The convenience food industry making our pets fat

Fast food giant McDonald’s has been under a cloud in recent years as its US customers turn to alternatives. In this “Fast food reinvented” series we explore what the sector is doing to keep customers hooked and sales rising.

Commercial dry foods are the ultimate “convenience food” for pets. They are manufactured by the same companies that make such foods for humans, specifically Mars (Masterfood, Uncle Bens, Royal Canin), Nestle (Nestle-Purina, Friskies), and Proctor and Gamble (Iams and Eukamuba). The other big player (Hills) is owned by Colgate Palmolive.

These convenience food giants don’t just make staple diets, but also expensive treats (beef and chicken jerky and desiccated liver) that cost more per gram than fillet steak.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has endorsed overseas policy guidelines that recommend feeding commercially prepared dry and canned food to cats and dogs. This is in stark contrast to how veterinarians and animal nutritionists feed carnivores in zoos.

Why the difference?

In zoos, big cats (lions, tigers, etc.) and wild dogs (dingoes, wolves) are fed predominantly fresh meat on the bone, to mimic what occurs in nature. Typically, whole chicken or turkey carcasses and portions (usually limbs) of cows and sheep comprise the major portions of the ration. Fresh meat, some offal and fresh bones are all normal food constituents in nature.

This ration requires vigorous mastication, as is the case when a carnivore dines in nature. Eating such tucker is hard work but clearly pleasurable. When finally satiated, carnivores generally have a long nap. For ethical reasons, we cannot reproduce the thrill of “the kill” when keeping carnivores in captivity, but we can certainly reproduce the enjoyment of a “natural feed”. Tearing apart flesh and stripping it off the bone is a physiologic way to “floss”, reducing plaque and calculus which otherwise build up on teeth. The mouth and digestive system of carnivores has adapted over millennia to this type of diet.

Cats, like their larger relatives, are hypercarnivores – carnivores who have evolved through natural selection to eat the flesh and bones of prey animals exclusively. The only carbohydrate normally eaten is in the liver and intestinal tract of prey. Dogs are carnivores, although they have less stringent nutritional requirements. One might therefore think that the ideal food for cats and dogs would include regular portions of fresh meat on the bone.

Why then are most commercial foods for cats and dogs dry extruded rations based on plant carbohydrates, with added fat, minerals and hydrolysed protein? And why do most veterinarians recommend such diets?


Domestic cats, like their wild relatives, benefit from a diet of raw meat and bones. Image sourced from

Marketing machine

My view is that our profession has been misdirected by the exceptionally clever marketing of multinational pet food manufacturers. In the human arena, such companies are often called “big food” and “big soda”.

Dry extruded diets are clean, convenient, have a long shelf-life, are easy to serve and store. They don’t need to be bought fresh every few days. They contain a lot of goodness and are balanced for vitamins, minerals and macronutrients. Indeed, as a component of a balanced diet, “premium dry food” has much to offer (more for dogs than cats and particularly for growing animals). But they tend to be consumed quickly, with little effort. If they are fed without careful portion control, you quickly end up with a fat pet.

The coating with tasty oils makes this food irresistible, just like salted potato crisps are to us. But it doesn’t have the physical qualities to remove calculus from teeth and many have excess carbohydrate and insufficient protein, especially for hypercarnivores. Cats fed these diets exclusively have the propensity to develop diabetes, obesity and osteoarthritis.

Pet food manufacturers provide most of the money for nutritional research in companion animals. They thus control the research agenda, and the “evidence base” for canine and feline nutrition. They donate money and products and sponsor functions at veterinary schools, thereby subliminally influencing the feeding practices of impressionable young vets and their teachers. They fund also clinical nutrition lectureships and residencies. University management appear unconcerned by this arrangement. Pet food companies also sponsor seminars, webinars and sessions at scientific meetings. They run advertisements in leading veterinary journals and are a major sponsor of the AVA.

The final masterstroke of pet food companies is that they enlist veterinarians to actually sell, and thereby endorse these diets, right in the waiting rooms of their hospitals.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The concerted efforts of a number of forward-thinking veterinary scientists have meant that Australasian pet owners probably feed more raw meaty bones as part of a balanced ration than in many countries overseas. This is commendable. But we have some way to go.

Richard Malik, Veterinary Internist (Specialist), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

VIC to increase farmer protection against animal activists

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh has said that he will be introducing legislation before the Victorian state election that will provide more protection for farmers against extreme animal rights activists.

The coalition first committed to strengthen protection for farmers from trespassing animal activist groups in 2010. Walsh says that the election promise has not been forgotten and that the government will “have some more things to say around the right to farm”.

“A commitment is over four years and we will be sure to do something,” Walsh told The Weekly Times.

Peter Tuohey, president of the Victorian Farmers Federation backed Walsh’s comments, stating that activists “don’t have the right” to trespass on private property and take photos in a "misleading manner".

Colin Giles, co-owner of a Gippsland abattoir has claimed that his family suffered immense financial and emotional hardship from a state government investigation into animal cruelty charges in 2011 which were subsequently dropped last year.

Giles and his former quality assurance manager, James Rodwell, were set to face a number of charges under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act after footage was released which allegedly depicted cruelty towards pigs during slaughter. Giles said that the accusations bought severe stress to his family as well as lost revenue, production and the closure of his abattoir.

Tuohey says that Giles’ case was a “prime example of someone coming in under deceptive circumstances to cause some mischief,” and that stronger laws could have prevented the closure of the business.

In contrast, animal welfare company Animals Australia said that the introduction of strict legislation such as the ag-gag laws in the US will only heighten the awareness of cruel practices.

“If anything can be learned from the US situation, it is that while animal cruelty continues, so will investigations to expose that cruelty,” Animal Australia’s legal counsel Shatha Hamade told The Weekly Times.

“The controversy relating to ag-gag laws in the US has only served to increase consumer awareness of cruel practices, exactly the opposite of what US industries were seeking through having these laws put in place.”


Animals Australia launches new tongue in cheek egg campaign [video]

Animal welfare group, Animals Australia has released a set of videos that encourage consumers to purchase cage free eggs with the help of high profile comedians including Arj Barker, Peter Rowsthorn of Kath and Kim fame, Mick Malloy and Carl Barron.

Titled ‘How to treat a lady’, the videos take a tongue in cheek approach to discussing the realities behind battery egg production, stating that keeping a hen couped up in a tiny cage ‘ain’t no way to treat a lady’.

“I like to treat them right, take my ladies out,” says Arj Barker while stroking a ukulele. “You know if you love something, set it free… You got to give the ladies space.”

“Who wants to be cooped up in such a tiny environment for their entire lives?” says Rowsthorn. “Think about if you got caught on a really crowded train and the doors shut, and there you were, for the rest of your life. That’s not good – what if the person next to you was a knob?”

Taking a more serious tone, the video’s voiceover states that most eggs in Australia are laid by hens confined to battery cages.

“Choose kindly and help make caged eggs history,” the voiceover says.

Last year supermarket giant Woolworths announced that it will be phasing out caged eggs as part of a new partnership with British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver.

The move angered the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) who stated that many farmers converted to new cage systems only five years ago which were then fully compliant with industry standards.

President of the VFF’s egg group, Brian Ahmed said that he doubts that farmers will receive any compensation to move away from caged systems.  

“We want to all go free range but it's costly. They are going to take away a good protein source from consumers that can't afford it," he said at the time.



ACT passes ban on factory farming practices

The ACT Government has passed legislation that bans sow stalls, battery cages and the de-beaking of chickens throughout the territory.

The move has been welcomed by Greens minister, Shane Rattenbury, who stated that the legislation has sent out an important message to producers that employ factory family practices in the rest of the country.

'To ban these elements of factory farming gives me great joy but I understand there is more to be done,'' he told The Canberra Times.

Although the legislation is only enforced within the ACT, Rattenbury says that 70 percent of laying hens across the nation are still confined to battery cages, often in spaces no larger than an A4 piece of paper.

''These are living feeling creatures capable of experiencing fear, pain and distress,'' he said. ''I find these statistics shocking.''

In contrast, the Liberal deputy leader Alistair Coe voted against the bill, stating that it was ‘redundant’ as the ACT had no intensive pig farms, or battery egg farms. He also said that Labor’s support of the bill demonstrated that the party’s agenda had been influenced or ‘hijacked’ by the Greens, SMH reports.

The new legislation will attract fines for up to $35,000 for corporations and $7,000 for individuals.


ACT expected to ban battery cages and sow stalls

The ACT is expected to pass a vote today that will see an end to certain factory farming practices.

The new legislation which was introduced by Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury last year, will ban the use of battery cages for hens along with de-beaking practices, and will also prohibit the use of sow stalls and farrowing crates for pigs.

Rattenbury says that the move to prohibit such practices has largely been driven by a consumer push for higher animal welfare standards and that fines of up to $35,000 will be payable for any breach of the new laws.

"This is an important reform to protect the welfare of farmed animals and will set the precedent for other states and territories to do the same," Rattenbury told Yahoo 7.

"Some of the practices outlawed under this legislation are simply cruel and inhumane and don't have any place in modern food production in Australia."

The move has also been welcomed by animal welfare group, Animals Australia.

Communications director for the group, Lisa Chalk said that the passing of the vote will be a ‘landmark decision’.

"Animals Australia really applauds the ACT government's landmark decision to prohibit what are some of the cruellest farming practices," she said.

"These are practices which see millions of animals around Australia severely confined."

Although the legislation will see an end to such practices in the Territory, NSW Farmers Egg Committee spokesman Bede Burke said that many ACT farmers have already, or are in the process of moving to non-cage systems. He also said that the legislation will not prohibit the sale of caged eggs produced in other Australian states in ACT supermarkets.  


Australian Pork hits back at animal activists [video]

Australian Pork has released a video questioning the intentions of animal activists and shedding light on its own animal welfare standards.

Following recent scrutiny of the Australian food manufacturing's animal welfare standards (think Inghams, Pepe's Ducks, Luv-a-Duck, the live exports saga and Animals Australia's controversial bag campaign), the organisation supporting Australian pork producers has turned the tables on animal activists, questioning their commitment to animal welfare.

It's released a video, set inside a pig farm, which runs through how pigs are housed and treated at many Australian pork production facilities. It claims Australia boasts "some of the best pig raising standards in the world."

Titled Aussie Pig Farmers: Nothing to Hide, it shows an image of a baby in a cot, captioned with "Sometimes things designed for safety can appear cruel to the uninitiated."

A pork producer then runs through the fundamental elements of a farrowing crate, explaining that the sow has access to grain and water as well as a heater for feeding piglets and an added safety element which helps ensure piglets aren't accidentally crushed if the sow rolls onto them.

The video also makes some bold statements about animal activists, not only questioning their intentions but implying their conduct is often unethical and even illegal.

"Animal activists break into a farm, trespass and terrorise pigs at night," the video states. "They break strict biosecurity protocols, putting the animals' health and wellbeing at risk.

"If activists were serious about animal welfare they would work with industry."

This echoes a sentiment raised by farmers after supermarket giant Coles recently teamed up with activist group, Animals Australia, agreeing to sell their Make It Possible reusable bags in-store. Coles and Animals Australia were hit with such intense criticism from the industry that Animals Australia eventually asked Coles to withdraws the bags.

"It is a dark day for animal welfare in this country when a retailer’s support for an animal welfare initiative is vehemently opposed by the farming lobby," Animals Australia campaign director, Lyn White, said at the time.

The video concludes with the pork producer sharing his concerns about the future of the industry, should animal activists continue to threaten their livelihood.

"If Aussie farmers were shut down in producing Aussie pork, then where are we going to get our pork from?" he asks.

"If we can't produce pork in God's country, then God knows where we're going to get it from."



Coles are the piggy in the middle of animal welfare confrontation

Last week, Coles supermarkets began selling shopping bags on behalf of animal rights campaigners Animal Australia. Following a backlash from farmers, Animals Australia withdrew the bags. But the stoush raised some important questions about the growing power of ethical consumption, and about who gets to decide how much animal welfare is enough.

The animal rights group produced 15,000 bags displaying a little winged pig who encourages consumers to “believe in a world without factory farming”. They were to be sold in 500 metropolitan Coles Supermarkets. The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) urged producers to boycott Coles, saying Animals Australia were “anti-farmer”.

Since ending the campaign, Animals Australia has raised enough in donations from sympathetic Australians to secure valuable air time for their television ad. According to the Canberra Times, Coles also received huge support in favour of the bags – leading many to ask why farm lobby groups are so strongly opposed the campaign.

Why don’t farmers like animal welfare campaigns?

The supermarket giant is trying to cater for the growing demand for high-welfare meat and eggs while remaining supportive of producers. But several farming lobbies called for immediate action against Coles in response to the bag sales.

Farmers groups didn’t object to a campaign to end factory farming. They objected to Animals Australia and its platforms. A representative of the pork lobby expressed his outrage that Coles would partner with an “anti-meat” organisation, and described Animals Australia as campaigning for a “meat-free world”.


At the core of any animal rights ideology is the objective to reduce suffering, as animal activists explain. Getting sows out of stalls and chickens out of cages is the first step in this process. Farmers say they also care about welfare. But farming lobby groups such as the NFF feel vulnerable to the effects of marketing campaigns by animal rights groups.

While animal welfare is important to farmers, there is immense pressure to supply chicken, pork and eggs to consumers at a low cost. This is why the factory farms that Animals Australia are protesting against exist. The Farmers Federation says it works with respected animal welfare groups and the government to make improvements in the industry. But they seem to think there is no place in the debate for a group that campaigns for animal rights; a group they describe as “extremist animal activist[s]”.

Farmers label the group as extremists because they campaign for an end to rodeos, no more kangaroo culling and no more culling of introduced animals. But these are different matters: if farmers are opposed to Animals Australia’s anti-factory farming campaign because it is based on false claims, they should tell the public what they are doing to improve farm animal welfare.

Can high-welfare foods work for supermarkets and producers?

Rather than trying to turn Australia vegan, Animals Australia told the Age they want Australians to “eat less and pay more [for meat and eggs] – ensuring that the bottom line for producers can remain positive”. To achieve this requires a dramatic shift in thinking by consumers and support for supermarkets and farmers to supply high-welfare foods to the public.

An open conversation between producers, supermarkets, and consumers on the realities of farming, include the unpleasant truths, may help Australia move forward and implement more animal-friendly farming practices.

Both meat farmers and Animals Australia agree that consumers need to know more about farming in Australia. The Farmers Federation say on their website they are dedicated to increasing awareness of farming’s role in society.

When transparency and labelling standards are improved, it will be the consumer who determines the importance of animal welfare – and rights – in the scheme of things.

The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare has found welfare is not keeping up with consumer demands. Consumers' concern makes them sensitive to campaigns such as “Make It Possible” and open to alternative products and lifestyles.

On the surface, the farming organisations who were calling for an immediate boycott of Coles have won the debate. But they have done little to convince consumers they needn’t worry about farm animal welfare.

Australian consumers, and subsequently legislators, will determine the direction for farm animal welfare in the future. It is in the best interests of the meat and egg industries to reassure consumers that animal welfare is a priority. Otherwise Animals Australia will have gained much more from the proposed boycott than anticipated.

Sally Healy was the 2011 recipient for the RSPCA Australia Scholarship for Humane Animal Production Research.

Georgette Burns does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.