Many chemicals are added to commercial pet foods to improve the taste, stability, characteristics, or appearance of the food. Additives provide no nutritional value. Additives include emulsifiers to prevent water and fat from separating, antioxidants to prevent fat from turning rancid, and artificial colors and flavors to make the product more attractive to consumers and more palatable to their companion animals.
A wide variety of additives are allowed in animal feed and pet food, not counting vitamins and minerals. Not all of them are actually used in pet food. Additives can be specifically approved, or they can fall into the category of “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).
Anticaking agents, Antigelling agents, Antimicrobial agents, Antioxidants, Color additives, Curing agents, Drying agents, Emulsifiers, Essential oils, Flavor enhancers, Flavoring agents, Grinding agents, Humectants, Leavening agents, Lubricants, Palatants, Pelleting agents and binders, Petroleum derivatives, pH control agents, Preservatives, Seasonings, Spices, Stabilizers, Sweeteners, Texturizers, Thickeners.
All commercial pet foods must be preserved so they stay fresh and appealing to our animal companions. Canning is itself a preserving process, so canned foods need little or no additional help. Some preservatives are added to ingredients or raw materials by the suppliers, and others may be added by the manufacturer. The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance, requires fish meal to be heavily preserved with ethoxyquin or equivalent antioxidant. Evidently, spoiling fish meal creates such intense heat that ship explosions and fires resulted.
Because manufacturers need to ensure that dry foods have a long shelf life (typically 12 months) to remain edible through shipping and storage, fats used in pet foods are preserved with either synthetic or “natural” preservatives. Synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze), and ethoxyquin. For these antioxidants, there is little information documenting their toxicity, safety, interactions, or chronic use in pet foods that may be eaten every day for the life of the animal. Propylene glycol was banned in cat food because it causes anemia in cats, but it is still allowed in dog food.
Potentially cancer-causing agents such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin are permitted at relatively low levels. The use of these chemicals in pet foods has not been thoroughly studied, and long term build-up of these agents may ultimately be harmful. Due to questionable data in the original study on its safety, ethoxyquin’s manufacturer, Monsanto, was required to perform a new, more rigorous study. This was completed in 1996.
Even though Monsanto found no significant toxicity associated with its own product, in July 1997 the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine requested that manufacturers voluntarily reduce the maximum level for ethoxyquin by half, to 75 parts per million. While some pet food critics and veterinarians believe that ethoxyquin is a major cause of disease, skin problems, and infertility in dogs, others claim it is the safest, strongest, most stable preservative available for pet food. Ethoxyquin is approved for use in human food for preserving spices, such as cayenne and chili powder, at a level of 100 ppm — but it would be very difficult for even the most hard-core spice lover to consume as much chili powder every day as a dog would eat dry food. Ethoxyquin has never been tested for safety in cats.
Despite this, it is commonly used in veterinary diets for both cats and dogs.
Many pet food makers have responded to consumer concern, and are now using “natural” preservatives such as Vitamin C (ascorbate), Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), and oils of rosemary, clove, or other spices, to preserve the fats in their products. The shelf life is shorter, however — only about 6 months.
Individual ingredients, such as fish meal, may have preservatives added before they reach the pet food manufacturer. Federal law requires fat preservatives to be disclosed on the label; however, pet food companies do not always comply with this law.
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