Last week I had the pleasure of joining some of my favorite pet bloggers out in Topeka to tour the Hill’s Pet Nutrition campus. I really enjoy going to these types of events for a lot of reasons: one, I always learn something. Two, it’s really helpful from my perspective to get to meet the individuals behind a brand and get a feel for who these people are and how they embody a company’s vision.
(I own a grand total of two sweaters, by the way, neither of which actually provides any actual warmth. Good thing we spent all our time indoors. I’m such a wuss.)
The Hill’s vision is this: “to make nutrition a cornerstone of veterinary medicine, which builds on Hill’s heritage of leading-edge research.” Hill’s was founded by a veterinarian in 1948, and they now employ over 120 vets on staff. This is a science driven company, and that philosophy permeated every presentation we had during our daylong tour.
I want to cover a couple of things in the next few weeks that will answer questions a lot of you had for me, about how Hill’s uses animals in research and something really cool about how they used genetics research to show there isn’t a reason to make a breed specific diet, but my attention span is short so I’m not covering it all today.
Today, I’m revisiting one of my favorite topics that was covered by Hill’s Principal Nutritionist Bill Schoenherr: Ingredients. Let’s focus on one of the more, shall we say, controversial ingredients and why a company uses them in pet food.
When I was little, my grandfather and father used to hunt deer. They would come back from Maine with a big buck strapped to the hood of the Buick, tell me it was Bambi (I know, right?) and hang it in the garage. Then, while I was sobbing in the corner until my grandmother realized what had transpired and whop them with her big purse, my grandfather would dig in to his very favorite part of the meal: the kidneys.
My other grandfather was from Quebec. Though he didn’t hunt, he sure did savor his pigs’ feet. And chicken necks. And liver. “More for me!” he’d gleefully declare when everyone else in the room declined to have a bite. No wonder my grandmother was so tiny.
By-products, all of them. Viscera, to be more specific. Giblets. I call it nasty, but they called it delicious. My point is, while we are culturally inclined to be grossed out by anything that isn’t nice filets of skeletal muscle, by products can be very nutrient-dense sources of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
Liver, for example, used to be recommended to pregnant women as a source of iron, like that’s just what every nauseated pregnant woman wants to choke down. But I digress.
I have in my hands a copy of the 2011 AAFCO Official Publication (thanks Jason! Told you I would use it!) that gives the legal definition of all the ingredients you see on pet foods. Here is the definition of poultry by-product:
Poultry By-Products must consist of the non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter.
Kind of a broad definition, right? I asked Bill if there was any sort of official stipulation as to what percentage of by-products would be feet versus livers, and he said no.
So here is where it gets tricky: by-products can be a good source of nutrition, a nutrient dense protein source. Or it could be a pile of chicken feet, which is good as a calcium source, but not much else.
According to Bill, Hill’s deals with this by making additional stipulations on their suppliers for minimum protein requirements for their by-products- if it’s just feet, a big pile of calcium, it won’t pass muster and the product is rejected. There are high quality by-products and poor quality by-products. All by-products are not made the same.
Now here’s where it gets even trickier: here’s the definition of poultry:
Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, feet, heads, and entrails.
So everyone wants to see a named meat as the first ingredient- that’s what all the label reading guidelines tell you to do. Something that says, “chicken” could be what you get in the grocery store. That’s what you picture, right? Or it could be a pile of bones and skin of which all the good parts were pulled off to send to the local Krogers, with a little bit of back meat hanging on. You know, the carcass you toss in the trash after you’re done eating your roast chicken. There’s no official minimum requirement for muscle or protein on that, either.
Depending on the quality of your sourcing, by-products could actually be a higher quality ingredient with more meaty stuff in it than something labeled chicken. Now it’s getting Inception-level complex.
Who do you trust? And why do you trust?
So how do you, the consumer, know what a company is using? You don’t. It comes down to trusting the company and the people who make the product, whether or not you believe they are making those choices to select a high quality ingredient from an ethical supplier.
And that, my friends, is a tricky proposition, isn’t it? This is why companies are asking bloggers and journalists in and promising transparency, in an attempt to create that trust in a world where information is much more readily available than it was a decade ago. People want that. I know I do.
I will say this: Hill’s did promise transparency in their presentation, and I believe they provided it. Everyone I heard from was very honest about the process, both good and bad, and answered every question put to them. I hope they continue to provide that and to use bloggers as a conduit to answer questions and continue a dialogue.
I’ll touch on organic versus human grade and holistic labeling in another post. This may or may not have you on the edge of your seat, but really, I find it all utterly fascinating. It’s like some crazy sleight of hand trick.
To see what the other attendees had to say, check out their blogs:
In the meantime, since I have a manual in front of me, are there any product definitions you’re dying to know about? Ever wonder what leather hydrolysate is, for example?