The animal food industry has a dark side, and it’s called “vague labeling.”
I’m talking about animal byproduct and animal digest.
By-products are the leftover remains from animal carcasses after all the good stuff has been taken out.
So after your boneless skinless chicken breasts have been carved out, your 50-cent chicken wings cut away, what’s left behind is considered unfit for human consumption, but just fine for dogs. Not too different from what happens under your dinner table, right?
Well, not quite. Let’s start with the meat. (Squeamish readers, beware.)
The best meats in dog foods (chicken, lamb, beef, et cetera) is the clean flesh from the skeletal muscles, the tongue, the diaphragm, the heart, or the esophagus. With or without the fat, skin, sinew, nerve or blood vessels.
So what makes up a ‘byproduct’ meat? The organs generally. The lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone and the stomach and intestines. All that stuff. Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, it’s not hooves, teeth, or horns when it comes to mammals like beef, pork, sheep and goats.
Except when manufacturers turn it into a meat meal.
Byproduct in Meat Meals
The definition of a meat meal is vague, and therefore it is far less regulated for quality. Officially, meals are defined as:
…rendered products that have been subject to cooking to destroy any harmful bacteria before they are shipped to a pet food manufacturing plant. Rendering is a process where the materials are subject to heat and pressure, removing most of the water and fat and leaving primarily protein and minerals. You will notice that the term “meal” is used in all cases; because, in addition to cooking, the products are ground to form uniform sized particles.”
“Rendering” refers to the process of combining all the meat sources into a stew, over-cooking it until the water is evaporated out, removing the fats, and then baking what’s left into a powder. Meals can be a great source of meat protein, as long as the source is specifically identified.
Meat meal is intended to be “exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts that may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.”
“Except” that it’s apparently common to find excessive amounts of hair baked into kibble. If this high inclusion rate of hair is “unavoidable,” how unavoidable is the extra manure and stomach contents? How clean is this meat really? And that’s just talking mammals.
Poultry meals can include feathers and feet— or even be rendered from dead-on-arrival birds.
4D Animal Sources
This is where you see the classic representation of the 4D animals. That is, animals that are either Dead, Diseased, Dying, or Disabled.
These are obviously never included in human meats, but in some applications, such as animal digests, they are surprisingly fine and supposedly nutritious.
4D sources can include: road kill, euthanized animals, diseased livestock, and even dead zoo animals.
There has been speculation about the inclusion of euthanized animals adding trace amounts of the chemicals used to kill them, but that’s a post for another time.
Animal digest is surprisingly added to a lot of foods purely to make it taste better. Plain low-grade kibbles tend to taste like what you’d imagine shredded wheat to taste like— not exactly appetizing to a carnivore. This is where it gets scary:
“Digest” doesn’t refer to the digesta (things in the digestive tract) of production animals, nor does it refer to the digestive tracts at all of any animal, for that matter. It refers to a ground up slurry of various animals from various sources that are not suitable for human consumption. It’s a “digest” of meats.
Not being suitable for human consumption means that meats can include euthanized animals, as well as sick and diseased animals. Such creatures are euthanized with poisonous chemicals, and then dumped into a giant vat for your dog bowl pleasure.
This digest is what gives cheap, carb-heavy diets their “[insert protein] flavored” taste for your dog. General rule of thumb: if the food needs animal digest to add meat flavoring, just so your dog will eat it, it’s not a healthy diet for an animal descended from wolves.
Since animal digest is simply labeled as “animal,” it can be any animal. And that’s scary. There are some dog food companies that defend this inclusion as “recycling” a type of ingredient from USDA inspected facilities. Notice! a USDA inspected facility does not mean USDA inspected meats. Stay away.
Conclusion: Pay attention to the label and avoid vague terms.
- By-product is a cheap, repulsive, and risky ingredient. It’s the leftovers from other industries.
- Meals can be great, as long as the labeling clearly defines the meat source.
- Animal Digest is another cheap way for manufacturers to cover up a low quality product and should be avoided due to its unspecific sources.
By-products do offer the benefits of meat, such as the protein, animal fat, amino acids, and vitamins— but our dogs shouldn’t be forced to get these benefits in ways that don’t even pass for human consumption.
In terms of quality, it’s below hotdogs, below drive-through tacos, and it’s below gas station sausage wraps. It’s only acceptable for the dogs. I personally want to do better than that for my pets. Long, healthy, happy lives start with a balanced, biologically appropriate diet.