You’ve probably all read the news about the Purina vs Blue Buffalo case over kibble labeling. A lawsuit was filed awhile ago where Purina (not immune themselves from recent scandal) accused Blue Buffalo about mislabeling their kibble, that in fact contained by-products. This week, news spread across the Internets about how Blue Buffalo admitted that by-product meal was indeed in their kibble and not listed on the label.

Do note that Purina does use by-product in their foods. At least they are honest about it and… market it as a good thing.

What is by-product meal, and why it can be pretty bad for your dog

By-products used in pet foods can be a nasty affair, and has been an issue for many, many years. As thoroughly outlined in this article on Natural News (which includes references to the many industry professionals who have written on this topic), by-product “meat” meals are linked to roadkill, euthanized animals, and more. This isn’t even covered up, the businesses who provide these “protein sources” to the pet food manufacturers speak openly about their product. Even the president of AAFCO regulatory agency has admitted on camera this could be an ingredient in meat meals and meet standards, and a FAQ document on the FDA’s website openly asks and answers a query about using 4-D meat (animals that are diseased, dying, disabled, or dead) in food products.

So what about if a manufacturer claims to meet FDA standards or recommendations? You can find those here. You may want to note the following under “FDA Regulation of Pet food” (which does contain a link to more information):

FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food. Many ingredients such as meat, poultry and grains are considered safe and do not require pre-market approval.

So when your manufacturer says that by-products are “sustainable protein” and that they’re meeting these requirements, you may want to take that with a bit of salt as the food does not need to be approved in advance, and there is a lot of evidence about a lot of other questionable practices taking place.

Is by-product common? What about plain “meal” – is it better?

Using by-products in pet food is still quite common. They are openly used by Purina who initiated the case against Blue Buffalo, and many other pet food manufacturers. But it’s easy to avoid by watching labels and moving on to a different brand, if you choose to. Unless, of course, that brand isn’t labeling things correctly (intentionally or not) as discussed in this article.

So what about non-by-product “meal” ingredient? It’s relevant because chicken meal and other “meal” products are used in numerous “quality” pet foods being promoted across pet blogs of late (examples include Merrick’s “Raw Infused” and Grain Free kibble lines, and other inexpensive foods like Hill’s Crafted kibble line). Well, the status of “meal” is quite confusing. Meat meals are not created equal – some can be just fine, others can be awful. The definition of meal is rather confusing, and this situation is best outlined on the Truth in Pet Food site. As they outline quite succinctly:

The official definition of chicken meal (poultry meal) does not include the requirement it must be sourced from slaughtered animals; this is confusing. Chicken by-product meal (poultry by-product meal) and chicken by-product (poultry by-product) definitions do include the requirement sourcing must be from slaughtered animals. In other words, by its official definition, this ingredient can include animals that have died prior to slaughter (illegal per federal law for human and animal foods). (Source)

For more information on this topic, and questions to ask the food manufacturer, visit this page and scroll to the section called “Chicken Meal”.

So “meal” can be used because it is often a high-protein source of meat. But it is not necessarily human grade, may or may not contain animals that have died prior to slaugther (not good – these could include “4D” animals), and if it contains skin and bone it is an undesirable and may be linked to cancers. This is certainly not to say that these products are using poor quality meat material, but they can within the confines of the official definition of the ingredient. Make sure the animals (not just the facility) used for “meal” are inspected, that skin/bone is not being used, and check in on that status on some kind of interval. You may even want to check that the company you are purchasing from visits the source of that meat to ensure such measures are being taken.

Watch to make sure the company you buy your food from is not purchased by a bigger one. And if so, check on this status immediately.

And if you ever see a generic “meal” or “by product” on a label (such as “meat”, “animal” or “poultry”) then you probably want to avoid it.

History of crap in kibble is much older than Blue Buffalo vs Purina… and can you really trust a corporation?

The history of the sordid material – such as the “4-D” and euthanized or roadkill animals – that ends up in kibble is long. I remember reading about how roadkill and euthanized pets were scooped up and taken to pet food processing plants way back when I was a new cat servant in 2001. This is nothing new, and you can find a wealth of information about this online that I’m sure is much more extensive than I found back then on Usenet and the tiny Internet of yesteryear.

So yes, that was a long time ago (I’m old) and over time we have seen a lot of new and better brands emerge. But this is one example of how brands can evolve… or “quality” brands being exposed as anything but. Brands are still looking to improve their margins. Or the companies they purchase from need to. It’s not a surprise that Blue Buffalo is now suing their meat supplier!

Will this happen to some of the small brands gaining popularity because of their appeal, becoming larger companies who need to answer to new board members or public investors? I guess time will tell.

This industry is big-time money! “Upstart” Blue Buffalo has apparently sold over a billion dollars worth of food. Those exposing the truth about what’s in food are working with people who have to cover up to leak information, have their phones tapped, and all kinds of creepy allegations. It really sounds like there’s a lot of work being done so you don’t find out what you’re actually feeding your dog when it comes from a bag. It means a billion dollars to some people.

And it goes on from there. Pet food manufacturers can get away with a lot: they don’t need to tell you what country the ingredients come from, they don’t need to list everything on the label, and more. It’s money. And money, margins, and lack of ethics in business really scare me (personally). There is WAY too much anecdotal evidence of what’s covered up that goes back for years and years.

Want to know what’s really in your pet’s food?

You probably have to make it yourself. If labels aren’t necessarily correct, and corporations can’t be trusted, finding out can be difficult or impossible. Not to mention, pet food companies have six months to update a label after a recipe change… so it’s really hard to ever know for certain what’s in a processed food.

Even in the best case scenario, you have to do a bit of leg work about where your meat comes from. But the list is so much longer when concerning kibble:

  • Where do the ingredients your manufacturer purchases come from? Do they know? Are the animals inspected, or only the facility?
  • From their ingredients distributor, where do they purchase their food from and what is the process like?
  • Does the recipe change? (Because pet food companies have 6 months to change their labels AFTER the ingredients change)
  • Do your definitions match up (of organic, natural, and so on).
  • How is the food source preserved and does this make it to the ingredients list?
  • Do any of these companies (manufacturer, distributor of ingredients, those ingredients, and so on) get purchased, or new investors, and if so what does this change in the process or ingredients?

To get a real idea of what your pet is eating, this would need to be researched each time a new batch is released. And depending on the company you are dealing with, as outlined in the original news piece, the answers you receive may not be truthful.

If you make your own pet food, you get to cross most of those bullets off the list and can deal directly with the source of your meat and vegetables/nutrients yourself. It may seem expensive and time consuming, however it can greatly save you from expensive and time-consuming diseases like cancer or immune disorders in the future.

Do you even know what you’re feeding now?

Many people are asking for alternatives, and that’s a good question. How to approach finding a good food to feed? A good place to start is to analyze each and every ingredient on a bag of food or treats in your cupboard. Should it be in the food at all? Is it healthful for your dog? Even if it’s limited ingredient or a whole ingredient, how many toxins are in that food to begin with (for instance, fish and especially their skins, are quite likely to contain many toxins regardless of where they are fished from due to environmental pollution such as plastic gyres).

The more you research, the more you understand about the complex nature of nutrition. But this leads to better decisions for long-term health.

A few great sites to check out and follow on this topic are TruthAboutPetFood.com, Natural News, and Dog Food Advisor. And don’t forget that there are many resources about homemade food recipes and supplements as well.

Sidenote: Be wary about some of the sites offering food (kibble) grades. This is just personal experience, but some of the kibbles receiving good “grades” still contain some very questionable ingredients (example, this food I researched had a fairly high “grade” on another site). I always recommend that you do your own legwork researching anything you plan on using regularly on or in your pet.

Crap. So what do I feed now? Is it really expensive to roll your own food?

Not necessarily, especially if you have a smaller sized dog. I used to roll my own cat food for a couple cats back in 2002 (combined just under 40lbs… one was a really big Maine coon!), and at the time my husband and I were working around the clock freelance and feeding ourselves ramen and other box crap. We had NO money after a job loss and were literally picking pocket change to make rent. But it was doable to roast chickens and find inexpensive vegetables and splurge on some Missing Link to supply the cats a good meal (we did this at the time because the really fancy canned Dick Van Patten cat food – the best we could find – was actually more than making our own food… then we learned we were doing something good for the cats!). Shopping sales at supermarkets can be cheaper than good brand pet food.

My raw provider – sourcing locally free range/organic with regular inspections – is definitely cheaper than top brand dog food, and I know I’m splurging by having a raw provider sending food to my doorstep. I could lower my cost further using raw co-ops and driving or getting a lower quality meat, and so on.

Not exactly what we feed our dogs…

And remember: you don’t need to “feed raw”, and you don’t even need to use a particularly quality meat to beat kibble, and you can cook it. Homemade dog food is a great way to feed your dog, and to ensure a quality diet. For either path, there is a wealth of support online but it’s always best to start with a recipe from a trusted vet or professional nutritionist.

The main thing is to think about how a diet improvement – and avoiding meals and by products – can potentially save many bills down the road for you. It can save you the time of the long-term diseases and ailments that can emerge from a lifetime of toxin exposure. Reducing toxins means lowering those chances, and that can really help the pocket book. Oh and stress. And your dog(s).

Search around for ideas – I mean, I’ve heard about local hunters who want to off their game to local dogs for FREE if you go and pick it up. There are lots of options that aren’t kibble and can be reasonably priced, to the point where they’re almost on par. If you’re concerned about processed foods, know there are options and the dog community is here to help. Think outside that box. Or bag. Comment below and we’ll help you out! Comment below with what you’re doing, advice, or anything else.

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Jodi

    We feed raw and I’d like to transition to organic/free range raw, but haven’t the cash yet. I had heard about the 4-D in the kibbles and truthfully, I’m glad I don’t feed kibbles now because it seems like even some of what I consider the “better” dog food, is not what it seems.

    • That’s GREAT! I personally believe that raw or homemade in any format is so, so much better than kibble anyway. At least you can control and see what you’re feeding (at least to a much greater extent – I guess our human food chain and production is another can of worms!), and get rid of all of the chemicals. Those two things are the most important. In my opinion anyway :)

  • An excellent article that is a MUST read for all pet guardians. Thanks for sharing this crucial information with us. Although we don’t have dogs- we have two senior cats with lots of health issues, so finding the most nutritious species appropriate diet is very important- food that is easily digestible and highly nutritious.

    • Absolutely! Despite some nutrition differences, the “core” of what’s best to do food-wise is largely the same for both cats and dogs. :)

  • Ilse Daniel

    I cook food for my dogs: a veg stew including yam, zuchini, apple, red bell pepper, celery, cabbage, carrots, parsley. I cut it up and food procesor it, then I put it in a saucepan with some water, cook for a few minutes and ladle it into 8 oz containers and freeze. I also stew some ground turkey/chicken/pork/beef. I add a little solid gold just a wee bit at feeding time along with a tiny bit of evoo. They get this twice a day and seem to be thriving. One is 18 and the other 10. So far they’re doing well