What Every Dog Owner Must Know about the Pet Food Industry

The pet food industry is responsible for providing healthy food for our dogs.

Walk down the aisle of your favorite big box pet store and what do you see? Stack after stack of beautiful bags of dog food designed with colorful pictures of bright red beef, along with vegetables so fresh you feel you could reach out and pick up one. But pet food manufacturers lie!

Pick up the package and read the ingredients. Do they measure up to the pictures? Often, they do not.

Sometimes the ingredients labels don’t even match what is inside the package or can of dog food. You won’t get what you think you are buying.

That appealing package of a popular brand of dry kibble may contain lethal drugs, like Pentobarbital, and that kibble may also contain the remnants of someone else’s beloved cat or dog.

Yes, I know that sounds horrible and disgusting, but it is the truth. Of course, not all manufacturers in the pet food industry intentionally lie but knowing that their company’s bottom line is their main concern, a consumer must become knowledgeable about what goes on in the pet food industry.

The Agencies behind the Pet Food Industry

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines pet food ingredients and establishes nutritional requirements of dog and cat food. They do not enforce regulations. The agency determines minimum and maximum standards of protein in pet food.

Look for the AAFCO seal of approval on every package or can of dog food you buy to be sure the product contains enough protein. But know that this seal of approval does not guarantee the quality of the protein or other ingredients in the food.

The FDA Really Calls the Shots

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets regulations requiring pet food be safe to eat, is produced under sanitary conditions, is free of harmful substances and is properly labeled. The FDA is supposed to enforce the laws it sets. This agency should conduct frequent inspections of pet food manufacturing plants and those of suppliers to the pet food industry.

The FDA should work in conjunction with AAFCO to develop laws, define ingredients and establish guidelines for pet food. They should investigate complaints by consumers and veterinarians. The problem comes when the FDA doesn’t always enforce their own laws.

Has the Fox Been Turned Loose in the Hen House?

Though pet food consumers want to believe these agencies are working for us to protect our pets, incidents occur that make us wonder. Susan Thixton wrote about the July and August, 2019, announcements by the FDA telling consumers not to buy pig ear dog treats. But the Center for Disease Control said it took 8 months and 135 human illnesses for the FDA to announce there might be a problem. Why were we not warned many months ago about the pig ear dog treats problem?

The issue of pentobarbital in pet food raises more questions. The hints of this violation of Federal law have been going around for years, yet nothing was done. This past year brought recalls of pet food when the drug was found in various brands of pet food.

12 Years of Problems Plaguing the Pet Food Industry

The last 12 years haven’t been kind to pet food manufacturers, beginning with the melamine catastrophe in 2007, when thousands of dogs and cats died, to the chicken jerky treat scandal in 2012. Add in the many recalls of various brands of pet food for possible Salmonella poisoning, Listeria contamination, foreign bodies in the food, mycotoxin reports, drugs in the food and more, and it’s clear that any sympathy belongs with the consumer.

The take-away from this is that decent oversight of the pet food industry is missing.

Horrors of the Pet Food Rendering Industry

“Hundreds of thousands of pets are being killed in shelters across the country despite proven methods of saving them. Not only are these animals killed, their lifeless and chemically laden bodies are further disgraced to the fullest degree. They are not buried with respect; they are ground alongside of horrid waste, cooked, and become sellable goods to numerous industries, including the pet industry….This is a crime beyond description.”  – Susan Thixton

You know that expiration or “use by” date on the package of ground beef in your freezer? Have you ever thought about what supermarkets do with such meats and other perishables that don’t sell? It all goes into large containers to await the arrival of trucks from the pet food rendering industry.

The drivers take the spoiled contents of those containers to the rendering plant and dump the entire load into a huge vat. Everything goes in – the spoiled food, plastic wrap, Styrofoam packaging and all – to be ground into dog or cat food kibble.

Roadkill in the Rendering Vat

Pet food industry secrets include dogs & cats in the rendering vats
Dead Dogs & Cats at the Rendering Plant



Drive down any highway, and you will likely see one or two dead animals on the side of the road. You probably assume that those in charge of the roads will send someone out to remove the carcasses. In truth, that dead dog or skunk will probably fill up the bed of a rendering truck headed for a pet food rendering plant.

What Is Rendering and How Does It Work?

Truck full of dead animals headed to the rendering plant.
photo courtesy of the Health Kerux Blog.

Put simply in the pet food industry, rendering is the process of cooking raw animal materials (and whatever else is in the vat) to remove the moisture and fat. The mix is cooked at extremely high temperatures to pull the meat away from the bone. This site describes the process at one rendering plant and how animal tallow is created from the grease that forms on the top of the mixture. Eventually, a machine called an extruder creates kibble from the cooked material.

What Happens to Old Restaurant Grease

Restaurants can’t dispose of the large amounts of used fats and oils in the way a single family might do. Instead, their used fats are stored in large containers outside. Many are underground grease traps systems that look rather like a manhole cover. The old grease is poured into them and pump systems on the rendering trucks remove it.

And you guessed it: The trucks head to the rendering plants to dump their loads into the large vat that could eventually become dry kibble for your pet.

The 4 D’s of Meat

4 D animals are not slaughtered, as required by FDA rules. These are animals found dead in the field, animal feed lot or poultry barn. They may also be diseased or disabled animals that were euthanized. “The 4 D carcasses may have cancerous tumors, worm-infested organs and the like…”

If these creatures are added to the pet food rendering vat, it is a clear and flagrant violation of the FDA Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. If you buy pet food that has been through the pet food industry rendering process, there is a good chance it will contain 4 D animals with unknown issues.

Mistakes Happen

In the pet food industry, mistakes happen. The most egregious part of this is when the manufacturer won’t take responsibility for said mistakes.

Formulation mistakes occur, as when a pet food label says the product contains beef, but it actually contains a different meat. This happens but how the company handles the mistake tells the consumer a lot. Often, a company argues that it isn’t true – until proof is presented. Then they blame it on the supplier of a pre-mix.

Sometimes, a pre-mix isn’t what it says it is. Pet food companies purchase pre-mixes from third-party suppliers. It might be a pre-mix of various vitamins and antioxidants or it could be a meat meal mix of some kind. Mix-ups have occurred, resulting in higher levels of a particular vitamin or amino acid or even the wrong meat meal in the package. These mistakes could endanger a dog’s life over time.

Are Rover and Fluffy Cooked in Your Dog’s Food?

It is possible!  Check out the video here!  The man speaking is Hersh Pendell, a former head of AAFCO.  The video is from 2008, so the concept of our pets ending up in the rendering vat is not a new one.

When a pet is euthanized by a veterinary professional, the owner has the option to cremate the animal and take the ashes, take the animal and bury it, or allow the vet to “take care of it.” In most situations, “take care of it” means a rendering truck will stop by and clear out the vet’s freezer. Those pets will end up in a vat at the pet food rendering company.

How Drugs Can End Up in Pet Food

When a veterinarian euthanizes a pet, he or she administers an injection of pentobarbital. That drug does not disappear. It stays in the animal’s system and ultimately could end up in dry dog food.  Pentobarbital residues are not affected by the high heat and pressure of rendering. The only way the drug could get into the pet food is if the euthanized dog is also there. The FDA considers pet food containing pentobarbital to be adulterated and will remove the food from the market if found.

FDA actions against the pet food industry

Danger Looms in Pet Food from China

In a country where thousands of children were sickened from rice contaminated with heavy metals, tainted baby formula, to nearly a million children’s vaccines found to be defective, it’s no wonder locals don’t even trust commercial pet food produced in China. One Chinese pet owner even declared domestic pet food poisonous.

Why Chinese-Produced Pet Food Is a Concern to Westerners

We can buy American-sourced pet food except for a few items. The majority of vitamins and amino acids included in most human and dog foods come to us via a Chinese supplier. China and Japan are the only major producers of taurine, an amino acid essential to the well-being of both dogs and cats.

The Chinese Jerky Treat Scandal of 2012


The jerky treat scandal in 2008 was a problem for the pet food industry.

In 2012, the news featured complaints about sick dogs and dogs dying after eating chicken jerky treats. The one common thread seemed to be that most of the treats were produced in China.

Well-known, popular U.S. pet food brands were included in the complaints.  The FDA investigated but could not find the cause. They did issue warnings to pet owners to avoid the chicken jerky treats of all brands until they obtained more information.

Consumer Affairs noted many complaints about dogs suffering from vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, increased water consumption and/or increased urination and urged owners to see a vet at once.

Pet Food Ingredients Made in China May Be Unavoidable

It’s doubtful that we can avoid all the Chinese ingredients, even if the overall pet food is sourced elsewhere. The reason is the pet food industry’s use of the pre-mix. Pet food manufacturers buy pre-mixes of vitamins, mostly from Asian countries including China. Other pre-mixes might be meat meals, like chicken meal or chicken by-product meal. There is virtually no way to be certain of the origin of what’s included in a pre-mix.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Dog from Pet Food Made with Chinese Ingredients

Look for pet food companies that are transparent about their ingredients and testing for toxins. Call the pet food manufacturer and ask what ingredients are sourced outside the U.S. If a dog food lists quality proteins, green vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants and vitamins, it’s less likely a pre-mix was involved.

Purchase human-grade pet food to up your dog’s or cat’s chances of eating healthy food. Avoid pet food containing chemicals and other artificial ingredients..

The Melamine Tragedy of 2007

In 2007, numerous complaints were reported to the FDA about pet food sickening and even killing dogs and cats.  An investigation began, and they narrowed down the problem to melamine in the wheat gluten in pet foods. Melamine is full of nitrogen which can make a food measure higher in protein than it really is and is cheaper than using real meat.

It was eventually determined that a combination of melamine, a widely-used chemical in the  plastics industry in China, and cyanuric acid caused the poisoning of thousands of dogs and cats. As many as 8,500 dogs and cats died in 2007 as a result of this poisoning, and led to massive pet food recalls and huge lawsuits.

The melamine tragedy tainted the pet food industry for years.

Changes Made by the FDA As a Result of the Melamine Catastrophe

As a result of the melamine in pet food tragedy, the FDA stepped up to protect dogs and cats.  After many years of investigation, the FDA instigated some changes within the pet food industry. Their representatives inspected many manufacturing plants and ran tests on the deceased pets.

Some changes included all pet food products having to show proper identification, a net quantity statement, the name of the manufacturer, manufacturers’ address and all ingredients listed in order of weight on every package and can of pet food. These ingredients must be listed in order of weight, heaviest to lightest. These changes help consumers to choose healthy pet foods.

Problems with Melamine Won’t Go Away

In 2014, seven years after the pet food recalls, melamine and cyanuric acid were found in U.S. pet food being shipped to Hong Kong. Some of the products were considered premium brands.

After the recalls in 2007, Congress developed the Food & Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA) that included laws requiring the FDA to make the pet food industry safer.  The concern from Congress centered on the fact that some of the ingredients allowed in pet food were not GRAS (generally regarded as safe). The FDA was given 2 years to complete their job. As of 2017, only 1 of the 3 tasks had been completed. Melamine testing is NOT required in pet food today.

While the FDA may not have done their job, more pet owners today are aware of the failures of the FDA to protect their pets and are trying to choose healthier food options.

The Trouble with Grains in Pet Food

Grains are often used by the pet food industry in food.
photo courtesy of unsplash.aperture vintage

Various kinds of mycotoxins can negatively affect grains in pet food. If you find mold in your pet food, that may well be some form of a mycotoxin. When corn and other grains arrive at a pet food manufacturing plant, the grains are stored outside in huge mounds until used. Those grains are subject to all kinds of temperatures, weather, and mold. The mounds hold moisture and provide the perfect breeding ground for mycotoxins. 

Mycotoxin poisoning exhibits with panting, weakness, loss of coordination, increased heart rate, vomiting, fever, seizures and death in both dogs and cats. Consider this a medical emergency.

To avoid this problem, never feed your dog food containing grains, like corn, corn gluten meal or corn meal, wheat, barley, sugar cane, sugar beets, peanuts, cottonseed oil, rye and sorghum.

GMO-Treated Grains

GMO’s are “organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally.”

Genetically-modified corn has been sprayed with a pesticide that does not wash off.  In the field, this corn is considered “Round-Up Ready,” meaning it can continue to live and grow and not be affected by multiple spraying of Round-Up pesticide to kill weeds. That alone would make it unsuitable for dogs to eat at every meal their entire lives! More than 88% of corn and 93% of soy crops raised in the United States for cereals and pet foods have been treated with toxic chemicals.

Soy receives the same pesticide treatment as corn and while you may not see it listed often as a pet food ingredient, it is there under other names, such as hydrogenated oils, lecithin, emulsifiers, tocopherols (Vitamin E supplement) and protein.

Why Fish Should Not be the Protein of Choice for Dogs

Seafood is a questionable ingredient in pet food

At one time, fish seemed like a perfect alternative to the usual beef, chicken or lamb proteins in pet food. I fed my Weimaraner with a sensitive tummy a kibble listing salmon as the first ingredient. The only issue to worry about back then was making sure the seafood was a named fish.

Chemicals like ethoxyquin are used to preserve fish and keep it fresh. Ethoxyquin has been linked to cancer and no responsible pet owner wants their dog to eat seafood containing it. But if you buy pet food containing the ingredient “fish meal,” it very likely contains ethoxyquin.  If the pet food contains a named fish, like salmon or tuna, it should be safe for occasional feeding.

Is Seafood Safe for Pets?

Today, too many problems exist with seafood safety to feel comfortable feeding much of it to our pets. Fish are the primary food source for mercury, specifically, predatory fish like swordfish, salmon and tuna. Animals accumulate mercury faster than they can eliminate it, so it makes sense to limit the amount they eat.

Don’t Panic over the DCM Controversy

Several weeks ago, the FDA announced that 16 dog food brands were linked to a rash of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) cases seen in dogs over the last year. Most of the brands named included top quality dog foods and the media took that report and ran with it. Soon, social media proclaimed that those 16 brands of grain-free dog food cause DCM in dogs.

First of all, the jury is still out on this subject. No definitive conclusions were made. The FDA found that most dogs afflicted with DCM ate a grain-free diet, and those 16 named brands were included. The foods contained lentils, peas, potatoes and sweet potatoes in their ingredients.

Smoking gun? Maybe, but the FDA admitted more tests and research are needed. Many more pets eat one of those same 16 brands and don’t become ill.

Are the DCM Numbers Accurate?

We don’t know what percentage of lentils were used in which food formulas; we don’t know if one brand used more sweet potatoes than another. Too much information is lacking to crucify any particular brands of pet food at this time. Pet owners must decide for themselves if DCM is a concern or would feeding grains to our pets be worse. I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude at this time.

Raw Pet Foods – Pros and Cons

 On another blog, I review pet foods. I readily admit that because I know so little about them, I avoid writing about raw pet foods. However, many reputable pet food advocates and experts do recommend them and for that reason, a discussion of raw dog food is included here.

Lindsay Stordahl, publisher of “That Mutt,” supports the feeding of raw dog food. Lindsay quotes holistic veterinarian, Dr. Darla Rewers who says that “…feeding raw meat and bones can benefit most dogs and cats.”

Dr. Rewers states that raw food, “when fed appropriately, is less inflammatory than heat-treated food…that the long term benefits of feeding fresh foods, whether raw or cooked, often means less allergies, digestive distress, anxiety and fewer trips to the vet.”

Not All Vets Support Raw Pet Food

Several veterinary organizations are opposed to feeding raw food to dogs and cats. The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages the feeding of raw animal products (meat and bones). The CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists advise against raw diets.

What to Do if You Want to Feed Your Dog a Raw Diet

If raw feeding interests you, talk to proponents of the subject.  Contact a holistic veterinarian. In general, vets receive very little training in nutrition while in veterinary school. Walk into most vet clinics, and you’ll see displays of 1 or 2 brands of commercial pet food. Most are therapeutic varieties and prescription diets. But many of those veterinarians recommend the brands in general. After all, they sell them.

Contact bloggers like Lindsay Stordahl and ask her advice.

Investigate the subject. Ask about recalls. Google the subject until you become something of an expert on the subject of raw diets. Then you can make the decision to feed your dog a raw diet or not.

Decipher the Label & Become a Pro at Choosing Healthy Food for Your Dog

You could spend hours studying all the nutrition information on the dog food labels. Or you could simplify the process and learn how to understand just the ingredients label and a couple other pieces of information. 

While it would be helpful to understand the percentages of various ingredients, you can do a fine job of selecting the best food for your dog by learning these 3 things:

Recognize the Water Content in Meat

Fresh chicken offers a healthy choice for a first – and weightiest – ingredient in dog food. However, fresh chicken contains about 80% water. This means that this all-important first protein listed on the ingredients label may not provide enough protein for your dog. If there is a second high-quality meat listed or even chicken meal, that ups the protein level – as long as it is present in the first 4 ingredients on the list.

Why Chicken Meal Is Good

Manufacturers cook chicken at high temperatures to remove the water and that results in a dry meal. The same amount of chicken meal contains a lot more protein than fresh chicken meat. The same would occur with beef or lamb or any other named meat meal.

Know What Should & Should Not be in Your Dog’s Food

Dogs are omnivores in that they have the ability to digest plant-based foods and display omnivorous abilities. But dogs’ teeth chew meat quite well and digest meat easily.  Canines don’t digest plant proteins easily.  Thus, they need real meat to thrive.  Truth be told, most dogs will eat cat “cookies” from the litter box. 

Look for 1 or 2 quality meat proteins as the first ingredients on the pet food label. Green and yellow vegetables provide healthy vitamins; fruits like strawberries or blueberries add antioxidants. All of those foods contain vitamins  and antioxidants that benefit dogs. Healthy fats add an important element to any animal’s diet. Choose a named animal fat, like chicken fat, beef fat, or Menhaden fish oil or salmon oil. All dog food needs preservatives. Just be sure they are natural.

Ingredients that Don’t Belong in Healthy Pet Food

We love our pets, and care about what they eat. The following list of important ingredients to avoid in pet food should help you avoid the “bad guys” and stick to the “good guys” when you shop for dog food.

  1. Meat Meal & Meat & Bone MealAvoid pet foods containing either of these ingredients. Meat meal and meat & bone meal result from rendering. The so-called meat may be the Styrofoam packaging from spoiled grocery store meats, roadkill, or euthanized pets or zoo animals.  Don’t expect quality meat. Our pets deserve real meat.
  2. Artificial Preservatives:   BHA, BHT, and propylene glycol, were banned in many countries.  Studies linked these preservatives to certain cancers. If you find these ingredients in pet food, keep shopping. Propylene glycol, a humectant in pet food, keeps the food soft and chewy instead of hard and crunchy.
  3. Artificial Colors: Manufacturers use colorings to make pet food more visibly appealing. Dogs and cats don’t care what the food looks like. These chemicals have been linked to cancer. Avoid them.
  4. By-Products:   Animal by-products are left after usable meat for human consumption is removed. These by-products may derive from liver, lungs, brains, feet, feathers or the like. This ingredient in any form comes from rendering, and our pets need better quality protein.
  5. Salt: Dogs don’t need salt in their food anymore than we humans do. Protect your pet’s health and avoid salt.
  6. Sugar or Corn Syrup: Sweeteners don’t belong in dog food. They add calories and contribute to diabetes.
  7. Brewer’s Rice: A waste product, manufacturers include these bits of kernels or rice in pet foods of lower quality.
  8. Corn or Wheat Gluten: Used as low-cost protein in dog food, corn gluten, wheat gluten and other grain glutens are what’s left after they remove the good carbs. Dogs need real meat proteins, not grains.
  9. Carageenan: Used in dog food as a natural flavoring, carrageenan causes digestive issues, like stomach ulcers, and may cause cancer.
  10. MSG:  Monosodium glutamate used as a flavoring in food is unnecessary and can lead to obesity.
  11. Sorbitol: An artificial sweetener and can lead to hyperactivity and/or exhaustion in dogs.
  12. Animal Fat & Animal Digest: Who knows what part of which animal or what besides animals might make up this fat or digest.  Neither of these ingredients should be placed in pet food!

The Basics of Shopping for Dog Food

When in doubt, take along a cheat sheet until you feel more confident about the ingredients. Look for 1 or 2 quality meat proteins as the first ingredients. Next should be vegetables and fruits. A healthy, natural preservative and a named meat fat or oil should follow. More named meat is good anywhere on the list. Vitamins and minerals usually follow.

Buy the best quality food your budget allows. Pay for quality food now or pay the vet later.

Why You Must Keep Tabs on Pet Food Industry Recalls

Far too many recalls of pet food or notices of something that tested positive for Salmonella or worse occur each year. To keep our pets safe, we must look for notices and/or reports of recalled pet food. You can do this by signing up for at least 2 sites that track the recalls through the FDA and other groups.

Feeding Fido and Fluffy offers a good place to begin. That website covers all commercial pet food and treat recalls. It does not cover raw food.

The Dog Food Advisor keeps a running list of all dog food recalls and is a site I relied on for years for good information.

Choose your dog’s food carefully. Mistakes happen but you can place the odds in your favor with careful shopping.

You Can Buy Quality Dog Food on a Budget

Very few, if any, dog foods are perfect. We all want to do the best we can for our pets, but the prices of commercial dog food make it difficult to find quality food on a budget. Now, we have to watch for sales and find other ways to save.

Most people believe that discount, big-box stores (like Walmart) provide the cheaper prices on pet food. But we found deals at small, holistic shops. The store where I shop for our dog’s food holds a monthly special with a nice percentage off on the “dog food of the month.” The brand I buy is often part of that program and with several varieties in the brand that Murphy likes, I can buy a top-flight dog food in bulk at a good discount.

How We Do It

A few miles from us, a privately-owned, pet supplies store sells high-end dog and cat food at discount prices. When pet stores are able to buy large orders from a supplier, they receive better wholesale prices.  This store passes the savings on to the customer. Look for stores like that where you live.

It pays to shop around until you find a store that offers discounts that work for your budget.

Be sure to compare prices at online stores like Chewy. If they sold Murphy’s food, I would shop there, because I like their prices. Plus, I like that they deliver heavy dog food bags to my front door.

Knowledge is Power

We dog owners cannot change the way the pet food industry creates and produces our pets’ food. It’s for certain that the manufacturers are not going to make mass changes themselves, since their profits won’t improve by doing so. We must make sure to understand the industry and how it operates to avoid trouble.

You now know the truth about the all-powerful dog food industry. You know that pet food manufacturers don’t always tell you the truth about their procedures, products, and ingredients. And you understand that when shopping for food for your dog, you must be on your A-game.

Now you have learned that not all commercial dog foods provide equal nutrition.  Many include ingredients that belong in the garbage can, not in the tummies of our pet. Take what you have learned here and shop with confidence, knowing that you can choose food to help you keep your dog healthy and happy for years to come


2 thoughts on “What Every Dog Owner Must Know about the Pet Food Industry”

  1. I’m glad you included the potential benefits of a raw diet! The pet food industry is overwhelming and unfortunately politics make it even worse, as you know.

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