Pet Food: The Quality/Cost Conflict
All of us pet owners want the peace of mind that we are feeding our pets the highest quality food possible. The definition of quality varies from owner to owner and includes preference from real edible meat (cooked or raw) to holistic to organic to hormone free to sustainable to geographically specific etc.
The only way to ensure such qualities is home prepared meals, where the owner controls the ingredients and production practices. Costs for this method vary according to individual preferences, ingredient sources, levels of nutrient supplementation, commitment, and the number or size of pet(s) being fed. Most often quality trumps costs for owners that choose this option and convenience is not a consideration. Pet owners seeking the same quality assurance, ingredient transparency at an affordable price point are often disappointed, especially after their "premium" food has been recalled. There is an inherent cost/quality conflict with commercial pet foods.
Quality of Commercial Pet Food
The striated muscle that we call meat cuts is too valuable to put in pet food. If it is considered edible, meat is more profitable if it is destined for the grocery store.
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Pet food is made from the 50 percent of the carcass that cannot be profitably sold for human consumption. Real meat cuts deemed inedible for human consumption can also be included in pet food with the discarded 50 percent, which includes tongue, esophagus, diaphragm, intestine, sinew, and heart, and is defined as "meat" by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Other carcass scraps defined as meat by-products by AAFCO also comprise the meat that goes into pet food. Meat meals and fats derived from rendered dead carcasses of animals are also allowable in pet food. The use of inedible meat, by-products, and meat meals, as defined by AAFCO, certainly does not meet most definitions for quality products, and the processing procedures for these ingredients have wide variations of quality control. In fact, AAFCO uses the term "in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices" for exclusions of hair, hoof, horn hide, feathers, bones, beaks, manure, rumen and intestinal contents, along with other contaminants such as plastic, nut shells, saw dust, etc. for these protein sources.
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Preparing hard, kibbled food almost certainly compromises quality. Preparation requires two separate processes of high heat treatment that is known to degrade the quality of many nutrients. Nutritional claims for this most popular and convenient form of pet food is based on the nutrient content prior to both heat processes.
Cost of Commercial Pet Food
The other side of the coin is that these animal products are much less expensive than real meat. Commercial pet food manufacturers can produce affordable pet food from products that would otherwise be turned into fertilizers or industrial and cosmetic products. Additionally, millions of pets have thrived for decades with these products in their food, so a blanket dismissal of the quality of commercial pet food is probably unwarranted.
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As in human food recalls, the problems in pet food have been problems of contamination rather than inherent inferiority of the ingredients. And also like human incidents, the number of individuals affected is incredibly small compared to the number of meals fed. Clearly, commercial pet foods are cost effective relatively safe.
Unlikely Conflict Resolution
As stated above, the only way to guarantee that pet food meets owner requirements for quality, safety, and philosophical concerns is to control ingredient assembly and preparation by making it ourselves. To assume that commercial pet food can or will achieve these standards as well as convenience at an acceptable price is wishful thinking. Package labeling is not a reliable indication, as the standards and definitions differ significantly from human food labeling standards. The use of commercial pet food leaves pet owners to define acceptable levels of compromise between quality and cost.