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Do you know what you’re feeding Fido?

Canada's pet food industry isn't as regulated as you think. You may not want to know what's in your dog's or cat's food bowl.
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Carmi Levy, April 24, 2013 11:30:58 AM

Disclosure: I am a dog person. Our rescued pup, Frasier, is a loud, badly trained Miniature Schnauzer with an appetite for garbage, a taste for skunks and an inability to sleep through the night.

Despite his foibles, he’s an integral part of our family, and we worry about what we feed him. And considering Canada’s checkered history when it comes to pet food safety, we have every reason to be concerned.

In 2006, at least 100 dogs in the U.S. died after consuming Diamond Pet Foods dog food that contained poisonous aflatoxins. Authorities recalled 19 brands of dog food as a result. A year later, Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu Foods found itself in the middle of a growing storm when 91 brands of dog and cat food produced at its Kansas and New Jersey plants were found to be tainted with aminopterin, which is used as both a cancer drug and rat poison. A North America-wide recall ensued. Last year, Diamond Pet Foods was back in the news after over a dozen people on both sides of the border were poisoned by salmonella, which can be transmitted simply by handling the food.

Unfortunately for pet owners, relatively little has changed since those incidents. Canada still lacks legislation that specifically governs pet food safety. The Animal Feeds Act, for example, covers feed for livestock and other farm animals, but makes no provision for domestic pets. In a highly competitive industry where intense margin pressure provides ample incentive for manufacturers to use fillers, byproducts, and even rendered or condemned meat to reduce costs, it’s often difficult to tell precisely what’s inside that bag you just bought. The net result: manufacturers have essentially free rein to put whatever they want into their products without fear of prosecution, and consumers are still stuck crossing their fingers that it won’t make their furry friends sick. Or worse.

While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency focuses only on food destined to be consumed by humans, a series of mad cow scares over the past decade has prompted the CFIA to tighten its rules, albeit slightly. The agency now ensures that anything that can potentially contain bovine spongiform encephalopathy (otherwise known as mad cow disease)  will not be allowed in the pet food, fertilizer or animal feed supply chain. The CFIA also enforces rules governing what travellers can and cannot carry over the border. Health Canada oversees pet food marketing, and will pursue manufacturers that make false or unsubstantiated health claims on their packaging. The Competition Bureau takes a similar approach, ensuring packaged pet food is properly labelled. Unfortunately, it’s been over a decade since the Competition Bureau substantively updated its regulatory framework.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association monitors Canadian-manufactured food, but has no legislative power to go after vendors that fail to meet minimum standards. The CVMA program is voluntary, and does not cover imported food – a problem given approximately 85% of pet food in Canada comes from the U.S.

So what’s a harried pet owner to do? Ask your vet. With so many questions surrounding what goes into pet food, my vet is the only person I’d trust. I may end up with something a little more expensive than the generic store-bought brand, but I can actually understand the ingredients list, and have confidence it won’t be getting recalled anytime soon. I could also make my own dog food, but anyone who’s seen me cook knows that wouldn’t be such a great idea.

In the end, our own dog may not know the difference between pet foods stuffed with fillers from heaven-knows-where and those more carefully made from quality, often simpler ingredients, but I’ll sleep a little better at night knowing what’s going into his bowl.

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