The problem with the Australian pet food industry is that… well. It sucks. Wow, what an informative, unbiased assessment, right?
It would be an insult to your intelligence to pretend that I am capable of providing a genuinely unbiased review of the mechanisms in place to regulate the 3.77 billion dollar pet food industry in this country . I am a pet nutritionist who openly and quite passionately advocates that people largely avoid the products this industry produces. I generate my income by teaching people how to do this.
But I don’t tell people of the industry’s failings in order to grow my business. My business exists because of the industry’s shortcomings. I am an educator and I believe the nutritional issues with processed pet food are inextricably linked to the systemic issues within the industry, particularly regarding funding and regulation. It’s all so tied up in itself that I don’t even know where to start.
The pet food industry in Australia has recently come under some scrutiny after more than 70 dogs contracted the devastating and incurable condition megaesophagus. All of these dogs consumed Mars Petcare’s Advance Dermocare dry food and several have since been euthanised . Following the megaesophagus outbreak, the ABC’s 7.30 Report began an investigation into the industry and this has resulted in many pet owners and industry insiders coming forward with their own stories. The megaesophagus count is now over 100 and there have been numerous reported cases of vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures and even paralysis after consuming certain foods, mouldy dog food (well within its best before date), and foreign objects found in food. These foreign objects are largely metal and plastic from the ear tags of the livestock processed by rendering plants for use in pet food. The executive officer of the Australian Renderer’s Association (because apparently that’s a thing) acknowledges that ear tags are not removed from the 30 million-odd heads that go through their facilities each year .
But the ABC did not uncover some deep dark secret in the rendering industry; the industry head gave his name and went on record saying “yeah that’s what happens” (not an actual quote). The pet food industry knows this. When Baxter’s (manufactured by Woolworths) received complaints that it was making dogs sick, owners were given Woolworths gift cards . Mars Petcare waited four months from when they were notified of the link between their food and the megaesophagus outbreak to recall the food, during which time they conducted “hundreds” of tests . The tests were inconclusive but they recalled it anyway, effectively wasting 4 months and endangering the lives of countless dogs. (I dare say that if they were concerned enough to do hundreds of tests, surely that warranted an immediate recall.)
So why is all of this allowed to happen? Quite simply, it’s allowed to happen because the pet food industry is regulated in a manner that permits it. And I use the term “regulated” very, very loosely. Depending on your definition, it’s actually not regulated at all. At best, it is self-regulated. There are no laws and no government interventions at any level (local, state or federal). Even if they wanted to intervene, they’re powerless to.
There is, however, an Australian Standard that dictates the regulations surrounding the production of pet food, including nutritional requirements (it’s AS5812: Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food). Adherence to this standard is overseen by the Pet Food Institute Association of Australia Inc. (PFIAA), and in order to have your pet food certified by them you must comply with it. All sounds pretty reasonable, right?
But certification is voluntary and, even if it were mandatory, the PFIAA is not an independent regulatory body; they are an incorporated industry association whose members wrote their own code of practice and count among them some of the largest players in the global pet food market . Most notably of these are Nestle Purina and Mars Petcare – the confectionary companies that own 75% of the pet food industry in this country – and then there are Coles, Woolworths, Royal Canin and Hill’s Pet Nutrition . Oh and they also helped write the standard . Not exactly what I’d call “independent.”
I think it’s fair to say that corporate interests in regulatory associations are murky waters. In the case of the pet food industry, these waters get murkier again when you extend the magnifying glass to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). Now I want to preface this by saying that I have no issues whatsoever with individual vets; I wholeheartedly support vets and I encourage you to always see and listen to them. This is a systemic problem, not a problem with individuals. I believe vets will benefit more than anyone from independent regulatory measures being put into place and the removal of corporate interests from this industry (well, maybe not as much as animals, but close).
Nevertheless, the head of the AVA recently acknowledged to the ABC that they receive around a third of their funding from corporate sponsors . A quick look at their website reveals that these sponsors are largely pharmaceutical and pet food companies, many of whom overlap with the PFIAA members. If you’ve ever wondered why veterinary clinics are absolutely brimming with what I would argue are some of the worst processed foods on the market, you need look no further than the “Corporate Supporters” page on the AVA’s website .
The National President of the association also said she was happy with Mars Petcare’s response to the megaesophagus outbreak (ie. she was happy that it took them four months to notify the public of a potential problem) . I dare say the megaesophagus issue may never have come to light at all were it not for the fact that nine of the affected dogs were police dogs and, when they didn’t receive a satisfactory response from the manufacturer, Victoria Police contacted Melbourne University. The food was finally recalled voluntarily after Melbourne University launched their own investigation (with the AVA) and contacted vets seeking reports of similar cases . And the key word there is “voluntarily.” Because Mars Petcare was not legally required to notify anyone, including vets or any government authorities, when it became aware of the potential issue, due to the self-governing nature of the industry.
That’s not to say there isn’t a system in place for reporting “adverse pet food events.” There is. It’s called PetFAST, which is a somewhat bastardised acronym of “Pet Food Adverse event System of Tracking.” But – and there’s always a but – PetFAST was developed by the PFIAA and the AVA, and it’s overseen by the AVA. Only vets can report incidents and doing so is entirely voluntary – that is if they’re even aware that PetFAST exists. Individual reports aren’t always looked into unless a trend emerges and even then there is no obligation to issue a recall . So it’s kind of a shitty system, to say the least.
The head of the PFIAA will tell you that the small amount of these “adverse pet food events” and subsequently incredibly rare recalls of pet food in Australia (only four in the past seven years ) are a reflection of the fact that the industry is just SO WELL regulated that there aren’t any issues to report . I would argue it has more than a little to do with the reporting mechanisms in place, and the regulatory bodies in charge of managing them.
If you’re as exhausted reading this as I am writing it, then you will take some solace in the fact that the Federal Senate has called for an inquiry into the industry, which at the very least should bring some awareness to pet owners that any of this is going on. Failing that, just blow off the whole thing and start feeding a fresh diet. I can assure you it’s considerably easier than navigating the sea of bullshit surrounding pet food.
I’m not going to add a link to my services after writing all of that because it would just feel sleazy. If you’re interested in learning more about feeding a homemade diet, poke around my site and you’ll find them.
UPDATE: Senate Inquiry achieved nothing, pet food industry still sucks.