Consumer Demand May Drive Healthier, More Ethical Pet Food

ethical pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pet parents are interested in supporting pet food makers that have demonstrated a commitment to social causes and organizations
  • Demand for pet food companies with favorable socio-economic characteristics is so strong that so-called mission-based marketing is one of the strongest trends that dog and cat food companies should be aware of
  • Seeking pet food made with truly grass fed, free-range and organic ingredients can help you find more ethically minded pet food companies, or source the ingredients yourself and make your own ethical homemade pet food (species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced)

By Dr. Becker

The pet food industry in the U.S. is thriving, with its “bread-and-butter” products remaining those that are worst for your pet’s health, namely kibble (dry food) and poor-quality canned foods. Even veterinarians perpetuate the myth that animals can thrive even if they’re fed a limited, highly processed diet for the entirety of their lives. However, this may soon change, in large part due to consumer demand.

Along with increasingly seeking out natural, organic, non-GMO and human-grade foods, pet parents are interested in supporting pet food makers that have demonstrated a commitment to social causes and organizations. In fact, demand for pet food companies with favorable socio-economic characteristics is so strong that Eric Pierce, director of business insights at New Hope Network, said mission-based marketing is one of the strongest trends that dog and cat food companies should be aware of.1

By highlighting their philanthropic efforts, for instance, they can meet consumers’ growing demand for more ethical pet food companies. It’s a positive move, one that mirrors other recent consumer-driven changes in the industry.

Pet Owners Increasingly Seeking Ethically Sourced Dog and Cat Food

As it stands, most pet food is made of ingredients that are unfit for human consumption, including, as mentioned in my interview with Colorado-based integrative veterinarian Dr. Susan Klein, the remains of "4D" animals — dead, dying, diseased, disabled. Feeding such concoctions to pets is understandably not ideal. As Klein explained:

The process involved in making the average dry pet food is that marginal ingredients are poured into large vats and heated at high temperatures. Most of the core nutrients in the ingredients are destroyed, so they are added back in in synthetic form. Synthetic nutrients are xenobiotic, meaning they are foreign to pets' bodies.

Then the food is dried and pressed into cute cookie cutter shapes, poured into a bag, and stamped with a shelf life of up to two years. From a nutritional perspective there's nothing living in that food anymore, but we're putting it into living bodies. Protein functions in DNA to turn genes on and off. If we want to transcribe for healthy genes, we have to have healthy proteins, meaning live proteins.”

Understandably, health and environmentally conscious pet owners are now demanding more, including that the types of high-quality foods available to humans be made available to pets. Beyond this, pet owners want to know that the food their pet is eating was raised in an ethical, environmentally sustainable way. Pet Product News reported:2

On the human food front, ‘organic,’ ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are familiar terms these days, and as with many developments in the two-legged sector, the demand is filtering down to nutritional selections for pets.

More and more, consumers expect the same transparency and sustainable, organic ingredients in the manufacturing process of pet foods as in their own diets, said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

… Educated pet owners tend to be socially conscious as well as nutritionally aware, said Stephanie Volo, vice president of brand and communications for Earth Animal in Southport, Conn. ‘These consumers want the livestock contributing to the health of their companion animals to have been well treated and humanely raised during their lives,’ she added.”

How to Find Ethically Raised Pet Foods

Sorting through buzz words on pet food labels is not the best way to find a truly healthy, ethical pet food, as deceiving labels are common. The term “natural,” for instance, can only be used for an “ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources,” but it may have been “subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation,” according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

The Truth About Pet Food website covers the issues of “food” verses pet “feed” and pet food definitions extensively, if you are looking for more information.

This means even rendered pet foods are considered natural. Meanwhile, AAFCO does not allow the term human-grade on pet food labels unless it meets a stringent set of criteria that few pet food companies can meet. If you’re looking for pet food made from ethically raised animals, looking for the grass fed label makes sense, but this, too, is full of confusion, as some grass fed products were only partially grass fed. When shopping for grass fed beef, look for the American Grassfed (AGA) label.

No other grass fed certification offers the same comprehensive assurances as the AGA's label, and no other grass fed program ensures compliance using third-party audits. For other foods, like chicken and eggs, look for pastured or free-range chickens. Be aware that many loopholes exist with these terms as well, as even a chicken let outdoors on a tiny patio for a few minutes could be described as free-range.

True free-range chickens spend the majority of their time outdoors, roaming around for insects, worms and other treats. Farms raising true grass fed beef and free-range chickens typically practice sustainable agriculture practices that are both ethical and environmentally friendly. Healthy, ethically raised meats can oftentimes be found at local farmers markets or local co-ops.

The only way to know for sure whether the pet food you’re buying is ethical is to contact its manufacturer and verify its supply chain. Usually companies going through the painstaking effort to make nontoxic, human-grade, non-GMO food discuss it extensively on their website, offering all the transparency you need to feel confident feeding their food. If a website does not discuss these issues clearly on their website, it’s a good clue they are not important to the company. 

Finding clean food and transparent companies isn’t an easy task, unless the company is truly committed to producing a high-quality and humane product, in which case they’ll probably be glad to discuss their ingredient sourcing with you (and it will most likely be a small manufacturer).

Ultimately, however, the best way to know what’s going into your pet’s food is to make it yourself. I wish I could refer you to a list of safe foods or an organization that is collecting information about the transparency of pet food companies so that you can make concise choices, but there isn’t one. This is the reason I wrote my first pet cookbook 20 years ago.

Making your dog's or cat's food yourself means you can select ingredients that are human-grade, organic, grass fed and/or free-range, and you can choose exactly which ingredients goes into each meal. Be sure to do your homework before taking the plunge, however, as it’s crucial that your homemade pet food be species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced.