The following article first appeared in the Autumn 2011 edition of The Spark (www.thespark.co.uk)
Feeding your animals ethically is no easy task. It’s hard enough feeding yourself with worries about GM crops and your carbon footprint, but at least we can choose the foods we consider to be both healthy and ethically sourced. I want to make sure that Henry (pictured licking his lips), my Staffordshire bull terrier, and our three cats (Felix, Nell and Ruby) live long, happy and healthy lives but, with around half of the UK’s domestic animals now clinically obese thanks to a poor diet and lack of exercise, how can I make sure that they’re eating the right things?
The UK pet food market is worth approximately £1.5bn annually; is it a coincidence that as that market grows vets are seeing an increasing number of diet-related health issues? Packaged pet food contains a number of ingredients used to bulk up low-quality, reclaimed and factory-farmed meat or to make poor-quality ingredients more appetising: salt, sugar, cereals and worse. The “meat and animal derivatives” listed on the packaging may be sourced from animals considered fit for human consumption but at best it comes from the parts of the animal which are surplus to requirements, such as lung and sinew. Some of this ‘meat’ is rendered: carcasses are boiled until every last bit of muscle fibre, fat and marrow is extracted, dried and added to the mix.
Feeding animals a vegetarian or vegan diet also poses a huge ethical dilemma. Although dogs can exist without eating meat, in general cats cannot as they need taurine, an amino acid found in animal tissue which cats cannot produce naturally. Without taurine cats will go blind. Some companies manufacture vegetarian cat food, but these have synthetic or vegetable-based taurine added.
But it’s not just about the quality of ingredients: would John Noakes and Leslie Phillips be happy cashing their paycheques if they knew the brand of pet food they advertise is routinely accused of serious animal abuse? How can you be sure that the makers of your brand of cat chow aren’t also vivisectionists? The UK pet food market is dominated by four companies, Proctor and Gamble (P&G, who make Iams and Eukanuba), Nestlé (owners of Purina, Friskies, Go Cat, Felix, Spillers, Winalot and others), Colgate Palmolive (who manufacture Hills Science Diet) and Mars, the company behind the majority of well-known brand names on the supermarket shelf including Pedigree, Kitekat, Pal, Frolic, Chappie, Whiskas and, via Crown Pet Foods, Royal Canin and James Wellbeloved. All four companies have come under scrutiny for animal testing: P&G are the subject of a worldwide boycott instigated by animal rights campaigners, and a cursory glance at their website shows that, even in 2011, the company still tests products, including household cleaners and cosmetics, on animals even though they claim their “goal is to ultimately eliminate all animal research”. As recently as 2007 Mars was exposed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for funding deadly experiments on rodents (see www.marscandykills.com); Nestlé has been unable to hide its animal testing policies, even with such greenwash tactics as the takeover of the Body Shop via L’Oreal (part-owned by Nestlé) and thelaunch of Nestle Fairtrade coffee. Although Hills strenuously denies any cruelty, claiming they only “use non-invasive, humane research methods”, owners Colgate Palmolive admit that “animal testing is conducted at outside laboratories under Colgate supervision” for some of their products. It’s a minefield; and don’t get me started on the pet treats market.
So how do you feed your animals ethically? Although canned dog food first appeared
in the UK in the 1930s, prior to the Second World War the majority of domestic animals were fed scraps from the kitchen and didn’t seem to suffer. There is no reason why you cannot give your pets home-cooked food; however you really should consult your vet first, as there is a risk of Henry or Felix missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. Make friends with your local butcher: mine is happy to give me free bones for Henry which, according to the Raw Meaty Bones Support Group, are just about all you need to feed cats, dogs and even ferrets, although you must be careful with uncooked chicken, for example, as it can carry the salmonella virus which can be transmitted via your pet to you.
If feeding raw carcasses to your pooch strikes you as a little too feral, and cooking your own isn’t an option, there are companies in the UK manufacturing high-quality pet food; the only problem is finding it on the supermarket shelf.
Burns Pet Nutrition, Europa Pet Foods, Lily’s Kitchen, OrganiPets and Naturediet regularly feature in the lists of the best pet food companies produced by Ethical
Consumer magazine and the Ethical Company Organisation (publishers of the annual Good Shopping Guide), rating companies by standards such as animal welfare, animal testing, armaments funding and traceability. Henry, a fussy eater at the best of times, wolfed down his tin of Lily’s Kitchen Goose and Duck Feast with Fruits and, incredibly, asked for more: not surprising when you learn that the recipe contains 32% goose and 31% duck, unlike the 42% “meat and animal derivatives (minimum 4% meat)” in a can of Pedigree. He always turns his nose up at dried food, but Lily’s Kitchen Organic Chicken and Herb Bake was demolished in seconds and I couldn’t get their Apple and Cheese Bites out of the packet fast enough.
“The ethos of our company is its focus on natural, wholesome and nutritional ingredients,” Katy Taylor of Lily’s Kitchen tells me. “Every ingredient has a specific nutritional purpose and all our food is either certified organic and holistic or certified holistic. We only use free range/organic meat in our food as animal welfare is extremely important to us. All of our packaging is recyclable and our dry food bags are compostable.” It’s not cheap; a tin will cost you about three times as much as a can of Pedigree but, if the look on my dog’s face is anything to go by, it’s worth it. OrganiPets was born when the owners of the company took on Raffy, a rescue dog diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than six months to live. Five years later, after a diet of home-cooked organic food, Raffy had reached the grand old age of 15. “Our vets couldn’t understand why Raffy was not only alive but very fit and well,” says founder Liz Nuttall. “When we told them about feeding her with our own organic dog food they told us to start a business and OrganiPets was born!”
As I’ve already said Henry is no lover of dried food, so I was surprised to see him scarf down a bowl of Burns’ Alert Lamb and Brown Rice within seconds. The common health problems that vet John Burns saw in everyday practice led to the formation of Burns Pet Nutrition. “At a time when it was common practice to treat the symptoms rather than finding the cause of problems such as bad breath, itchy skin and digestive upset, John’s own interest in oriental medicine and traditional philosophy led to the realisation that poor diet was a common factor,” says Rowan Flindall of Burns Pet Nutrition. Europa dried dog food, which like Burns is widely available and realistically priced, is certified by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection as not tested on animals. Henry is a huge fan too of Naturediet’s chicken with vegetables and rice (although neither of us like the plastic packaging); the company proudly boasts that all of its range contains 60% meat and the packs only cost a little more than the most popular tinned brands. “Naturediet is as natural product,” a spokesperson for Naturediet tells me. “It is wheat and gluten-free and we do not use any chemical preservatives, fat emulsifiers, colourings, flavourings, binders, fillers or gelling agents. We also do not add any salt or sugars. We are what we eat; not only does this rule apply to dog owners but also for our canine friends. Giving them a healthy, natural diet means a happy, healthy dog.”
“Ethical can encompass a great deal of things and it is unlikely that one company will be able to tick every single box,” Rowan tells me. “The most obvious things to look for are the welfare standards behind the meat and protein sources and whether or not the company is involved in invasive testing or uses caged animals for research. Vague language can obscure all sorts of things: just because something is EU approved or EEC permitted may not mean that it is natural or ethical.”