How it all started …
There are many public versions of this story, so here is ours. Commercial pet food, specifically, kibble (McKibble) and canned (McCan) foods, has not been around that long. In the late 1850s, a young electrician from Cincinnati, named James Spratt (see: Wikipedia) went to London to sell lightning rods.
When his ship arrived in London, crew members threw the leftover “ship’s biscuits” onto the dock, where they were devoured by hordes of scavenging dogs. That gave Spratt an idea. “Ship’s biscuits“, or hard tack, were the standard fare for sailors in those days. Made from flour, water, and salt, mixed into a stiff dough, baked, and left to harden and dry, the biscuits were easily stored and had an extremely long shelf life. The long shelf life was rather important in the days before refrigeration. It is said that they looked a lot like today’s dog biscuits.
Spratt had the idea that he could make cheap, easy-to-serve, biscuits and then sell them to the growing number of urban dog owners. His recipe was simple: a baked mixture of wheat, beet root, and vegetables bound together with beef blood. When Spratt’s Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes came on the market in 1860, the commercial pet food industry was born! Spratt’s Dog Cakes were a hit in England, so in 1870 he took the business to New York … and so began the commercial pet food industry, an industry greater than $70bn+ USD today (see: Wikipedia).
But what about before then? What did dogs eat before 1860? If we go back even further in time, let’s say, more than 2,000 years, the Romans spoke of “dog’s bread”. It was made of bran, and was regarded as poor quality food, similar to that fed to slaves. The 1st Century Roman poet Juvenal refers to “dog’s bread” as filth. In his poem Les Comedies, Book II, Satire 6, he writes “Is your hunger so importunate, when it might, with greater dignity, be shivering where you are, and munching dirty scraps of dog’s bread ?” 1. In later centuries, “to give [someone] dog’s bread” was an analogy that meant “to punish or mistreat”. The analogy referred to a bread laced with poison, needles, and broken glass, and then fed to dogs in order to kill them.
However, not all ancient texts give out such critical descriptions of dogs or dog food. Roman poet and philosopher, Marcus Terentius Varro (BC 116-28), (see: Wikipedia) is believed to have written the first agricultural manual.
“Dogs in any case you must have, as the farm is not safe without them” 2. In it he advised giving farm dogs barley bread soaked in milk and bones from slaughtered sheep. “It is better to keep a few fine and active dogs than many. These should be trained to watch by night and to sleep shut up during the day.“
During the Middle Ages, it was common for European royalty to have kennels for their hounds. Kennel cooks would make huge stews, mostly grains and vegetables with some meat or meat by-products – the hearts, livers, and lungs of various livestock. Dogs in common households, however, had meager diets. They were fed only what their owners could spare. A normal domesticated dog’s diet consisted of crusts of bread, bare bones, potatoes, cabbage, or whatever else they could scrounge on their own.
In the 18th century, farm dogs, which had to be fairly healthy to do their jobs, were regularly fed mixes of grains and lard. In cities, you could make a living by searching the streets for dead horses, cutting them up, and selling the meat to wealthy dog owners. As written by Sarah Hartwell, the cat’s meat man used to be a common sight in London and other large towns between the mid 1800s and the 1930s. During that period, most towns had their own abattoirs and horse slaughterers (known as knackers, see: Wikipedia) and inevitably there was meat “unfit for human consumption“, though it has to be said that the definition of “fit for human consumption” was probably wider than it is today.
Horse meat, along with meats that were “on the turn”, fly-blown or showing signs of disease could be purchased by traders who hawked their wares in the street. To prevent unscrupulous traders from re-selling the meat “as fit for human consumption” or using it in pies, it became the practice to dye the meat blue or green. Whether the dyes were toxic to cats (or dogs) is not mentioned, though a good many Victorian and Edwardian dyes turned out to be noxious to humans and animals alike. Social researcher and journalist Henry Mayhew wrote about cat’s meat vendors in his record of London life: “London Labour and the London Poor“, Volume One (1861) 3. He counted 300 such vendors (though his reports also mention 1,000 such vendors).
There were exceptions: the very wealthy, throughout history, have fed their pet dogs fare that was much better than what most humans ate. In the 1800s Empress Tzu Hsi of China was known to feed her Pekingese shark fins, quail breasts, and antelope milk .
Let it be dainty in its food so that it shall be known as an Imperial dog by its fastidiousness; sharks fins and curlew livers and the breasts of quails, on these may it be fed; and for drink give it the tea that is brewed from the spring buds of the shrub that groweth in the province of Hankow, or the milk of the antelopes that pasture in the Imperial parks.Don J. Cohn, quoting Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧, 1835-1908) of the Qing dynasty.
European nobility fed their dogs roast duck, cakes, candies, and even liquor, as stated by Jennifer Lee in her book titled “The Inner Carnivore” 4.
During the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution created a growing middle class with more luxury and more leisure time, and pets began to be regarded as “luxury items” by everyday folk. The result: pet food became more closely scrutinized.
More pets and more money also meant a new profession: veterinary medicine (see: Wikipedia).
It was only officially founded in the United States in 1895, but many self-styled experts were already giving advice on dog diets. The physician James Clark wrote a treatise entitled “Prevention of Disease” in which he argued for the professionalization of the veterinary trade, and the establishment of veterinary colleges. This was finally achieved in 1790 in the United Kingdom, through the campaigning of Granville Penn (see: Wikipedia), whom persuaded the Frenchman, Benoit Vial de St. Bel to accept the professorship of the newly established Veterinary College in London (pp. 8–19) 5.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was established by royal charter in 1844 (see: Wikipedia).
Veterinary science came of age in the late 19th century, with notable contributions from Sir John McFadyean, credited by many as having been the founder of modern Veterinary research 6. During these “dark ages“, many self proclaimed veterinary “scientists” was of the opinion that dogs needed to be “civilized“, and since wild dogs ate raw meat, domesticated dogs shouldn’t. The misdirected and misinformed philosophy of feeding dogs a cooked omnivore diet comes from the idea that only wild, untamed dogs eat raw meat, and therefore, domesticated dogs need to be more civilized. As a result, their “advise“: dogs should eat “like humans”. This philosophy became the motto behind the commercial pet food industry and drove many marketing campaigns in the early stages of the industry. Sadly, it has nothing to do with the dog’s (or cat’s) biology or anatomy … it all has to do with humans projecting their own needs and wants on animals.
In 1931 the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) (see: Wikipedia) bought Bennet’s company and renamed the biscuits Milkbones.
History states that they then hired 3,000 salesmen with the specific goal of getting Milkbones into food stores – and the national consciousness of the American consumer. For the first time, dog biscuits became a part of regular grocery shopping.
In 1922, Chappel Brothers of Rockford (see: Rockford Reminisce website), Illinois, introduced Ken-L-Ration, the first canned dog food in the United States. It was of course horse meat. In 1930 they started sponsoring a popular radio show in the United States, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin“. Ken-L-Ration became such a success that by the mid-30s they were breeding horses just for dog food and slaughtering 50,000 of them a year!
The 1930’s depression prompted pet owners to look to cheaper options for dog food. Fillers, such as grains and cereal product, were a cheaper method to feed their pets compared to meat during this time. Canned meat products were introduced during the 1940’s and in 1943, dehydrated dog food was introduced, with the instructions: “just add water”. The new dehydrated foods had many advantages in terms of business itself. They were more shelf-stable and could be stored in warehouses, store shelves and homes for months. They were packaged, lightweight, and were easier to freight for both businesses and consumers.
By 1941, canned dog food had a 90% share of the market … until the United States entered World War II and the government started rationing tin and meat. After World War II, processed dog food sales picked up considerably. Mill operators, grain dealers and meat packing plants were finding that the pet food industry would pay for waste products that would otherwise be discarded. Meat, “waste products” and grains were cooked together for many hours, some even days, to kill bacteria and disease. The mix was then formed into pellets and thus dog food went the same way as processed pellets fed to horses and rabbits.
In 1950, the Ralston Purina Company (see: Wikipedia) started using a cooking extruder to make their Chex cereal.
Here’s how it worked: ingredients were pushed through a tube, cooked under high pressure, and puffed up with air. This allowed Chex to stay crisp when milk was added.
At about the same time, manufacturers were getting complaints about the appearance, texture, and digestibility of dry dog food. Purina’s pet food division borrowed an extruder from the cereal division and experimented with it in secret for three years. The result: Purina Dog Chow. Dogs loved it, it digested well, and it quickly became the number one dog food in the nation.
In the early 1950s, Ken-L-Ration made the jump from radio to TV advertising, running commercials on wholesome show like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” in the United States.
By the late 1960s, the convenience of feeding canned or dry dog foods saw these products quickly increase in sales. The veterinary industry began promoting the idea that protein diets were incomplete, and needed to be supplemented with additional vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. This resulted in the next phase of the commercial pet industry advance; specialty diets, formulated for specific diseases or disorders in pets. Dr Mark Morris DVM (see: Hills Pet Nutrition website), founder of Hill’s Pet Products (see: Wikipedia) (Science Diet) was the first in the field to develop this idea. The Purina Company quickly followed, along with several other companies. Only veterinarians offered these prescription products at first.
In 1964 the Pet Food Institute, a lobbying group for the now-gigantic pet food industry, began a campaign to get people to stop feeding their dogs anything but packaged dog food. They funded “reports” that appeared in magazines, detailing the benefits of processed dog food, and even produced a radio spot about “the dangers of table scraps“.
The PFI efforts and “reports” tainted the nutritional requirements for dogs, and forms a large part of the sciences that is currently driving the industry …
The dog food industry was spending an incredible $50 million a year on advertising in the United States in those days. Commercials centered around the “beef wars“, with competing companies all claiming to have the most pure beef in their products. Today, the pet food industry spends around US$400 million on advertising in the U.S. alone.
In the 1960s and 1970s, factors, such as the increased number of breeds and rising crime rates, made dog ownership skyrocket. By 1975 there were more than 1,500 dog foods on the market just in the United States alone.
The pet food industry in the United States managed to sow the seeds of problematic regulation during the height of its power in the 1970s. During the pet food boom, the industry and the U.S. government were “especially close”. The chairman of Ralston Purina’s board of directors, Earl L. Butz, effectively swapped jobs with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Clifford Morris Hardin (see: Wikipedia). Meanwhile, the national guidelines for pet nutrition originated with Ralston Purina’s own research department (see: Purina Website). No one seemed to mind the industry’s self-regulation.
As stated by Justine Patrick, in his course work titled “Deconstructing the Regulatory Façade of the Pet Food Industry“7, during the 1980s the pet food industry’s monstrous profits diminished when inflation combined with increased advertising budgets started eating into earnings. But the biggest blow came in the form of new-found skepticism by pet parents and guardians. During the 80s, the revelation that the world’s food supply was lagging behind population growth attracted substantial media attention. Many pet parents and guardians began wondering why they were paying so much for their pets’ food when there might not be sufficient food for humans. This forced a once booming industry to defend the need for its products. Ironically, this meant that instead of selling their products as “fit for humans” complete with peas and carrots in canned dog foods, the industry began insisting that their “principal ingredients are not suitable for human use”. Considering that the US industry and its regulators claim that pet foods are safe for human consumption, and indeed, are ingested by some humans, any assertion that the main ingredients are not “suitable” for humans became hypocritical.
The commercial pet food industry survived the 80s relatively unscathed and continues to thrive today. In fact, despite never reforming, the industry currently enjoys annual sales of $70+ billion worldwide. But the success of the pet food industry should not in and of itself trouble pet parents and guardians, rather, consumer concern should focus on the inadequate regulatory regime that the industry has established and managed to maintained. Many commercial foods rely on sub-standard ingredients and yet bear claims of “complete” and “balanced” with defenseless fur kids paying the price and unsuspecting pet parents and guardians paying avoidable vet bills.
Who, then, are making the rules?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) members include officials from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and the cooperative states. But AAFCO also consists of members from the pet food manufacturing industry. In 1994, the AAFCO Official Publication listed a group of members charged with developing and reviewing standards for terms found on pet food labels. Of the group’s six members, four were pet food company employees 8.
Discovering who works for pet food companies has become more difficult since 1994. But a close look at the current AAFCO Official Publications reveals continued influence by the pet food industry over the regulation of their own products. While the listings of committee members in the Official Publication do not reveal any organizational affiliation (see: AAFCO), the listings of committee advisers do provide such information. In 2006, the Pet Food Committee Advisers consisted of twelve people. Six of these advisers were associated with pet food industry organizations such as the Pet Food Institute or the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Today, there are 16 Committee members, and 18 Committee Advisers. Remembering that this is a multi-billion industry, the incentives for improving food ingredients or general regulations are not best served by allowing industry employees to influence the committees that write the regulations. As one frustrated veterinarian put it: “talk about the fox guarding the hen house.” 9
The argument that advising committees serve strictly as “lobbyists” to the AAFCO officials charged with writing the model regulations ignores the reality that a non-profit organization such as AAFCO does not have sufficient resources or time to conduct its own research or seek opposing viewpoints. AAFCO issues model regulations and ingredient definitions for pet foods and livestock feeds in the United States. Already not a priority for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pet foods must compete with the livestock industry and its billions of animals for AAFCO’s limited time and resources. With the multi-billion dollar pet food industry heavily represented among the lobbying contingency, consumers and the few veterinarians educated in animal nutrition stand little chance of influencing the feed control officials.
The question to ponder: what did the other dogs and cats eat and how did they survive all this time, without medical or human care, and no McKibble or McCan?
What about South Africa?
Good question! What we know is this:
- The local pet food market is worth between R4.5bil and R5bil (USD 550mil) per year (see: PFI Industry Report Article PFI Website) (as reported in CY 2013);
- In CY 2015, roughly USD 260mil worth of pet food was imported and / or produced locally by multi-national corporations (example, Royal Canin in Kya sands). Foodcorp (RCL Foods) (see: RCL Foods), whom is the largest local producer of kibble (McKibble) in South Africa, owns roughly 23% of the local market through their brands, which will essentially translate to USD 60mil per year;
- There is no oversight government entity such as the US FDA or the US AAFCO in South Africa, so stats are scares;
- If we assume that all of the imports was from American-owned companies, then we still face the same issues as the American market does regarding quality and ingredients;
- If we assume that a large portion of unfinished goods was from China, our risk is even higher (see: Dog deaths linked in South Africa petfood scare PFI Website);
Considering the lack of data available to the public, it means that we have 50 / 50 risk profile associated with bad quality, or “contaminated“, produce in South Africa. The reason we keep on referring to the U.S. market, is simply that our own legislation incorporated much of the workings from the U.S.
Additional Articles and Videos
Get some insights from other sources.
Pet Food Industry Revealed
Dog food industry revealed, independent video
The unpalatable truth about manufactured dog food
Presented by Jonathan Self from Honey’s Read Dog Food.
References and Research
- 1.G.G. R. Juvenal and Persius. With an English Translation by G.G. Ramsay . London: London Heinemann; 1920. https://archive.org/details/juvenalpersiuswi00juveuoft/page/n6.
- 2.LLoyd S-B. Varro on Farming. M. Terenti Varronis Rerum Rusticarum Libri Tres; Tr. with Introduction, Commentary, and Excursus by Lloyd Storr-Best. London: London, G. Bell and sons, ltd; 1912. https://archive.org/details/cu31924000219505/page/n6.
- 3.Henry M. London Labour and the London Poor . London: Dover; 1861. https://archive.org/details/londonlabourand01mayhgoog/page/n5.
- 4.Jennifer L. The Inner Carnivore. Alberta, Canada: Lulu Press, Inc,; 2014. https://books.google.co.za/books?id=yRZPCAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- 5.L.P. P. From Farriery to Veterinary Medicine 1785 – 1795. 1st ed. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons Ltd, for the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeos,; 1962. https://www.abebooks.co.uk/first-edition/Farriery-Veterinary-Medicine-1785-1795-Pugh/22386334362/bd.
- 6.Malinda L. JAVMA News. April 18, 2011:0.
- 7.Justine S. P. Deconstructing the Regulatory Facade: Why Confused Consumers Feed their Pets Ring Dings and Krispy Kremes. DASH. December 2012. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10018997.
- 9.Knueven DVM D. The Five Supplements Every Dog Needs. Clean Run Magazine. 2006;11(12):2. https://www.cleanrun.com/feature/the_five_supplements_every_dog_needs_part_1/index.cfm.