Is your pet’s food safe? Expert advice you need to know

My dog, Maddie, is precious to me and I always turn to my veterinarian for trusted, expert advice on what to feed her and how to keep her healthy. So after I talked with Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University and best-selling author of What to Eat, for an article in the October issue of EatingWell Magazine, I found I had a lot more questions for my vet.

Even if you don't own a pet, you should still be concerned about pet food, Nestle told me, because contaminated pet foods are early warnings of the safety hazards of globalization. Case in point: consider recent food news-from the current melamine contamination of milk products made in China to the salmonella contamination of produce from jalapeno peppers to spinach.

In her recently published book Pet Food Politics, Nestle details the March 2007 recall of more than 100 brands of dog and cat food containing wheat gluten from China that was contaminated with the chemical melamine. According to the FDA the pet-food recall prompted 17,000 consumer complaints, including reports of 4,150 cat and dog deaths. These events set off another massive recall of everything from tires to toothpaste and a subsequent international crisis over the safety of imported consumer goods from China. Congress has since passed food-safety provisions pertaining to pet food.

So I was curious, based on Nestle's extensive research for that book and for her book What Pets Eat, due out in 2009, about what she had to say about the safety and quality of pet food. Read on to eavesdrop on our conversation and hear her opinions.

ME: What is the scariest thing you learned while researching Pet Food Politics?

MN: How inextricably linked human, animal and pet-food supplies are. Farmers routinely feed salvaged pet food to pigs and other farm animals. There is no question that during the recall people ate meat from farm animals that had eaten pet food that contained melamine. It didn't do any harm because it was so diluted by the time it got to us. But that was a big wakeup call for the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

ME: How can I know if my pet's food is safe?

MN: The melamine incident was a fluke, and as long as a company is making efforts to be sure something like that doesn't happen again and is transparent about their ingredients sources, pet food is fine. If you're using commercial pet food, you should read labels and talk to the pet store to make sure that they're paying attention to these issues. Some stores and brands are very clear if they're taking responsibility. They're changing suppliers, examining and improving the quality of ingredients, testing ingredients and building laboratories. On some companies' websites they tell you what they did. And if they don't tell you, you can be as suspicious as you want.

I think pet owners should insist on a better regulatory system, national standards, labels that say where ingredients come from and nutrition information.

ME: What do you recommend I feed my pet?

MN: You have three choices. It's great to cook for your pets or feed them a raw diet. Make sure you feed them a balanced diet, just like you eat. Cats are more finicky than dogs, so feed them mostly meat and a vitamin supplement. Check with a veterinarian to make sure you cover your pets' nutrient requirements.

As for pet food: I think wet food is better; dry foods have more calories, which can contribute to obesity problems, and carbohydrate, which can be problematic for cats. The advantage to pet food is that if you follow the directions you probably won't overfeed your pet and the nutrient requirements are taken care of.

Note: EatingWell recommends you check with a veterinarian before making changes to your pet's diet.

By Michelle Edelbaum

Michelle is the associate editor of interactive for EatingWell Media Group. In between editing and writing, she enjoys sampling the tasty results of the easy, healthy recipes that the EatingWell Test Kitchen cooks are working on.

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