How to Get Smart About the Pet Food You Buy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance

  • Chelsea Kent is a pet food store owner in Colorado and founder of the website Food Regulation Facts
  • Chelsea’s mission is to raise awareness about pet food regulatory issues and issues within the industry that affect pet food quality
  • Pet food processing methods can hide a disgusting and potentially toxic assortment of problems with raw ingredients, and it’s all completely legal
  • Chelsea urges pet parents and independent pet food retailers to become knowledgeable about how the pet food they serve and sell is sourced and manufactured

Today I have a very special guest joining me from Colorado, Chelsea Kent. Chelsea founded an organization called Food Regulation Facts after attending a couple of AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) meetings. She realized there are many people involved with the pet food industry who have no voice when it comes to regulating their industry.

"What I really specialize in," Chelsea explains, "is collating and distributing information that is difficult to find, and difficult to understand if you do manage to find it, and distributing that information in a way that is relatable and meaningful to other people."

Chelsea's audience is consumers and also independent pet food retailers and the staff who work in those stores. Those are the two groups who most need the information she provides and who also distribute it. She has a special interest in retailers because she has her own retail pet food store.

Pet Food Regulations Are Full of Loopholes

One of the most impactful, if depressing things Chelsea has learned about the pet food industry is the way in which regulations are applied to the manufacture of pet food. It's not just about being able to read pet food labels; it's about what pet food companies are able to get away with that isn't reflected on those labels.

"Sterilization is a really good example," Chelsea explains. "A lot of people are looking for sterilized products right now because the FDA is focused on promoting the idea that raw diets are dangerous, and kibble is not. Kibble becomes sterile through the process of cooking, so in theory, if you're going to feed raw you should buy sterilized raw."

However, as Chelsea points out, this actually makes it easier for pet food producers to take contaminated product and run it back through the machine to re-sterilize it. This is just one example of many that demonstrates how industry regulations, available loopholes and what manufacturers do behind the scenes affect the pet food sold to consumers.

It's Risky to Remain Ignorant of How the Industry Operates

I asked Chelsea what steps pet parents can take to begin educating themselves about the pet food industry. She suggests researching, reading and asking lots of questions. "Every time you learn one thing, it opens the door to learning more things," says Chelsea. "And the more things you learn, the more questions you know to ask."

For example, Chelsea learned from a raw pet food company that they source their vitamin E from Kenya because it's the only location they could find that doesn't produce vitamin E from genetically modified soybeans or preserve it with propylene glycol. So now she knows to ask every company, "Where do you source your vitamin E? What is it made from? Is it preserved, and if so, with what?" The key if you're a pet parent looking for answers, is to just start digging and educating yourself.

Pet Food Formulas Are Constantly Being Manipulated Behind the Scenes

Believe it or not, Chelsea opened her own pet food store about two months after the massive 2007 melamine contamination disaster. Though she began in the industry in 2000, this of course put her on a faster track to learn all she could about the industry and pass her knowledge on to her customers.

As her understanding of the industry grew, it became an ongoing challenge to continue to provide high-quality pet food. Pet food companies change hands. They get bought and sold. A manufacturer experiencing financial problems decides to cut corners on an ingredient or supply source.

Chelsea finds she must stay on top of all her suppliers to understand what they're actually doing so she can in turn make the right decisions about what products to carry in her store.

"As a retailer, it's pretty common for me to drop companies — even some of my personal favorites — because they are no longer operating in alignment with my values," says Chelsea. "That's something consumers need to do as well. Just because you've always loved a certain product, or it's always worked for you, doesn't mean the product you're buying today is the same product it was six months ago or six years ago."

If you're a pet parent concerned about what's actually in that can or bag of food you're feeding your furry family member, Chelsea suggests looking beyond the label at where the product is sold and how widely it's distributed. If a pet food is available everywhere, it's a good idea to question how the manufacturer is able to produce such enormous quantities without compromising ingredient quality or sourcing.

You can also take it a step further and call the company to ask them questions about their sourcing practices, questions like, "Where are you getting this ingredient? Does it always come from the same source? Do you use meat brokers? How do you manage quality control on mass production?"

My experience has been that the customer service people at major pet food companies can't or won't answer most questions. If you call with questions, you may not get any answers, but the exercise may help you decide once and for all to scratch that pet food brand off your shopping list.

An Ingredient Used in Many 'Prescription' Pet Foods Is Toxic, Per the EPA

Since Chelsea is quite the pet food sleuth, I asked her to share a few of the most shocking things she's discovered in her investigations — things the average pet parent would have no clue about.

"Distressed and salvaged pet foods contain ingredients that are horrifying," she replied. "A company can take a product that's bad for some reason and just manufacture it into a new product. That is horrifying to me. I can't believe it's allowed."

AAFCO defines these pet feed "ingredients" as start-up and over-run product, unfinished pet food, pet food fines and other product not suitable for packaging for retail sale, product which is no longer available for retail sale, dented cans, torn bags, product past its sell-by date or returned product that is suitable for use in feed. It may consist of a single formula, still in the original packaging, or a variety of formulas commingled into one bulk container and containing none of the original packaging or labeling.

"And then there are biodiesels. Most people assume pet food is the byproduct of human food waste. But what they don't know is the source of some ingredients, especially in kibble, is from other industries, like biodiesel and oleo-chemical and rendering. I had been in the industry 15 years before I realized corn gluten meal isn't even from the same industry as corn meal.

Corn meal is ground-up corn. Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of ethanol production. It's classified as a toxic chemical substance by the EPA, and it's used in a lot of prescription pet foods!"

Pet Food Processing Methods Hide a Multitude of Sins

I realize many people suspect that those of us who are passionate about pet nutrition and fresh diets are sensationalizing problems with the processed pet food industry. Sadly, they incorrectly assume that if things were truly this bad, the whole world would be talking about the toxicity of corn gluten meal. They want to believe it's illegal to use unsafe ingredients in pet foods.

"The primary reason it's legal is because kibble and even canned pet food is so heavily processed," Chelsea explains. "If you cook and process toxic ingredients long enough, the majority of the toxins are eliminated. However, all that cooking and processing creates other toxins and substances known to create cancer, endocrine disorders, and other serious problems.

The regulators apparently believe all is well because the toxins were cooked and processed out of the original ingredient mix. Also, when regulators look at an ingredient, they don't think of it in terms of benefiting the pets who will eat it. They just know it's more cost effective to funnel the waste into pet food than to put it in a landfill, or compost it, or treat it with enzymes, or dispose of it by some other means.

Nothing will change unless the industry hands the regulators a solution or until knowledgeable consumers simply refuse to buy the stuff anymore."

How to Get Smarter About the Pet Food You Buy

I strongly encourage all of you watching and reading here today to learn more about the processed pet food industry by visiting Chelsea's site, Food Regulation Facts and her blog. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram as well. She also recommends visiting and Hero's Pets blog, two sites where she regularly shares information.

One piece of wonderful advice she offers every pet parent is to shop small and rotate often. Products from smaller companies are typically better sourced and safer. And if you're rotating your pet's food often, even if there are a few things that aren't perfect, you can rest assured you're covering your bases and preventing nutrition issues.

Many thanks to Chelsea Kent for talking with us today and for her commitment to keep pushing for transparency and education for pet parents and pet food retailers, and the industry as a whole.