gobble up the kibble. Without all those additives, most dogs won’t eat it. They seem to know intuitively they don’t need that stuff in their bodies.

Steve Launches the Only Commercially Available Raw Pet Food Diet in 1999

By the time I met Steve in 1999, he had amassed an enormous database of pet food nutrition data. He had information from the USDA food database, AAFCO standards, European pet food standards, the ancestral diet database, and others. From my perspective, Steve had (and still has) the most comprehensive pet nutrition database and analysis software around. He worked very hard for 25 years or so, accumulating all that data. Today it resides in a 6,000+ page spreadsheet.

Steve launched the only commercially available raw pet food diet, called Steve's Real Food, in 1999, which was the same year I opened my veterinary practice, Natural Pet. His was the first and, at the time, the only raw food I was able to offer my veterinary clients.

Steve has also written two books, Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet: Healthier Dog Food the ABC Way (2009), and See Spot Live Longer: How to Help Your Dog Live a Longer and Healthier Life!(2004). He remains committed to helping improve pet health by producing species-appropriate nutrition that meets AAFCO standards for complete nutrition. These days, Steve consults with high-quality pet food manufacturers, including two raw food companies -- Raw Bistro in Minnesota and Darwin’s Natural Pet Products in the state of Washington.

Incorrect Diet Formulation Software = A Potentially Nutrient-Deficient Diet

Steve and I are actually at an American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) meeting right now. This morning he gave a lecture to a group of holistic vets about veterinary diet formulation software. Many board-certified veterinary nutritionists rely on formulation software that uses only USDA data and AAFCO minimums and maximums. But there are problems with the data. Raw kale is an example. USDA data shows copper levels 7 times higher for raw kale than what is actually in it. The USDA reported copper levels in raw kale at 2.9 mg/kg in 2008, but at 14.9 mg/kg in 2013. And that’s just one problem with the data. There are others, like missing nutrients.

Steve explained to his audience that if they use incorrect data, they will formulate an incorrect diet. If there’s nutrient data missing, they can’t just assume the nutrient isn’t necessary in the diet.

Steve’s diet formulation software is very different. He believes pet diets should contain optimal levels of nutrients – not just minimums and maximums. Steve and I have a very different opinion from traditional veterinary nutritionists about what constitutes species-appropriate, complete, and balanced nutrition for pets.

Why No Shelf-Stable Pet Food Can Be Truly ‘Complete and Balanced’

As Steve explains, there can be no complete and balanced pet food that is shelf-stable. Some of the fats pets need in their diet are very fragile. As soon as a bag of dog or cat food is opened, those fats go rancid. Long-term consumption of rancid fats is not healthy for pets (or people). Steve believes pet owners should add those fats fresh, at mealtime. For example, adding fish oil (preferably krill oil) to the food at the time it’s served.

In the case of kibble, manufacturers assume it contains no micronutrients. So during the last production step when they’re spraying on the palatability enhancer, they’re also spraying on a nutrient mix that consists of a lot of metal oxides and sulfates that promote the oxidation of fats. The result is a pet food that can be completely unbalanced.

And many people don’t realize there’s a chemical reaction happening inside that bag of food. A reaction that is amplified if the bag sits for a long time, or in a hot environment, or sits open.

Steve once wrote an article for a journal about the shelf life of dry dog food. He contacted every dog food company in North America, and asked for a test report of what happens once a bag of food is opened. He got no response. But he did get information from a couple of Canadian companies about what happens before the bag is opened, and because packaging has improved, he’s not that concerned about what happens before the bag is opened.

But once a bag of pet food is opened, things happen. The fats go rancid and potentially react with the synthetic metals, oxidation occurs, and there can be opportunistic bacteria, and mycotoxins to boot. We assume pet food producers know this is the case, but if they don’t collect data on it, then they can remain willfully ignorant. After all, they certainly can’t warn consumers not to open the bags of pet food they’ve purchased.

Steve Has Been the Victim of Dirty Dealings

The information Steve has uncovered about dry pet food makes many in the veterinary community feel nervous and threatened, and he’s had some run-ins with some of them as a result. For example, he attended a major pet food conference hosted by one of the biggest manufacturers in the industry. He was the only person representing a fresh food diet for pets. Everyone else at the conference was representing dry pet food made by big pet food companies.

On the first day of the conference, a researcher from a veterinary school who was also a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN), claimed that Steve’s Real Food contained too much vitamin D. Steve happened to be in the audience, and he decided he’d respond to the allegation the following morning when he gave his presentation. He did so, presenting his test reports and data sheets on the vitamin D in his formulation.

Steve thought that would be the end of it, but three months later, an article by the same veterinary nutritionist making the same allegation against Steve’s Real Food was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). He thinks the reason she made allegations about vitamin D was because six months before the conference, a manufacturer put too much vitamin D in dry dog food, and about a hundred dogs died as a result of eating the food.

The thing is, it was impossible for Steve’s Real Food to have too much vitamin D because he didn’t add it as a supplement in his formulation. It was literally impossible for his food to have too much vitamin D. Fortunately, he was able to force JAVMA to correct the article, but in the correction, the author accused his food of having too much vitamin A. So he forced a correction of that information, at which point she said his food contained too much vitamin E. He finally gave up simply because it was clear the veterinary nutritionist was going to continue to make false allegations about his food.

The entire episode was hurtful to Steve, because he puts a lot of research, work, and care into his products. What was even more disturbing was realizing the pet food industry is so thoroughly corrupt.

Pet Food Industry Claims Against Raw Diets Don’t Stand Up to Scrutiny

I think Steve’s experience is probably representative of what’s happening now to the whole fresh pet food industry. Many board-certified veterinary nutritionists make claims that fresh or raw pet food diets aren’t balanced without even investigating them. They are eager to spread the word that commercially available raw food diets are unsafe and not balanced.

The truth of the matter is quite different. While there may be some formulas out there that aren’t balanced, the majority of raw pet foods on the market have been reviewed by several board-certified nutritionists. In Steve’s case, he triple checks his formulations through modern European standards, 2014 AAFCO standards, the National Research Council (NRC), and the ancestral diet database. Steve’s clients’ foods are bullet-proof from a nutritional standpoint, yet the pet food industry warns against them.

Another thing the mainstream pet food people are very worried about is microbes. The whole industry is terrified of potentially pathogenic bacteria. Steve has an entirely different view of microbes. When he used to raise puppies, he’d allow them outside at about two weeks of age to eat dirt because it was good for them.

When Steve gives his dogs snacks, they bury them in the yard and then dig them up with dirt all over them. Dirt is loaded with microbes. When a dog comes in from outside and licks her paws, she’s ingesting billions of microbes. And yet, the people in authority want to force pet food makers to sell sterile food.

Why the Push for Sterilized Pet Food Is Absurd

Sterilized food is typically the result of high-pressure processing (HPP), which applies about 80,000 pounds of water pressure per square inch to the food. The process kills off the majority of bacteria and viruses, things like Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella. There are some bacteria (Clostridium) that are resistant to HPP, but all in all, it’s an effective means of sterilizing food. It’s used in the human food industry in several shelf-stable products and fresh products like yogurt, avocado, and others.

Sterilization of pet food isn’t for the benefit of pets, though, it’s for their owners. Dogs and cats are built to handle heavy bacterial loads in their diet. The crazy thing is, most fresh human food isn’t sterilized, yet we need to sterilize pet food. The whole idea is absurd, but the premise is that HPP’ing pet food insures there’s no contamination issue for humans. Yet, humans are still handling and eating their own unsterilized food. Absurd.

Since Steve created the first commercial raw diet for pets, I asked him how many complaints he has received from pet owners over the years about bacteria in his food. He said since 1999, he’s had one call, from Seattle. He sent his researcher to Seattle to investigate. The dog had parvovirus. He was taken to the vet, but unfortunately, he didn’t make it. Both the veterinarian and the dog’s owner blamed Steve’s Real Food, perhaps hoping he had deep pockets.

That’s the only complaint he’s received in 15 years, and it was baseless. Parvo isn’t contracted from food.

In the many years I’ve recommended raw diets to pet owners and fed them to my own animals, I’ve never had an incident or complaint, either. As for sterilized food, it’s not necessary for healthy pets, and in fact, they do better with whole, fresh food in its most natural form, which is far from clean, much less sterile.

Together, Steve and I have sold pet nutrition recipe books to hundreds of thousands of people, and no complaints. As further proof, the raw pet food industry has in 15 years gone from nothing to a major player in the industry with no big money to promote it, and no advertising budget to speak of. It has grown strictly by word of mouth. Someone starts feeding raw food to their pet, says “Wow,” and tells their friends. Raw diets work for dogs and cats – that’s the bottom line.

Small Raw Pet Food Producers Lack Funding for Research

I asked Steve to share his thoughts on the absence of research on raw diets for pets, since that’s another excuse the mainstream industry uses – no studies. He said it’s definitely about the money. He looked into the cost of a study for several of his clients that could be published, and it was going to run a million dollars.

None of the raw pet food companies can afford the cost of research. Steve and I hope that as a group, they may be able to join forces and fund some studies, but there are other issues they need to resolve first.

I am a big proponent of research, but in the case of ancestral diets for dogs – they’ve been eating them for thousands of years. I’m not sure research is necessary to prove they are ideal nutrition for dogs. Steve produced a commercially available diet that mimics the ancestral diet, and dogs thrive on it. Pet owners are creating balanced homemade diets, and their pets are thriving. But because we don’t have the scientific research to back it up (research that for processed pet food is funded almost entirely by big industry players), veterinary nutritionists are free to continue to say raw diets are risky. They tell pet owners to feed only diets with research behind them.

The mainstream pet food producers have to either begin producing their own raw diets to answer growing consumer demand, or they have to bash them and try to scare off pet owners. Those are their only two options, really.

Fortunately, according to Steve’s more recent experiences, acceptance of raw diets is growing among pet owners, retailers, and holistic veterinarians. But unfortunately, in response to the growing popularity of raw diets, he’s also seeing much more vehement opposition from the big pet food industry establishment.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the conclusion of my conversation with Steve, in which he shares his recommendations for feeding your dog nutritiously on a budget.