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Transcript: Dr. Marion Nestle and Dr. Mal Nesheim
"Pet Food Politics" and "What Pets Eat"
February 1, 2009

PHAbymom: On behalf of Jeff Barringer and all of us at Pethobbyist.com, I'm very pleased to welcome Dr. Marion Nestle and Dr. Mal Nesheim to our Eleventh Annual Chat Week.

Whether we have pets or not, the last two years have made us acutely aware that all is not as it should be when it comes to the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply.

One of the leading voices in the movement to reform how we deal with food and nutrition in this country is best-selling author Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and a visiting professor in the College of Agriculture's nutritional sciences division at Cornell University.

She'll be joining us along with retired animal nutritionist, professor of nutritional sciences and provost emeritus at Cornell University Dr. Mal Nesheim to discuss their forthcoming book "What Pets Eat," and Nestle's recent book on the 2007 pet food recall, "Pet Food Politics."

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Dr. Marion Nestle and Dr. Mal Nesheim.

PHAbymom: Would either of you like to make an opening statement?

Marion Nestle: Yes, thank you very much for having us here. By way of introduction, I'm a professor at New York University, and I've been writing about human food for about 30 years.

My interest in pet food came directly out of the research I was doing for my book "What to Eat," which came out in 2006. That book used supermarkets as an organizing device, yet here was this huge aisle devoted to pet foods, and I couldn't understand how to read the labels.

Fortunately, Mal did! And that's how this book came about.

Mal Nesheim: Marion asked me if I would be willing to collaborate on this book, because I have a PhD in animal nutrition. For the first and many years of my academic life, I carried out research with animals, so I've had an interest in what animals eat for a very long period of time.

Marion and I have a background in a wide variety of things in nutrition, and we thought this would be an ideal collaboration. So that's what we did.

This collaboration made it possible for us to bring in the research on many of the same issues, such as health claims, that affect human foods, so we could look at the whole range of research for humans as well animals to get an idea of what's going on with pet foods.

Marion Nestle: One thing that was obvious from the beginning is that the marketing of pet food is just like the marketing of human food. We looked at books in the bookstore about pet feeding, and thought we could do better. We were surprised by how strong the authors' opinions were and how little research they cited to back up their opinions. We thought we could do better.

EmilyS_nr: do you agree with the raw dog feeders that what we feed our dogs affects the development of the immune system?

Marion Nestle: What dogs eat always affects the development of their immune systems. If the raw diet is complete, it should work just fine. If it's not, it shouldn't.

Mal Nesheim: Maybe this refers to the fact that a raw diet challenges the immune system more than a cooked diet. It goes back to the idea that contaminated diets are better for the immune system. That might be what she's getting at. But I don't know that raw diets challenge the immune system more than other diets. I don't think there's good research on that.

Marion Nestle: Dogs who go outside are exposed to lots of bacteria. They get their mouths on things all the time. I haven't seen any research done on this, but I don't think there's any real difference.

Mal Nesheim: You get challenged not just by your diet, but by your whole environment.

EmilyS_nr: no, I meant that advocates of raw believe it develops the immune system better, so for example dogs are less likely to get demodex.

Marion Nestle: There is no research on that point that I'm aware of.

EmilyS_nr: reactions to demodex mites believed to be related to compromised immune systems

Mal Nesheim: There has been very little research to examine the claims made for raw diets. Research in this whole area of pet feeding is really limited. We think a lot more needs to be done.

PHChristy: I have a question that I received in email. Kim Helstein asks:

Are you planning another book about pet nutrition after this one? I think you are the perfect authors to tackle the veterinary college/API/AAFCO/pet food manufacturers tangled web.

Marion Nestle: We're going to cover this issue in "What Pets Eat." We have a chapter devoted to the whole question of pet food company influence on nutrition education of veterinary students.

Mal Nesheim: We want to get this book out before making plans for another one. We have been concerned that there's a very close relationship between veterinary education and many of the pet food companies. We've raised questions about that in our book, and the extent to which it influences veterinarians' recommendations.

cynth201: I'm sorry if this is a bit off topic, but what career possibilities come when you get a degree as an animal nutritionist? Animal nutrition has been my favorite subject for awhile now to "research" on the internet, ingredients and such, but I don't think I want a career in a laboratory, test feeding animals and the like.. Are there any other career options as an animal nutritionist?

Mal Nesheim: Animal nutritionists are important in that there's a significant amount of employment in the whole area of animal feeding. Many companies that are feeding large animals or poultry or pigs will formulate their own feeds, so companies that do provide feeds for the whole area of animal meat production employ animal nutritionists. That's particularly where graduate level animal nutritionists have gone.

In a lot of the pet food companies, many of the people that are actually carrying out the research are animal nutritionists. There certainly are employment opportunities.

KimHelstein: The issue of veterinary colleges and pet food companies has been addressed to some extent. However, the extent to which these same companies influence AAFCO has not been investigated

Marion Nestle: We talk about that too. We leave no stone unturned.

KimHelstein: good to know... can't wait to read it

Mal Nesheim: Pet food companies are not actually members of AAFCO, but are on an advisory group, and they often meet together and discuss these issues. So yes, they have an influence.

Marion Nestle: They have a vested interest. It was interesting to us. I taught in a medical school for ten years. Medical schools and medical education in general are increasingly concerned about the influence of drug companies on education and the practice of medicine. We didn't see veterinary institutions concerned about this issue. They think it's okay to put pet food companies in charge of education, giving free food to students. They don't see anything wrong with this.

Because pet foods are "complete and balanced," veterinary students think they don't need to know much about the nutrition of dogs and cats. Obviously we think they should know a lot more.

PHChristy: Evelyn Robinson of Ft. Collins, Colorado asks: Will the FDA ever be empowered to enforce food recalls instead of waiting for voluntary recalls from the companies who have produced substandard foods--poisonous or otherwise?

Marion Nestle: The peanut butter recall is the most perfect example of that. All we can do is keep fingers crossed that the Obama administration will take this on.

Mal Nesheim: I don't have any particular insight to know how far they'll be able to go. I know industry would like to keep recalls on a voluntary basis, but we'll have to see what the new atmosphere in Washington brings.

klsl: What are the main ingredients you should look for in dog food and also cat food?

Marion Nestle: I think the latest Whole Dog Journal lays these issues out very clearly. They have a series of articles on distinguishing between ingredients in pet foods. The articles are quite good.

klsl: I'm confused about all the different dry foods available. What are the best ingredients?

Marion Nestle: You should take a look at the current Whole Dog Journal [February 2009], which has not only an analysis of how you distinguish between dry foods, but also recommendations.

Mal Nesheim: Marion has given good advice. There are an enormous number of possible ingredients in pet foods, so it's not easy to give a categorical answer to that.

Marion Nestle: All pet foods that are complete and balanced meet the same nutritional criteria, so the only question is, what about the quality of ingredients? There are animals who do fine on cheap foods, and others who do better when the ingredients are better. The Whole Dog Journal article lays those issues out very well.

klsl: Where can I purchase the Journal?

PHAbymom: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/

PHritters: If cats are obligate carnivores why are pet food companies putting in so much grain and vegetables? Is this a marketing ploy or do the cats honestly need their veggies too?

Mal Nesheim: Cats' origins are very much as carnivores, but there are certain nutrients they get as carnivores that can be supplied in other ways. The digestive systems of cats can handle a lot of vegetable matter, so they can handle plant-based as well as animal-based materials. So if you put the right nutrients there, including things they would have to get from animal products, the cats can do quite well on them.

Marion Nestle: Basically they use grains because they're cheaper. And I suppose it has to do with shelf stability too.

Mal Nesheim: Plus it's hard to put an all-meat diet into kibble, so the form and keeping qualities -- kibble will last a lot longer. You can't necessarily completely divorce nutrition and marketing.

PHChristy: Morgan in San Francisco asks: Do you think that the close ties between academia and industry are the reason that veterinary nutrition departments are so relentlessly pessimistic about the ability of people to successfully feed homemade diets to their pets?

Marion Nestle: It's a great question. It's certainly part of it. The way we look at it is that the invention of complete-and-balanced commercial pet food meant there is no pressure on veterinarians to know anything about the nutritional requirements of animals. So there's nobody in veterinary school teaching critical thinking about nutrition issues; it's just not part of the curriculum.

Mal Nesheim: It's true; if you look at most of the recommendations from veterinary sites, they are very cautious about people home cooking for their pets. It's something that I think goes back to days when people used to feed all meat or oatmeal. It's possible now quite simply to provide nutrient supplements along with a variety of ingredients as you home cook for your pet

If you can cook for yourself and are healthy, you can certainly make a healthy diet for your pet.

Marion Nestle: It's amazing humans have lived so long without having complete-and-balanced canned foods. In our book, we'll have a generic recipe that is so simple -- we couldn't believe how simple it was. It just gives proportions of the categories of foods needed and you can vary the kinds within it. It couldn't be more simple. Cooking for pets is no big deal. If you want to do it, it's great. If you don't want to do it, you don't have to.

Mal Nesheim: Just get some recipes and follow them.

Marion Nestle: Or use the right kind of supplements. It's not very hard to do.

Mal Nesheim: Right.

cynth201: When reading ingredients and trying to buy a dog food "on a budget", which do you think is better? A dog food with chemical preservatives but good "food" ingredients, or a food with corn, unidentified meat meals and the like but has no artificial colors/preservatives? Do you think it matters? Is there anything else low-income pet owners can do to "improve" the nutrition of a not-so-high-quality diet - Feeding leftovers, pet vitamins or even certain human vitamins, etc.

Marion Nestle: I would say all of the above.

Mal Nesheim: Even the lowest priced foods have to meet certain nutritional specifications.

Marion Nestle: And mostly they do.

Mal Nesheim: One of the things Marion and I found when we looked at this situation is the adaptability of pets to a whole variety of ingredients and ways of eating. We recommend people find a way of feeding that works best for them, based on price and on their feelings about what their pets are eating. A very low priced food that meets AAFCO standards can be an appropriate food for your pet.

Marion Nestle: All the things the question suggested were good ideas. If people eat healthfully, then the table scraps they're giving their pets are also healthful foods.

Mal Nesheim: People do have to be careful of overfeeding. You need to make sure your pet is not gaining weight and getting overweight. Sometimes people are cautioned about table food because they don't cut back on the kibble, and the pets get too many calories and get fat. So if you do feed table scraps, you need to cut back on the kibble. And always keep an eye on the condition of your pets and make sure they are not getting fat.

Let your vet tell you what kind of condition score they have, or look online for guidelines on the condition of your pet.

Marion Nestle: Foods have calories and treats have LOTS of calories. So I wonder about people using treats to train their dogs; they have to be careful not to over-feed them. The one thing that was really clear from looking at the research on diet and health is that thinner animals live longer.

PHAbymom: I am going to jump in here and say that using human vitamins needs to be done with caution as some now contain xylitol...

Marion Nestle: Good heavens, yes, that should be avoided.

KimHelstein: so, your recommendation is that it's ok to feed them chemically stabilized, substandard protein sources laced with toxins like sodium pentobarbital, as long as they don't get fat.

Marion Nestle: We didn't find much evidence that there is still sodium pentobarbital in pet food. I don't know what is meant by chemically stabilized substandard protein sources.

KimHelstein: check out the study done by the CVMA in 1999.

Mal Nesheim: Some meat meals have been found to be rendered and have pentobarbital residues in them. Pet food companies are starting to look at that... you don't see much meat meal in pet foods these days, you see chicken or poultry by product meals, which probably will not have any pentobarbital in them... nobody kills chickens with pentobarbital.

Marion Nestle: The situation has changed in the last 10 years. That study was done in 1999.

KimHelstein: has it? has the study been repeated?

Mal Nesheim: We have talked to renderers, and they're starting to become very conscious of the potential market damage that poor quality meat meals can cause

Marion Nestle: I think the study was repeated...

KimHelstein: nope, it was not - at least not to my knowledge - and i'd be shocked to find out if it got past me

Mal Nesheim: You may be right, Marion. I just don't have it on the top of my mind right now.

Marion Nestle: Everyone is in such a panic right now that something like that will be found. There's market pressure from the consuming public, and I think that's really where you score a win from pet owners who care about these issues. I think it's great that people are putting pressure on pet food companies to improve.

But here, we're separating nutrition from value systems. In our personal diets, we want our foods to be natural, organic, locally grown, seasonal, and with animals produced under the most humane conditions. That's ideal, and if it's ideal for people it's ideal for pets. But it's ideal on the basis of VALUES, not necessarily nutrition.

Those are our values. And there's only one food system. Food for people, pets, and farm animals is all the same food system.

KimHelstein: I'm not asking for that - I'm asking for chemical-free and biologically appropriate.

Marion Nestle: But I see it as a value question. I value values... so in that sense, yes, but you have to distinguish it from the nutritional issues. A lot of animals can do just fine on things that humans wouldn't eat, or things humans think animals shouldn't eat.

Mal Nesheim: I'm sure there are differences in quality in things that are used in pet foods, and it's not easy for the consumer to be able to understand or to be able to figure out which pet foods might have more quality than others.

KimHelstein: I consider the myriad of health issues caused by grocery brands that I see presented to me on a daily basis to be more than a "value" question. I consider it a health question.

Marion Nestle: To me, it's the same as the fight over organics. To me, organics are about the kind of environment we want to have, so in that sense it's a health issue.

It would be much healthier for the environment and animals if foods were produced organically, but some animals will do perfectly fine on a complete-and-balanced food with low quality ingredients. The reality is that 90 percent of pets in America are fed what a lot of people would consider to be low quality commercial pet foods. Many of them do just fine, and some don't.

You have to find a diet that's appropriate for your particular animal, your own value system, and your own lifestyle. And those are very important issues.

Mal Nesheim: One of the things that Marion and I would like to see in pet food labels is that the food has been tested in animal feeding tests, as opposed to just having met the AAFCO food trials. That's one of the things we're recommending.

KimHelstein: AAFCO feeding tests are completely insufficient

Marion Nestle: The AAFCO feeding trials really are woefully insufficient. That's absolutely true. I would agree completely. One of the things we're recommending is much higher quality research.

Mal Nesheim: But it's better than the alternative of not doing the tests at all. And the AAFCO trials are what we have to work with right now. I'd like to see my pet food fed to something before I buy it.

cynth201: Do you think feeding "chemical-laden" food really increases cancer and "dying early" by as much as the consumers make it seem?

Marion Nestle: The short and easy answer is we don't have any idea; I wish we knew.

Mal Nesheim: It's a bit of a leading question. I'm not sure that high quality feeds that are marketed as premium have more or less "chemically laced" ingredients than the grocery store brands.

Marion Nestle: If we can make one last comment? Animal feeding, just like human feeding, is a matter of values, ethics, and culture. Dogs and cats deserve the same high standards humans do.

Mal Nesheim: I would like to echo what Marion says. People want to do the best things they can for their pets, because they're family members. We recommend that you provide the food that best fits your lifestyle to keep your pet healthy.

Thank you very much for having us tonight! We enjoyed having questions thrown at us!

Marion Nestle: Yes, we enjoyed it very much! And you can find out more at my website, www.foodpolitics.com. Thank you and goodnight!

PHAbymom: On behalf of Jeff Barringer and all of us here at all the Pethobbyist.com communities, we want to thank you for taking your time to chat with us. Transcripts will be posted with in a few days. Once again, thank you Dr. Nestle and Dr. Nesheim. Thank you both, and goodnight!

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