New Challenges for Commercial Raw & Frozen Food Producers

Commercial producers of raw, frozen diets for dogs face extraordinary new challenges in their quest to make the healthiest food possible.

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People who believe in the value of feeding their dogs a biologically appropriate diet, comprised largely of raw meat and bones – with other foods added only to ensure that all their nutritional needs have been met, not as lower-cost “fillers” – love frozen raw diets. Food that has been formulated to meet the nutrient standards for a “complete and balanced” diet, and made with (mostly) meat and bones from (often) sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered meats, with the balance comprised of (frequently) organic, local produce . . . What’s not to like? The answer depends on who you are.

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If you are an environmentalist, you may not be crazy about the energy required to keep all that food frozen as it makes its way from the manufacturing plant to distributor and retail outlet and ultimately, to your freezer. While many companies ship their products directly from their manufacturing site to your door, the transportation costs of relatively weighty packages (these diets contain, on average, 75 percent water, plus ice to keep the shipment cold), and the stack of waste Styrofoam (that the food is typically packed in) may be daunting.

However, most manufacturers make some efforts to ameliorate these issues. Some offer free shipping for the empty coolers to be returned, so they can be reused. Some minimize the packaging needed. Some sell only within a few hundred miles of their manufacturing plants.

If you own a dog who is prone to pancreatitis, or needs constant dietary scrutiny to keep from gaining weight, you may avoid these diets, which tend to contain more fat than would be healthy for such dogs. Fortunately, there are companies that offer products that are lower in fat than what might be typical.

People who own a very large dog, or several big dogs, might be discouraged by the typically (and relatively) high price of these diets – at least, if they were interested in feeding raw food every day. Buying in bulk from a local company, however, can seriously offset some of the cost.

The Fear Factor
Until the past decade or so, though, the thing that kept most people from buying a frozen raw diet, even if they expressed a strong interest in feeding their dogs “the very best” diet possible (and didn’t want to formulate and make it themselves) was the fear of pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.

Understand that experienced raw feeders, as they are known, are not afraid of these bacteria. Dogs have much sturdier digestive tracts than humans, and only very rarely have a problem eating food that is contaminated with these bacteria. (Dogs with compromised immune systems, like humans with similar conditions, would be most at risk.) And as long as you practice good basic kitchen hygiene and food safety practices, you really don’t have to worry about your family getting sick, either.

However, a recent push from the FDA to test pet foods for Salmonella, in particular, has led to dozens of recalls, shaking the confidence of many pet owners about raw foods in particular – unaware that the rash of positive tests have resulted from a FDA policy change, not a sudden crisis of competence in the entire pet food industry. (See “Why Are There So Many Recalls?”, next page.)

The principals behind some raw diet companies would rather go out of business than subject their products to any treatment that kills bacteria. Others have shrugged off any misgivings about antibacterial treatments as the price of a career in food production.

Currently, there are products available to owners who are on every different place on the continuum of comfort with the potential danger of bacteria-laden food. Some companies use high pressure processing (HPP, also known as high pressure pasteurization or Pascalization) to kill any pathogenic bacteria that might be present in the food; others use HPP only on products that contain poultry (the most likely meat to be contaminated with bacteria); and still others rely entirely on buying the best possible meats, handling them with care, and using superior sanitation throughout the manufacturing process.

Conversely, there are people who strongly believe in the value of whole raw foods – bacteria and all – and who credit their dogs’ regular exposure to small amounts of bacteria for the dogs’ vibrant good health. Some of these people are more afraid of “Frankenfoods” – sterilized, irradiated, and/or genetically altered foods – than they are of pathogens. These people will find untreated foods more attractive.

You have to decide whether you feel most comfortable with a pasteurized product or an untreated one. We’ve not seen studies that would lead us to avoid foods treated with a high pressure pasteurization process. But we also feel comfortable with feeding our dogs raw products from companies that use top-quality, naturally raised meats. You have to go with your own gut on this one.

Selection Criteria
On our list of frozen, raw diets on the following pages, we’ve included only companies that offer complete and balanced diets made with top-quality ingredients. To give you an idea of how the formulation of these diets varies from company to company, we’ve highlighted one product from each company’s offerings, and listed all the ingredients in that food, along with the minimum amounts of protein and fat, and maximum amounts of fiber and moisture in the food. Every company on our list makes at least one chicken-based product, so we highlighted the chicken variety of each company’s offerings for easier comparison.

In general, we look for diets with the following criteria:

– A named, whole animal protein (such as chicken, beef, pork, duck, etc.) at the top of the ingredients list. No “generic” proteins (such as “meat” or “poultry”). No by-products.

– A good source of calcium. If raw, meaty bones are not used as the calcium source, another source will be needed to make the diet “complete and balanced.”

– Every other food ingredient (such as fruits or vegetables) should be whole and fresh; any grains present may be cooked but should be whole.

– No added preservatives (these aren’t needed in a frozen food) or artificial colors or flavors.

– Those criteria will get you into the right ballpark. With so many good frozen raw diets on the market, how should you select the right one for your dog?

– Price and local availability will limit your options. Some of these products are costly. It’s no wonder; they are made out of very expensive ingredients! Products that can be purchased in local retail stores are generally (but not always) less expensive than direct-shipped products. Direct-shipped foods might be the only option for those of us who live far from stores that carry these diets. Only you know how much you can afford.

Check to see make sure that it’s fresh! All frozen foods are more nutritious and appealing if they are thawed and consumed sooner rather than later. Look for a “best by” date; if the date/code lacks a date of manufacture, contact the company to learn the actual date of manufacture. Some companies suggest their products have a frozen shelf life of up to a year. Others aim to have their products consumed within three or four months of manufacture. If your preferred retailer doesn’t sell enough product to keep their stock fresh, ask if they can better manage their inventory. Otherwise, you may have to find another source – perhaps a company that ships food directly to you.

Look for ingredients that suit your dog. Of course you’ve checked the ingredient list for quality; now examine it for any foods that don’t agree with your dog. If he’s allergic to or intolerant of certain proteins or grains, you need to make sure they are not in the food.

Check the fat content. These foods can be extremely high in fat. That might be fine if your dog is an active athlete, but potentially dangerous for a dog prone to pancreatitis, as one example.

For more about the history of this canine diet niche, proper sanitation and safe food handling techniques, see “Cold Raw Facts,” in the November 2010 issue of WDJ.

Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ. She washes her hands a lot, and is not afraid of Salmonella.

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