The 3 Most Important Questions to Ask About a Food

Analysis by Dra. Donna Raditic

Story at-a-glance -

  • CANWI is a nonprofit organization I co-founded with Dr. Karen Becker; our mission is to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet parent, veterinary school, and pet food company
  • Today’s guest is Nicole Cammack BS, MS Human Nutrition, from Watertown, CT; Nicole’s career path has taken some very interesting twists and turns, but like so many of us with a passion for pet nutrition, it was her sick dog that brought her to this point in her professional journey
  • Our discussion today involves selecting the best diet for your pet; we also discuss the fascinating results of an online pet owner survey Nicole conducted regarding the supposed dangers of minimally processed pet diets

Welcome to day 5 of the 2021 Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute (CANWI) awareness week, during which we’re focusing on commercial pet food.

Today, I’m delighted to have Nicole Cammack joining us from Watertown, CT. Nicole holds a BS and MS in Human Nutrition, so my first question for her is how she got involved in the world of pet food.

“It kind of happened by accident,” Nicole replies. “And like many people in the pet industry, I fell into it because I had a sick pet.”

She explains that she was educated in and working on the human side of things, including in emergency medicine, pharmaceutical research and a bit of nutrition. However, in trying to help her dog, she began to explore making the switch to companion animal nutrition.

“I knew there were a lot of gaps and I started to see some of the claims that were made with pet food that I knew would never fly in the human sector,” says Nicole. “I figured the best way for me to dive into animal nutrition was to get a formal education in human nutrition, and hopefully start to develop some of the research that was needed on the animal side.”

Nicole and I have something in common — before I did my undergrad veterinary education, I took human nutrition courses, followed by some animal science nutrition-type courses. I think getting that kind of foundation is really important.

3 Important Questions to Ask Pet Food Producers

Next, I asked Nicole, now that she’s working on the animal side, how she selects pet foods. How does she tackle the huge responsibility of helping clients select better diets for their pets?

She explains that she is a firm believer that every pet parent’s situation is different, including their finances, their own beliefs about food, and the health of their animal companions. So, she takes a different approach with each client.

“It's actually really difficult to help people select pet food because most pet food companies don't do their due diligence,” Nicole explains. “The reality is that there are a lot of safety gaps as well as nutrition gaps in the industry. Unfortunately, that makes it necessary to spend a lot of time researching and following up with companies to try to get answers about the foods that are in the marketplace today.”

Nicole explains that she has three questions she most often asks pet food producers.

“It doesn't necessarily matter to me whether the company makes the food themselves or it's made by a third party,” she says. “What I want to know is, do they have proper food safety culture and certification within the facility where the food is made?

Those things are really important, even more important than sourcing from my viewpoint. A lot of people focus on the country of origin for various ingredients, which is important, but regardless of where the ingredients come from, it's important to make sure they're safe.

The other two questions go hand in hand. I want to know if they're testing the final product to make sure it meets at least minimal nutritional guidelines. And I want to know that the food is digestible. You can have the best levels of nutrients in the world in pet food, but if the animal can't digest it, what good is it?”

Nicole’s approach makes good sense. The pet food industry is huge, and safety must come first. Also, at the end of the day, we have to make sure the food is digestible — that the nutrients it provides can be absorbed by the animals eating it.

I always tell clients that one indicator of digestibility is smaller volume stools, because less waste coming out means more nutrients being used. I consider that a good sign, unless of course I put a pet on a weight loss diet containing fiber. But that’s a whole different story.

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Importance of Nutritional Analysis and Digestibility Studies

I asked Nicole if pet food companies test for the digestibility of their products. She replied that many of them do not — they don’t do nutritional analyses or digestibility studies. Their excuse is often that it’s about ethics, and they don’t test on animals, however, as Nicole explains, there’s nothing unethical about it:

“We feed the food to an animal for a short period of time, typically 7 to 14 days, collect stool samples, send them off to a lab, and figure out what the animal digested and what was excreted. It's a very simple math equation. I’m oversimplifying, but essentially that's what it is.

It can be done in a kennel, there are several throughout the U.S. The other perfectly acceptable way to do it is to have people feed the food at home and collect stool samples and send them off. If the company isn’t doing nutritional analyses or digestibility studies, then essentially people’s pets are being experimented on.

You want to buy products from companies that are doing their due diligence. These are inexpensive tests, and there’s no reason why companies should have products on the market without them.”

In addition to contacting pet food companies about digestibility testing, I asked Nicole what other questions pet parents can ask to ensure the quality of the food they’re offering their animal companions.

“Another question that's important is, who’s formulating the food?” she replies. “There are a lot of pet food formulators whose hearts are in the right place, but they're not necessarily qualified to do that kind of work. The reality is that the number of qualified formulators in the pet food industry is very small. You also want to know if they validate and test the final products to ensure they’re free of contaminants.”

Raw/Minimally Processed Diets and Pathogens

Nicole is working on an exciting project involving minimally processed raw diets, and I asked her to tell us about it. She’ll be making a major presentation at an upcoming meeting, after which the results of her work will be published.

“We distributed a survey to pet parents at the beginning of 2020 all over the internet, all over the world,” Nicole explains. “We were looking for people feeding raw or minimally processed diets to their pets determine if they had experienced pathogenic transmission, meaning if they acquired any sort of foodborne illness as a result of feeding raw.

The survey results showed zero confirmed cases, but a few potential cases. Ultimately what we found, which matched up with other previously published research, is that these cases are incredibly rare. Another takeaway is that the veterinary industry is largely not testing their patients for these illnesses.

The biggest takeaway, regardless of whether you feed kibble, canned, freeze dried, air dried, or minimally processed, is the importance of food safety and handling. How are you storing the food? How are you cleaning up after you prepare your pet’s food? Are you washing your hands? Those things, regardless of diet, are what can make the biggest impact in relation to foodborne illness.”

Nicole’s study results and message are really important because veterinarians should be telling clients that dry food, canned food, treats, whatever they’re feeding to their pets should be handled safely.

An Overachiever on a Mission!

Nicole has had a very interesting professional journey so far, and she’s taking yet another turn in her career path now, which I asked her to fill us in on.

“I currently own a pet store here in Connecticut,” she answers. “It’s different from a lot of other pet stores because we focus on food science, nutrition and safety. We work closely with veterinarians, and we’re very fortunate in that regard.

But I wanted a little bit more, so I am moving to Georgia to attend the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine for a degree in comparative biomedical sciences or companion animal nutrition, starting this fall.”

Nicole is what we call an overachiever — she’s now going to pursue a Ph.D. program in animal nutrition, which is very exciting, and CANWI donations are supporting Nicole on her latest journey. She’s on a mission, as all of us at CANWI are, to learn how to use nutrition to prod the pet food industry to produce better, safer, healthier products.