Two extremely worrying bulletins have been published by the Food Standards Agency this week. One concerns the recall of Nature’s Menu “Country Hunter” frozen pet food because of the presence of salmonella and the other the dangers of anti-microbial resistance to pathogens found in food.
Nature’s Menu Country Hunter food is described by the vendor as being “A tasty complete and nutritionally balanced Country Hunter raw meal of Farm Reared Turkey”… that “contains raw minced bone for added nutrition”. If the meal is already “nutritionally balanced”, why the need for raw, minced bone “for added nutrition”? This is a complete nonsense (never mind the poor punctuation) that tells the purchaser nothing. Of course, Nature’s Menu are not alone in being deliberately obscure about the marketing and labelling of pet food.
At the risk of dragging semiotics into the debate, the name “Country Hunter” strikes me also as being bizarre. Two suggestive words thrown together actually make no sense whatsoever in context. Is this meant to suggest that the turkey has been hunted in the country by a chap with a nicely oiled Purdey? Maybe not, because we are also informed by the label that the turkey is “farm-reared”. Well, it is hardly likely to be roadkill or reared round the back of the producer’s cousin’s council flat. Perhaps they are trying to suggest that it is “free-range” in the same manner as those “polite notices” are meant to fool people into thinking that they are “police notices”. Legally, to be labelled as “free range”, turkeys must have continuous access to an outdoor range that is largely covered in vegetation during the daytime. However, even if products are labelled as being derived from “free-range” livestock, which this product is not, it is entirely possible that the poultry will still spend the bulk of the day indoors and be reared in high densities because it is not economically viable to do anything else at the price you are being charged for the food and the scale on which it is produced. Possibly it is trying to suggest that you have a gun dog that lives a wonderful life doing what it was bred to do. Were that the case, you are highly unlikely to be feeding it this food.
They go on to say “We only use quality, human grade meats in our raw meals, and absolutely no meat meals or meat derivatives. All of our complete and balanced meals are veterinary approved and made to FEDIAF guidelines.” Well, here are the FEDIAF guidelines should you choose to read them. They are well-written and it is good practice to abide by them.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with meat meal. Meat meal is simply a highly concentrated protein powder that is produced when meat and water are cooked to remove most of the moisture and the resulting residue is baked. For instance, chicken comprises about 70% water and 18% protein. After rendering, the resulting chicken meal contains just 10% water but 65% protein. The important factor to consider when assessing meat meal is the quality of the meat that went into it in the first place.
Similarly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with meat derivatives. Legally, they are defined as being “All the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcass or parts of the carcass of warm-blooded land animals”. As with meat meal, the quality of the products that went into it producing the derivatives are the most important factor to consider. Feral dogs and the domestic dog’s wild cousins eat all parts of the animals that they kill or scavenge (but bear in mind that wild dogs have different digestive systems and processes in order to cope). This includes hair, hide, offal and bones – the products encompassed in the term meat derivatives. They get a nutritionally balanced diet because different parts of the animal yield different nutritional requirements. Canids, including domestic dogs, are omnivores and will eat the stomach contents of grazing animals (which cats as obligate carnivores do not) and will eat vegetation in addition to meat. Muscle meat of the type that many humans think is best for their dog is only one component of a dog’s nutritional needs and, if fed to excess without balancing nutrition, can lead to serious problems in growing dogs, especially medium and large breeds, and may overload kidneys and liver in old or sick dogs.
Adding raw, minced bone to food could also be problematic. Apart from the potential for pathogens in uncooked bones, feeding too much calcium can make your dog very ill indeed. It is not uncommon for dogs fed raw bones to accumulate large amounts in their stomachs which can cause constipation and may obstruct the gut. They can also cause tearing as they pass through the dog’s digestive system. Farm animals are bred to grow quickly which can result in their bones being less dense and thus more brittle than slower reared animals of older breeds. This can be exacerbated by the fact that, free-range or not, many farm animals sinply do not get sufficient weight-bearing exercise to assist with creating bone density. Bones can and do result in broken teeth. Balancing calcium and phosphorous levels is essential and this can be difficult as, even if they are present in the right amounts in a raw diet, they may not be nutritionally available and could be difficult to digest.
The pathogens that are indisputably present in raw food can and do harm humans as well as the dogs that are fed raw diets. Illness caused by salmonella, e. coli, listeria, giardia, campylobacter, to name but a few, can range from the unpleasant to the fatal. This is becoming a more serious problem, not just because of the popularity of feeding raw diets and the likelihood that more people are thus exposed to pathogens via pets, but because of the increasing difficulty in treating bacterial illness with antibiotics.
Anti-microbial resistance builds up because of overuse and/or misuse of antibiotics; this is now a major risk to public health worldwide. Humans are exposed to resistant bacteria through human-to-human spread, animals, the environment and the food chain. There is currently uncertainty regarding the types of anti-microbial resistant bacteria found in foods on sale in the UK and of the contribution food makes to the problem.
One of the points that Nature’s Menu make is that they are veterinary-approved. Well, there is a massive range of opinion amongst vets on all sorts of matters. Some recommend and practice homeopathy as well as endorsing raw diets, for instance. However, the vast majority of vets neither support homeopathy nor raw feeding. A growing amount of peer-reviewed research and evidence backs this up.
So, don’t rely on the opinion of someone in the park or the “evidence” of one dog that has supposedly had a miracle turnaround on a raw diet. Read the research, give weight to the experience of canine professionals who have fed and worked generations of dogs and, above all, bear in mind that, if you feed raw, it is not only your dog’s health and well-being that you may be compromising, but any human with whom he comes into contact.