In the 1990s, several pet food companies started to market raw foods for pets, claiming they were fundamentally better for pets and led to shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, higher energy and smaller stools.
These brands hypothesized, that these foods were not alternatives but were evolutionary models of how nutrition should be for all domesticated pets. They further hypothesized that only meat-based foods were good for pets and any feed with grains were going to lead to health problems for pets. These introductions were quickly met with much concern, disbelief and disdain by many in the industry. This new niche of pet food needed a name and BARF, an acronym for Bone And Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, was quickly coined and communicated widely.
Know your process
I have often said, in pet nutrition training sessions all over the world, that the form of the delivery of nutrition is not the issue – it is the content and the bioavailability of nutrients, the balance of nutrients and the fortification of nutrients necessary for that particular food design. All of these are keys to good health and long-term performance.
Good nutrition is about knowing your process and delivery of nutrients with good shelf-life to adequate consumption. Certainly, dogs like meat, poultry and fish and corresponding flavours, but that should not draw the firm conclusion that only meat in its raw form is the healthiest. Nor should it draw the dogmatic conclusion that dogs are carnivores. Every veterinary school and basic physiology course teaches that dogs are omnivores requiring lower protein levels than true carnivores like cats. Dogs also like sweet products and have a high capacity to digest large quantities of starch. These facts are widely published in peer-reviewed journals.
The ‘Raw Food Is Best’ conclusion
Where do these well-known facts fit into a ‘Raw Food Is Best’ conclusion or RFIB? The conclusions drawn suggest perceived benefits with many dogmatic positive claims without substantiation. I am not suggesting that the RFIB hypothesis of superiority is wrong. Rather, I am pushing back that it needs real scientific evidence without internal bias. As it is today, RFIB is speculative and based on repetitive claims. Let me explain.
Often, a consumer’s perceptions quickly become their reality. The more you hear something, the more it begins sounding true even though there is no scientific evidence. But just because you believe something is a certain way does not make it so. It is an unproven hypothesis or theory. We have seen this come true in the demonization of many ingredients and well-accepted nutritional principles. An example of this is ‘cheap ingredients contain fillers and add calories’. Other examples are the demonization of Vitamin K, potatoes and rosemary extract.
RFIB marketing adamantly suggests that any cooking or high-pressure processing destroys vital enzymes and vitamins in ingredients. Any time you touch, store, transport or grind an ingredient, there will be an impact. Processing easily has an impact on heat-sensitive, light-sensitive and pressure-sensitive nutrients. The question is ‘how much impact?’.
The further assumption of RFIB is that animals are dependent upon enzymes in food to reach the best nutritional digestion. Clearly, additional enzymes have been useful with farm animals to aid phosphorus digestion, but digestive enzymes abound in the intestinal tract, produced by the host.
RFIB marketing further focuses on protein levels with the belief that dogs are carnivores and further attacks ingredients not used in their foods as ‘cheap’. Preservatives are said to deplete micronutrients. For decades, we have known the opposite is true as antioxidants help reduce the destruction of fatty acids and vitamins.
Another flaw in RFIB is the delivery of nutritional content. RFIB food producers have realized that their own blends cannot provide all the essential nutrients necessary for optimum health. Which suggests that wild animals eating raw cannot balance their own nutritional needs for their long-term health.
Salmonella and Listeria in raw food
In a two-year study, the FDA tested and reviewed many pet food types – raw, jerky, semi-moist and dry. Salmonella was found in 15 of 196 samples of raw food whereas Listeria was found in 32 of 196 samples. No Salmonella or Listeria was found in any jerky samples (196), soft-moist dog foods (120), soft-moist cat foods (120), dry dog foods (120) or dry cat foods (120).
A big concern of the FDA was people getting Salmonellosis or Listeriosis from contaminated food. People with poor intestinal health, open wounds or those who are immune-compromised are especially vulnerable. Greater care should be taken in delivery, storage and handling. Since many raw pet foods suggest they are designed for convenience, these warnings seem contradictory.
Where does this leave us?
We should always feel free to develop and test any hypothesis we might have from evidence. We need to build new thought and new ways of doing things. If there are better or alternative ways to deliver good nutrition, we should all be open to them. A good hypothesis must be tested, retested and pushed to a conclusion where multiple views are seen.
When the pet food world realized they were not providing enough taurine for cat foods, the movement was swift to fix the problem. Alternative product niches (premium, super-premium, holistic, organic, etc.) were developed and accepted.
The controversy with raw foods is that so little science has been offered. As a long-term member of this community, I throw down the challenge – do the research and have it peer-reviewed. Make the products safe for handling and use. Eliminate the concerns and then enjoy an alternative pathway to good nutrition – not a better one.
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