Sunday, August 10, 2008

Treat Me Like a Human

Dog food debates are always a bit amusing to me. At their core, the argument seems to be that we should feed dogs the same quality food we give to ourselves.

Now, if folks want to do that, I am all for it. Just be aware that human-quality food is not necessarily good for a dog, nor does it raise the bar very high in terms of health.

In fact, it may actually lower it.

Those raw chicken wings, for example, have probably been soaked in salt water and phosphates in order to to preserve freshness. Dogs cannot process salts very well, and kidneys are generally the first thing to go in an aging dog.

As for all those "raw" and "human-grade" foods, they are not all that pure.

For example, the FDA-approved standard for "mammalian excreta" in rice (i.e. rat shit) is 3 mg per pound, and the FDA-approved standard for "insect filth" in dried beans and peas is 5%.

The standard for peanut butter calls for not an "average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams" and up to an "average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 100 grams."

The standard for black pepper is very low: 475 or more insect fragments per 50 grams and 2 or more rodent hairs per the same weight.

To put this into perspective, this means the container of "Fine Malabar Black Pepper" I got at Costco last week (348 grams) could have as many as 3,306 insect fragments in it and 13 rodent hairs and still be FDA-approved.


But, of course, it's not just rice, beans, black pepper and peanut butter, is it?

Apple Butter has an approved count not only for insect filth and rodent filth, but also for mold (12% or more).

Macaroni and noodle products get the green light with up to 225 insect fragments per 225 grams (i.e. 1 bug per 1 gram of noodle).

But wait, there's more! That same batch of macaroni can also have up to 4.5 rodent hairs in it. Yum!

The list of fun ingredients in human food goes on.

Canned or frozen asparagus should not have more than "10% by count of spears or pieces infested with 6 or more attached asparagus beetle eggs and/or sacs."

Canned beets should not have more than "5% or more pieces by weight with dry rot," and frozen broccoli should not have more than "60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams."

Wheat should not have more than an "average of 32 or more insect-damaged kernels per 100 grams" and no more than "9 mg or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram."

Tomato soup and canned tomato products should have no more than an "average mold count" of 40%." Strawberries should have no more than an "average mold count of 45% or more."

You want to talk meat? Great.

Meat, by definition, is coated in crap. Real crap. There's no way to get around it, as the slaughter of animals means that skin, hair, feces and feathers are going to be splattered everywhere as animals are bled, eviscerated, skinned, plucked, sectioned, and ground up. Nor for nothing does every kitchen manual tell you to wipe down surfaces that have touched raw meat -- and to hit cutting boards with bleach.

What about eggs? Well here's a clue: They come from the same hole that the chicken defecates from. Not for nothing are AIDS patients, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems told to cook eggs thoroughly or (better yet) avoid them altogether.

You want to talk fish? Surely they are clean?

Well, maybe not. You see the FDA says Blue Fin and other fresh water herring can contain up to 60 parasitic cysts per 100 pounds of fish, and Red Fish and Ocean Perch are fine if 3 percent or less have pus pockets.

Pus pockets?

Yes, pus pockets. But look at the bright side: You can eat all the Ocean Perch you want at Red Lobster!

Enough abstraction; let's talk about my lunch.

I went to a very good Mexican Restaurant yesterday and had a black bean burrito with a fountain drink.

If I was lucky, the black beans and rice had an FDA-approved amount of insect filth as well as an FDA-approved approved amount of rodent filth.

The tortilla shell was made from flour with real rodent excrement in it (all flour has that), and the tomatoes and peppers are, of course, under investigation for the current Salmonella outbreak.

And, of course, when it comes to restaurants, God himself does not know what was sprayed on those vegetables or whether they were washed before being sliced and served.

The beef in that burrito could have come from anywhere, and since it had been reduced to a shredded brownness, you can bet it was never a piece of prime steak, but was instead pressed trimmings carved from 1,000 cows that were last seen alive in a stun-gun production line in Iowa where cattle blood keeps the floors as slick as a melting polar cap.

On the upside, the stun gun man, and at least half the butchers, were probably illegal aliens, and so too were the folks assembling my lunch.

When the immigration service catches someone at the border trying to sneak it, they code them as EWI's -- Entry Without Inspection.

And, of course, the inspection is a health inspection.

My meal, by the way, was absolutely terrific. I am going back.

No one makes better American food than Salvadorans cooking Mexican, unless it's Pakistanis cooking Italian, or Koreans cooking Chinese.

I am not too worried about my health in places like this. After all, in all the restaurants, the bathroom signs say "Employees Must Wash Hands," before returning to work.

I think that's a nice requirement. Too bad none of the employees speak English.



Matt Mullenix said...

Another well turned rant, Patrick!

Semi-related?: When I'm hawking in cow pasture in the very early Fall, the grass is waist high and filled the the brim with insects and arachnids (not to mention larger wildlife).

When I'm waiting on the hawk to eat his catch in the field, I let my eyes scan the stalks and invariably see thousands of spiders, ants and other bugs climbing around on the stalks.

When they bale this grass for hay, doubtless dozens of pounds of animal protein gets bound up inside, sufficates, dessicates and then is eaten by cattle. To a large extent, even the herbivores must be carnivores. There is no escaping a life with consequences.

Vegitarians take note.

Anonymous said...


I honestly don't see this as an issue about what we feed our pets, despite your bullheaded insistence otherwise and your legendary thriftiness when it comes to spending money on pets coupled with your belief that anything over the rock-bottom level of care is just tomfoolery for the fleecing of us rubes.

Many of us are sourcing food carefully these days for both ourselves and our pets because we no longer trust the "heckuva job, Brownie" folks running the FDA and USDA. A few thousand dead pets killed by gamed imported ingredients will do that to you.

These agencies, like so many others, have been loaded up with industry hacks and administration cronies, and then have had their regulatory budgets gutted on top of all.

The unsafe industry practices that remain are considered business as usual, reference Christie's post, "Poop in Food: What's Up With That?"

I personally don't have a problem with commercially processed food, in theory, for either me or my animals. But in real life, it's pretty apparent that we've been heading to The Jungle again (with a nod to Sinclair Lewis, natch). The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 has had a pretty good run, but I wouldn't bet my own life on it any more.

This isn't about raw vs. cooked vs. commercial food. In a modern, first-world country like the United States, you should be able to assume that whatever you buy isn't going to make you or your pets sick, with the real-world understanding that the global food industry is run by flawed human beings and is made up of millions of moving parts handling fragile, time-sensitive raw material. There will ALWAYS be some food-related illness, no matter how well-regulated and well-managed the food industry is. But there shouldn't be much.

Geez, the way you went on in a previous post about trusting free market forces to do the regulatory heavy lifting because companies can't afford to screw up I had to check again to see that your Obama fund-raising widget was still in place. Don't go all Grover Norquist on me, dude.

Federal are run by the industries they regulate, and the consumers be damned. Whatever faith I had in market forces regulating the global food industry ended with the food industry's strong and powerful opposition to honest product labeling, especially Country of Origin Labeling. For the free market to regulate itself, there has to be a free flow of information to consumers, and the industry is having none of that, thank you very much!

I actually do feed a commercial product to my pets on most days. But I also know the president of the company that makes that product. I get her on the phone right now, although I'd probably wait until business hours tomorrow if I had a problem or question.

The rest of what I feed them? I know the people who raised the meat in my freezer, and I know where the animals were butchered, in a small family-owned operation with a good reputation. I know where all the eggs came from -- my back yard. And I know where the veggies came from, too -- my back yard, my local CSA or the local organic farmers market. I'm not buying factory-farmed meat from a supermarket so I'm actually not worrying about all that salt you keep harping on -- it ain't there.

Covering the pet-food recall made me an advocate for the reform of the food industry. Getting into side debates about the "raw" vs. commercial for pets detracts from the real issues here.

No matter what you buy, where you buy it, how much you pay for it or which mouth it's going into, you should be able to assume that at the very least the ingredients have met basic standards that we've paid a damn lot of money as tax-payers to assume have been met.

That's not just about pet food.

(Oh, and by the way, every "wash your hands" sign I've ever seen at any food-related business in this country has had the instructions in both English and Spanish. And I do a fair amount of travel.)

Anonymous said...

By the way, again on the salt ... since I started eating locally sourced food prepared at hom my slightly high blood pressure went normal. It really is incredibly how much salt is in processed food, isn't it?

My non-pet related food writing is here, by the way:

Caveat said...

Bugs and insects add protein and the sign of a healthy fish is fish lice, according to the salts who catch 'em for a living.

Maybe I'll just pick some nectarines for lunch. My tree's branches are bending from the weight of the fruit - or is it the weight of the insects?

I guess I'll find out :>)

PBurns said...

Gina, you seem you to be more than a bit confused. What post are you referring to re: "trusting free market forces to do the regulatory heavy lifting because companies can't afford to screw up"? I don't think I've ever said that! Not ever.

What I HAVE said (though not on this blog, I don't think) is that companies with names and brands have a lot more to LOSE if they screw up than no-name companies with no histories, no publicly-traded stocks, etc. In addition, small companies need to get far higher profits from less trade and have less capital to start with. The result is that small companies are actually MORE likely to engage in questionable practices than large ones. Ditto for companies that are going broke. This is not only true with food, it is also true with medicine and defense contracts, to name two other arenas with bad actors in them.

As for the FDA, they are no worse now than they were under Clinton, Carter, Nixon, etc. Most of the drug companies are inspected only every 4 or 5 years, and the food companies are about the same. Like it or not, what we have is a self-regulated economy for those most part, and the threat of lawsuits and stock crashes are what keep it moderately clean.

Of course, if a company has no real assets, no history, and no stock, they are free to contract out their dog food to anyone. And that's the story of most of these "boutique" dog food companies, as you know. Not only do they not make the food they market, they have no idea what is really going into the food that others are making for them. Few of these small companies are engaging in longitudinal feed studies, and the forumulas they are coming up with are the same ones all the "home feeders" are -- whatever sounds good and feels right. The good news is that most food won't kill you, even if it's McDonald's hamburgers. What kills most people - and most dogs -- is too much of it. The prescription for good health is not organic food (sorry), it's less food and more excercise. And that's true for just about everyone (me too!) short of the anorexics.

As for Grover Norquist, I have actually debated him on national TV -- on Medicare. Fox News, I believe. Been a few years -- before he married the Palestinian woman and started providing office space to Islamic "charities" funding Al Queda.


Anonymous said...

I'm not confused about anything, but thanks for being so charitably patronizing.

The current administration has accelerated the dismantling of the regulatory system and opened wider the revolving door between industries and regulatory agencies, and those trends have been well-documented.

In the example of the FDA, add in the explosive growth in third-world food/food ingredient imports from China and other troublesome places and you have a barely functioning agency that can't cope.

Again, this has nothing to do with how "amusing" you find pet-food debates and everything to do with getting the regulatory system we pay for to work on our behalf.

This is not about pet food at all. It's about what we ALL eat. And the fact that what we eat "probably won't" kill any one of us on a given day isn't anything I find that soothing.

After all, I am also not likely to be killed by someone running a red light, but that doesn't mean I want law enforcement to stop giving out tickets to people who run them routinely.

Fred said...

I guess I'd better stop feeding my dogs Captain Crunch soaked in chocolate milk then.

PBurns said...

I'm not being patronizing Gina -- you are simply saying things I have never said, which is either confusion or something worse. I was being charitable.

You may THINK you know about the FDA because you wrote a lot of posts about dog food, but I doubt you really do know very much about the agency. In fact the FDA *is* a basket case, but it is not "suddenly" a basket case under George W. Bush. It has ALWAYS been a basket case and that has simply become a little more obvious because of increased international trade. I am currently involved with cases dealing with adulterated AIDS drugs made in India, unapproved heart stents (millions of 'em), off-label marketing of atypical antipsychotics to children, non-FDA approved cold medicines killing kids, etc. All of these have FDA components, and so you will pardon me if I think it is amusing that folks in the dog world have suddenly "discovered" that the FDA has REAL problems doing its job.

Children and illegal aliens in food plants is not new, and neither is the non-inspection of food and drugs in this country.
The inspection numbers have not changed very much -- we have never inspected most facilities more than once every 3 or 4 years. And we have ALWAY imported vast amounts of stuff from overseas without much inspection, and it's not just foods. It's also brake pads made in Korea, chain saws made in Sweden, space heaters made in El Salvador, etc. All of it can kill us pretty damn quick, and very little of it is really inspected. Yes, it's MORE than the FDA. And there are worse things than bad dog food, as Homeland Security can tell you.

From a public policy perspective the dog food mess is slightly amusing because ONCE AGAIN, people are hysterical for about 10 days and then they relax, forget and move on. It's not like September 11, 2001 was the first time the World Trade Center was bombed by Muslim terrrorists, eh?

Nor is dog good the first time toxins have shown up in the food chain. In fact, as this post notes, there is an FDA-approved amount of rat shit and insect parts for your food, and there has been your entire life. These issues are not new, and the FDA's rather anemic response is not new either.

But here's the "funny" part. You want to know what killed more dogs in 2007 than melamine? Anti-freeze in puddles killed more pets than melamine. Letting dogs bolt the front door killed more pets. Over-vaccination by veterinarians killed more pets. Improper setting of rat poisons killed more pets. But none of these things killed more pets than simply over feeding.

I am not trying to belittle the melamine fiasco, but within the world of dogs is was a small risk as compared to GETTING FAT because owners put down too much food for their cars and dogs.

Death by can opener is still the number one killer of both people and pets in this country. But did that story get the same kind of play in 2007 as toxic dog food? Nope. And the reason for that is simple: it's easier to rail at "those people" than it is to turn the spotlight on ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, our readers. It seems easier to legislate a solution than to change an ethos. If we yell "damn FDA and George Bush" we may get some applause, but if we damn the congregation to Hell for putting in George Bush and a weak Congress, then we make get silence and maybe a walk out. If we tell the congregation they are fat and their dogs are too, and why they hell don't they get to the gym and step away from the buffet line, the congregation may rise up with a rope and a hammer and finish us off with a blow to the head and trip to the lake. That said, the numbers don't lie: What kills dogs and people in this country is not toxins missed by the FDA; it's the can opener and the icecream sundae. You are right when you says it's about what we ALL eat. Where you are wrong is what you see as the relative threat and its causality.

By the way, if you think your chickens are healthier because you are raising them, think again. The eggs come out of their assholes. Nothing wrong with that, but don't think for a minute that your birds can't carry salmonella or that you won't have a rat problem within the year; you will. Just because you are the "farmer" does not mean you are immune from the farmer's problems. And one of those problems is regulation.

I suspect you would be the first person to cry foul (or fowl, if you prefer) if the FDA said you could not raise backyard poultry because you do not have the facilities to clean, inspect and grade eggs, slaughter birds, and your hen house is a not rodent-proof. You would think we had entered a police state if every food and drug plant was required to have an every-day FDA official in residence, and if you could not do whatever you want in your backyard and give away the eggs too.

What would the kind of FDA regulation you would like do to the "locally grown" farm movement? This is not a theoretical question, is it? Go ask Joel Salatin at Polyface farms in Swope, Virginia. I am sure you know who he is, as he is the dean of home grown organic poultry. Joel also has REAL problems slaughtering chicken, beef, rabbits and pigs because he does not have the proper facilities for it. This is not a small problem for Joel; it is a BIG problem, and why he cannot sell his chickens, rabbits and beef at farmers markets. Joel will tell you that too much regulation cuts into his profits, and threaten to put him out of business.

But of course, there is another side, isn't there? Slaughering cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens is inherently dirty and putting that food into the commercial stream is inherently dangerous. why shouldn't Joel have to meet strict FDA regulations?

On the other hand, who wants to pay for that regulation? Who want to curtail small organic businesses? No one. At least not until the dog or the kid dies. Maybe then.