In July 2018, the FDA announced an investigation into canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) for dogs eating foods labeled as “grain-free.” The FDA made specific note that it was looking into diets containing high proportions (first 10 ingredients) of legumes (peas, lentils, chickpeas), legume seeds (pulses) and/or potatoes in its release.
However, the FDA failed to explain that extruded (kibble) diets are most often the diets that contain high proportions of legumes or potatoes. This is because starch is needed to bind the kibble. At current, it’s impossible to develop an all meat kibble.
Extrusion enables the mass production of foods using an efficient, continuous process to ensure uniformity. The result is a convenient, pathogen-free safe product. We’re probably most aware of extrusion because of Cheerios & other cereal products. Foods manufactured using extruded technologies most often have a high starch content. Historically, pet food companies relied on corn and eventually rice to produce kibbles. As the industry matured, potatoes became popular as a grain-free option & eventually legumes. As mentioned, these starch heavy carbohydrates are perfect “binders” for an extruded product.
If you look into labeling laws for pet foods, you quickly find the FDA has created guidelines for pet foods which can be hard to understand or which at face value may seem misleading.
However, the FDA as a government agency must balance technological limitations & economic interests (ie. ensuring products are priced to be marketable) while also ensuring products are safe. Once we understand this, we can understand why the FDA has developed the labeling laws currently in place for pet food & how pet food companies use these regulations to their advantage in developing marketing plans.
One could argue FDA regulations are most defined for extruded pet foods. The label on the packaging of pet food is listed before cooking & all ingredients are listed in decreasing amounts by weight with the “major” ingredients listed first. When extruded diets are “cooked” the label changes substantially, largely because of moisture loss. Yet, the consumer is unaware of this since labels are listed by pre-cooked weight & they are highly unlikely to understand the minutia of pet food formulation & processing.
Pet food companies have taken great interest in understanding FDA guidelines & using them to their advantage, especially when manufacturing kibble (dry) pet foods. In premium pet food, meat first diets are demanded by consumers. Accordingly, since the label is listed before cooking, pet food companies have used existing regulations to their advantage to place meat as the first ingredient (much of the weight is water) in an extruded kibble diet by splitting other ingredients in the diet. If ingredients such as peas are labeled as yellow peas, pea protein, green peas, chickpeas, etc. or multiple starches are used, the pre-cooked weight can be defined individually to weigh less than the meat in the diet. Despite peas or their derivatives being the base of the diet, they can list meat first since each starch ingredient qualifies as a separate ingredient. Yet, when the diet is cooked, if fresh meat is used, approximately 80% is lost due to moisture loss & peas (or whatever starch is used) essentially become the base of the diet (starch ingredients are often dried or contain less moisture which is lost in extrusion).
Around 2007 to 2010, this became very popular among pet food companies & marketing pitches began to emerge taking advantage of these regulations. Then as meat prices have increased, to maintain competitive prices & ensure marketability, while protecting an old technology, companies began re-formulating, reducing meat content, though ensuring meat remained the first ingredient despite replacing the meat content with legumes. FDA regulations permitted this.
Legumes provide a concentrated amount of protein so companies were able to ensure high protein levels were maintained. Yet, consumers have become trained to associate protein with meat & often overlook the impact of concentrated plant-based proteins in pet food diets. Further, it is not permitted to list carb content on a pet food label. As such, with meat as the first ingredient & high protein, consumers adopted these as meat-based diets, though in reality, the majority of the diet was starchy carbohydrates.
Many companies are now coming out with new kibble formulations that include grains, attributing DCM to being an issue with “grain-free.” We strongly believe this is short-sighted & ignores the root of the issue in an attempt to protect commercial interests & increase profits (grains are cheaper than legumes & meat). By adding a synthetic taurine supplement to reduce the DCM risk, they may be masking other issues associated with grains. Like plant protein, grains still don’t necessarily have amino acids found in meat proteins & required by dogs. It also further reveals the gimmicks of protein splitting in pet food formulation. You will notice, these diets usually use at least 3 grain ingredients. They market an ancient grain, such as quinoa, but also include inferior ingredients like oats, millet, milo, sorghum, spelt or barley. This is because if they just used quinoa, meat wouldn’t necessarily be the first ingredient to fool consumers into thinking they’re getting a meaty diet. They need to split ingredients to ensure meat first. And along the way, companies are marketing these at prices similar, if not above, prices of grain-free diets. The result is an extremely profitable new product for companies making kibble.
We believe what has long been ignored by many pet food companies is ensuring diets contain proper sources of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Dogs have an essential requirement for 10 essential amino acids & many are derived from meat, not plant or grain proteins. Companies can synthetically supplement the diet so it is complete & balanced but this isn’t necessarily most utilizable for the pet. Further, some amino acids, such as taurine are not found in high levels in plant proteins because they often come from cardiac or skeletal muscle (ie. meat). Dogs can create some amino acids if they receive high levels of other amino acids found in meat. For example, dogs can create taurine if they have enough methionine & cysteine (two other amino acids). However, plant proteins don’t necessarily contain these amino acids if they are most commonly found in cardiac or skeletal muscle.
Accordingly, as extruded diets have become higher in plant protein & lower in meat protein, it’s likely dogs have not received enough quality methionine & cysteine to create taurine, & most companies were not synthetically supplementing taurine in dog diets, likely leading to the current DCM concerns.
When we developed Identity in August 2017 to May 2018 we were consciously aware of the gimmicks commonly used & that many pet food companies were selling grain-free diets as meat-based despite many of those diets consisting of primarily carbohydrates, more specifically legumes.
This was & remains very problematic to us. So we decided to be different in our attempt to change the industry for the better.
As life-long pet owners, we have always believed dogs & cats deserve a high quality, animal-based protein diet. This is why, even before the emergence of DCM we proudly became the first pet food company to include legume-free on our packaging, while ensuring our diets are properly balanced with all the proper amino acids a dog or cat requires with high meat inclusions from fresh breast, filet & loin cuts.
It’s also the reason we decided we would never produce a kibble. We are firm believers in the benefit of high meat diets for companion pets since pets can’t necessarily use plant-based protein as efficiently. It’s our view at Identity that wet (canned) & air-dried pet foods are the two types of diets which can include the highest meat inclusions with no substantial plant-based protein, while ensuring the pet benefits from properly balanced, quality amino acids they require.
To us, it’s no surprise we are now seeing issues with dogs & DCM. We are sympathetic to any pet-owner who’s been impacted by the issue & believe knowledge is important so we can continue to learn & ensure long-term health & wellness for our pets. It’s our goal not only to produce the highest quality pet foods but to be a leader in educating on pet nutrition.
At Identity we are & always will be focused on honest innovation through meat-based diets for the betterment of our beloved four-legged companions. And it’s our promise not to constantly reformulate our diets. Marketing gimmicks, even if permitted aren’t our thing!
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention we also believe the FDA in their releases & investigation has failed to mention the issue is likely primarily associated with extruded kibble diets. It’s not necessarily a grain-free or novel protein issue. It’s not an issue with diets found in neighborhood pet stores. Grain-free isn’t bad. At the core, DCM is an issue that arose from diets having too many carbs. We believe every consumer should begin asking, what are the carbs you use in your diets, why do you use them, how do they benefit the pet & how much do you use.
Despite other potential biases with the FDA investigation, which I won’t get into here, the fact is that extrusion technology has significant limitations when it comes to meat inclusions & these diets are most often plant-based, carb-heavy diets even if they are marketed as high meat. The sticky starch is needed to form the kibble.
This is why we’re proudly & unapologetically an anti-kibble company. And why we’re proudly an alternative pet food company focused on innovation through wet & air-dried foods & treats. It’s our view at Identity that food technologies such as wet foods & air-dried foods allow us the proper format to develop & honestly market a diet as meat-based with all the amino acids required by dogs & cats.
Our diets are perfect for pet-owners concerned about DCM as you can ensure your pet will be receiving the highest quality meat-based proteins with all the properly balanced amino acids your pet requires – and no significant plant protein (carbs).
Learn more about the Identity Difference & our commitment to innovative disruption at IdentityPet.com