Dog eating from bowl

As savvy consumers, we are aware that pet food marketers try to manipulate our emotions for their financial gain and that these marketing messages have little to do with the nutritional quality of the actual food. The rare occurrence of diet-induced nutrient deficiencies, toxicities or imbalances diagnosed in pets consuming commercial pet foods in the U.S. today provides strong evidence that pet foods are nutritionally satisfactory. To be clear, nutritional quality means that the final product — not each of the individual ingredients contained within it — meets the nutritional needs of the pet for which it is intended.

Yet many pet owners still fall prey to claims that pets should be fed “human-grade” foods. This claim is evident in many pet food marketing messages and is reflected by common consumer beliefs about pet food. Basing your choices about your pet’s food ignores both the science and the ethics behind the push for so-called "human" food.

It’s Not Science, It’s Emotion

I recognize that marketing is not about evidence, and that pet owners are free to be convinced to buy and feed anything, regardless of the evidence for or against it. If people choose to believe that grain causes food allergy even though it doesn’t (any more than lactose causes milk intolerance), or that pets perform better when fed some imagined “ancestral” diet, even though their ancestors only lived for months vs. the many years of life that most contemporary pets enjoy, I respect their right to do so. It’s a matter of personal preference.

But I cannot accept the notion, promoted by some pet food marketer, that animals should be eating “human-grade” foods. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, “a claim that something is ‘human-grade’ or ‘human-quality’ implies that the (pet food) being referred to is ‘edible’ for people in legally defined terms.” In reality, however, words like "human-grade" or "human-quality" on pet food labels have no legal definition; they are designed to mislead consumers into imagining that the pet food is somehow equivalent to human food. To be human food however, all ingredients must be human edible and the final product must be manufactured, packed and stored in accordance with federal regulations to ensure the use of good manufacturing practices for manufacturing, packing and holding human food.

Various fans of “human-grade” labeling seem fond of disparaging ingredients in pet foods, such as byproducts, grains or “4D” meats (dying, diseased, disabled or deceased), simply because they find them aesthetically unappealing. What they may not have reflected on is that all of our ancestors, animal and human, ate “4D” meat, without benefit of modern food-safety processes to minimize the risk of harm to those consuming it.

In fact, our ancestors used every component of slaughtered animals, and harvested all of the food they possibly could. In some cultures, these practices were viewed as a sign of respect for the sacrifice of the animal’s life — to make use of everything it had given up to ensure our survival at the expense of its own. It seems irresponsible to “waste” these byproducts just because some ingredient name sounds unpalatable to someone. And if less of each slaughtered animal is used, then more production animals will need to suffer to make up the difference. How many more chickens do we really want living lives in battery cages just to see “real" chicken at the top of the list of ingredients in our pet’s food?

I also believe that those suggesting that we not include nutrient-containing byproduct ingredients in pet foods accept the responsibility of proposing sensible, sustainable alternative uses of these sources of nutrients, which I have not seen proposed. Are there other animals they believe it is OK to feed them to? Do they propose that they be discarded into already-clogged waste streams?

Feed a Puppy or Feed a Child?

I also worry about marketing people food for pets because it sounds like we could be promoting feeding human food to pets instead of to humans. If humans had all the food they needed, this might not be a concern, but they don’t. According to, one in six Americans don’t have enough to eat. Given this, what ethical or moral apology can be offered for diverting food that could be used to nourish humans to pets? While I fully recognize that pets competing with humans for food is not currently a significant cause of hunger in America — Americans waste some 40% of the food we produce, while nearly 50 million of our fellow citizens go hungry each night — I would like to see pet owners extend our empathy beyond our animals to embrace people as well.

Given the evidence that the vast majority of pets are living long, happy lives consuming pet foods that are not touted as “human-grade,” what moral justification do we have for suggesting that pets compete with people for food? And why should we feel compelled to pay a premium price for this “right” when we have so many other ways to safeguard the health and wellness of our beloved pets? During this holiday season, when many of us donate money or food to various hunger drives, let us reflect on what this imaginary concern about what our pets eat might be saying about us. This year I am choosing to ignore the emotional marketing, feed a more economical food, and give the difference to my local food bank; I invite you to join me.

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