Is Feeding ‘People' Food to Pets Ethical?

Dog eating from bowl
Angela Hampton, Alamy

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.

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