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Why Processed Pet Food Can't Truly Be 'Clean'

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker



  • February 08, 2020


  • According to pet food industry experts, consumers now expect “clean label” pet foods and much more
  • The truth is, it’s impossible to create a “clean” pet food using rendered, extruded ingredients and dozens of nutrient add-ins to replace what was lost during high heat processing
  • Processed pet food manufacturers continue to fall further and further behind the curve in terms of meeting the needs of pet parents who want to nourish their animal companions with natural, wholesome food


According to a recent article in a pet food industry journal, pet parents now expect more than the “clean label” products they’ve been asking for the last few years.1 The obvious question is, at what point in the last few years did clean label pet food become a market staple? (Hint: it didn’t.)

For the record, neither clean eating nor clean labels has an official definition, however, generally speaking, eating clean “… is about eating whole foods, or ‘real’ foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.”2 According to Go Clean Label:

“Clean label is a consumer driven movement, demanding a return to ‘real food’ and transparency through authenticity. Food products containing natural, familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, under­stand, and pronounce. No artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals.”3

In a white paper titled “Future of Food” published by the Kerry Group in Ireland, the company states that, “Clean label has become the ‘cost to play’ in the food and beverage industry.”4

This also holds true for pet food, according to industry experts, “as does the need to now move beyond clean label to something much more.” In just the last three years, “consumers have made clear their desire for true transparency behind the products they buy. Pet food companies should definitely take note.”5

I’m sure this isn’t happy news for processed pet food companies. It’s also telling them to run before they’ve even agreed to walk. After all, “clean label” processed pet food hasn’t exactly overwhelmed the marketplace, despite consumer interest, for what seem like some really obvious reasons.

The Truth: ‘Clean Label’ Processed Pet Food is Pure Marketing Spin

In 2017, processed pet food manufacturer NUTRO, owned by Mars Petcare North America, conducted an online survey of 1,500 dog owners. The survey collected the following data points:6

  • 83% of pet parents make an effort to read their dog’s food label, and half do this always or often
  • Given the option, two thirds (65%) would opt for non-GMO ingredients for their dog’s food
  • 92% say it’s important that their family’s food has ingredients that are whole, simple and not artificial

Shortly after compiling the survey results, NUTRO7 “… launched a new corporate philosophy that focuses on the concept of clean food: NUTRO. FEED CLEAN.”8

“The NUTRO brand is taking the clean eating trend in human food and translating that to pet food, creating recipes that satisfy the nutritional needs of dogs,” says the general manager of pet specialty, Mars Petcare North America. “That’s the sweet spot we’re going for, and I believe NUTRO dry dog food gets it exactly right.”9

NUTRO/Mars Petcare is claiming they’re applying clean eating philosophies to processed pet food, which is, to my knowledge, virtually impossible to accomplish (more about that shortly). However, since there’s no official definition of “clean food,” anybody can make any claim they like, it seems.

Interestingly, NUTRO also states that in “translating” the human clean eating trend to pet food, they’ll be “creating recipes that satisfy the nutritional needs of dogs.” So, what were they creating before jumping on the clean food bandwagon? Non-nutritional dog food recipes?

Bottom line: The Mars Petcare statement above says nothing specific about the ingredients used and commits to nothing. It’s 100% marketing hype.

An Example of a ‘Clean’ Dry Dog Food

Since I was curious to understand how rendered pet food could possibly be “clean,” I visited the NUTRO website. Let’s take a look at the ingredient list for one of NUTRO’s “clean” products, WHOLESOME ESSENTIALS™ Adult Dry Dog Food Farm-Raised Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe:10

Chicken, Chicken Meal, Whole Brown Rice, Brewers Rice, Split Peas, Rice Bran, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Barley, Lamb Meal, Dried Sweet Potato, Natural Flavor, Dried Plain Beet Pulp, Flaxseed, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, Salt, Dried Apples, Dried Blueberries, Dried Carrots, Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid (preservatives), Zinc Sulfate, Niacin Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin E Supplement, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement (Vitamin B2), Selenium Yeast, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract.

As is plainly obvious, this list of “clean” ingredients looks nearly identical to the ingredient lists of most processed dry dog foods. I wouldn’t use NUTRO’s words simple, real, or recognizable to describe a dog food formula that contains almost 40 items (most of them nutrient add-ins after high-heat processing destroys the nutrients in the actual food), synthetic vitamins, and numerous impossible-to-pronounce ingredients.

The takeaway here is that processed pet food producers use trendy terms like “clean eating” and “clean labels” as marketing ploys. “Feed grade” rendered and extruded pet food cannot, by definition, be clean, so the terms when applied to these foods are meaningless and worse, misleading.

Will Processed Pet Food Producers and Their Industry Mouthpieces Ever Learn?

Until the goals of the processed pet food industry align with the goals of pet parents to feed dogs and cats optimally nutritious diets and not just inappropriate-but-survivable diets, pet food producers won’t regain consumer confidence or trust in their products.

Too many pet parents are watching their beloved animal companions, at ever younger ages, develop degenerative diseases that dogs and cats in the wild never acquire. And while there are many differences in the lifestyles of domesticated and wild animals, diet is one of the biggest, arguably the most impactful, and the best starting point to improve health.

No, I’m not implying you should “feed your dog like a wolf,” I’m suggesting health-conscious people not fuel their bodies on ultra-processed, highly refined foods, and I’m suggesting they do the same for their family members.

An ever-growing number of pet parents have become too knowledgeable about pet nutrition to keep buying big pet food’s products. The industry continues to ignore the need to explore connections between an exploding number of pets with degenerative diseases, and the relatively recent practice of feeding dogs and cats the same biologically inappropriate processed diet day in and day out for months, years, or a lifetime.

They choose instead to invest in the “science” of feeding animals diets they aren’t designed to eat, as well as in just the right marketing to gloss over the realities of their products.

What to Do If You’ve Lost Trust in the Processed Pet Food Industry

Thanks to low-grade ingredients, too-frequent recalls, and an exploding population of pets with chronic digestive issues, allergies and degenerative disease, it's no wonder so many pet parents are exploring homemade diets, fresh food diets made by smaller, transparent pet food producers, raw diets and other alternatives to the dead, rendered, dubious, processed stuff.

My advice? Search this website for more information on choosing the best diet for your pet. There are dozens of videos and articles here that can help you become more knowledgeable about pet nutrition so that you can make the best diet choices for your own dog or cat. You can also learn what real transparency in pet diets looks like by ordering the Truth About Pet Food 2020 List.

If you want to help change the deceptive practices occurring in the pet food industry, I recommend becoming a member of the Association for Truth in Pet Food, which is the only organization out there committed to holding the regulatory agencies and AAFCO accountable. You can also check this list for the pet food companies that have taken the ingredient transparency pledge.



Busted: 55 Times Worse Than Giving Your Pet Water From Flint, Michigan

  • July 03, 2017


  • A small non-profit organization, Clean Label Project, has tested over 900 of the best-selling pet foods for over 130 contaminants and toxins
  • Lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium were found in a variety of tested pet foods; contaminants of one kind or another were measured in nearly every food
  • Examples include high levels of lead in a Wellness grain-free cat food and an Orijen dog food; a Rachael Ray formula contained high levels of mercury



By Dr. Becker

"The FDA has received over 9,000 pet food complaints since 2010 ranging from diarrhea to death," according to KPIX 5 San Francisco.1 This will come as absolutely no surprise to all you pet food-savvy readers of my newsletter. Recalls of processed pet food have become a way of life, and don't even get me started on the jerky dog treat disaster. A sizable portion of the complaints the FDA received involved those tainted treats from China.

In fact, from 2007 through 2015, the agency received over 5,000 complaints involving over 6,200 dogs, 26 cats, two toddlers and an adult. Tragically, over 1,100 of those dogs died after eating the tainted treats. One would think, with so many consumer complaints and pet food recalls, that the FDA could give the public some answers and reassurance.

No such luck, I'm afraid. Last time I checked, the agency STILL hadn't nailed down a cause in the jerky treat catastrophe, and dogs were STILL being made ill by the treats (which reappeared on store shelves after a short absence).2

Contaminants Found in Almost 100 Percent of Pet Food Tested

Recently, an organization called the Clean Label Project revealed "shocking" levels of contaminants in some commercially available pet foods, according to KPIX.

The Clean Label Project and Ellipse Analytics tested 900 of the most popular (best-selling) pet foods and treats for over 130 contaminants and toxins, and found lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium, among others, in a variety of the products. In fact, they found contaminants in nearly every food tested.3 According to Dr. Jill Chase, a San Francisco-area veterinarian interviewed by KPIX for this story:

"You should always be concerned when you hear the food you are feeding your beloved pet is high in these values because lead, for example, is sort of a silent killer. You don't know about it until you start seeing symptoms."

As I frequently point out here at Healthy Pets and to my clients, marketing claims on pet food packages often don't hold water.

"Foods are branded, organic, they're this, they're that, but the reality is that most of the foods just have to comply with basic FDA standards and they haven't been researched," says Dr. Chase.

Tests Revealed Very High Levels of Lead and Mercury in Certain Pet Foods

Jackie Bowen of Clean Label Project told KPIX their testers measured lead levels in certain pet foods that were 55 TIMES the levels found in Flint, Michigan drinking water. The Flint water crisis resulted in guidance that pets shouldn't drink water containing lead levels above 150 ppb (parts per billion).

In one example, the testers measured lead at 5,000 ppb in Wellness grain-free cat food (other Wellness products had no lead at all). Heavy metal contaminants in pet food vary dramatically depending on the ingredients in the formula. Bowen points out that the FDA (which is in charge of regulating pet food safety) doesn't monitor the validity of marketing claims such as "biologically appropriate" or "human-grade." According to CBS:

"Orijen brand pet food states that it's biologically appropriate on the label and its website claims they use human grade ingredients. However, the lab says it found lead in at least one Orijen dog food product, at levels three times the FDA guidance for lead in certain human foods."

As a point of comparison, the FDA limits lead in dried fruit and candy for humans to 100 ppb — the Orijen food had lead contamination at 300 ppb.

Another example was a Rachael Ray product claiming to contain human-grade ingredients that tested positive for mercury at 30 ppb. That's 15 times the EPA's limit of 2 ppb for human drinking water. Since the FDA has established no limits for how much lead, arsenic, mercury or cadmium pets should ingest, the Clean Label Project used the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act as their standard. The FDA weighed in with this reply:

"Relying on the acceptable levels of a substance in drinking water for humans is not a sound approach to determining acceptable levels of that substance in food for dogs and cats. There are multiple reasons this approach is problematic."

The agency went on to say that size differences, life spans and the physiology of pets must be considered, along with the fact that humans drink more water. Remarkably, while it has set no "acceptable" ingestion limits on heavy metals for pets, the FDA stated that any level of contaminants "must be safe for the animal." Exactly how is safety determined, if there are no set limits?

I can certainly set my own ideal limit, and I'm sure you can, too. It's a big, round 0 ppb contaminants. I realize there's no way to avoid all toxins and contaminants in food and the environment, but it's certainly a good idea to aim for the lowest levels possible.

Big Pet Food Slams Clean Label Project for Earning a Commission

Apparently, the Clean Label Project earns a commission on pet food sales through Amazon.com. (They provide links on their website on tested products — those links lead to Amazon.) A pet food industry journal points this out with the following snarky headline:

"Clean Label Project earns from low-rated pet food sales. The non-profit organization earns a 4 percent commission on all sales referred from its site."4

To which Bowen of Clean Label Project replied:

"Pet food brands have made billions of dollars selling false comfort and security to pet owners, but the concern is somehow whether a small non-profit makes 4 [percent] off Amazon sales?"

Bravo, Ms. Bowen! For the record, the Clean Label Project depends on donations from consumers, grants, a certification program and Amazon affiliate links. Bowen also quite accurately makes the point that pet parents know a whole lot less than pet food producers about the contents of their pets' food, and her organization is attempting to bridge the gap.

"… We want consumers to have access to important information, this includes links to all products on our website, so they can do price comparisons, read more about their product choices, and make a fully informed choice," Bowen told PetfoodIndustry.com. "To us, it's all about transparency. We provide choices and information, and we let the consumer decide!"

Pet Food Industry Prefers Pet Parents Remain Uninformed

Another problem the pet food industry journal has with the Clean Label Project is that "… There is no way for consumers to know if a pet food actually contains a dangerous amount of a chemical, or if it simply has more than another product." They use the example of a pet food made from a predatory fish such as tuna versus one made from cattle. Their point seems to be that since fish "might" contain more mercury than beef, it's not fair to compare contamination levels in the two foods.

That would be a reasonable argument if there were any indication on the fish-based pet food label that it "might" or "likely" or "probably" contain mercury and/or other toxins that bioaccumulate in large oceanic fish. But of course the labels say no such thing, because pet food producers benefit when consumers lack specific knowledge about their formulas.

Unfortunately, pet food manufacturers don't have to test for or reveal such information to consumers, but they certainly can and do make marketing claims about those same foods that are intended to convince you the formulas are healthy for pets. To her credit, Bowen seems to be a spirited warrior in the battle to inform pet parents about the food they buy for their dogs and cats.

"Do you have proof that the levels that Clean Label Project has released are not dangerous to a pet over the long term?" she asks PetfoodIndustry.com.

She also asserts: "If you, or members of the pet food industry, wish to take the stance that chemicals like mercury, which has been linked to brain damage, are not something that should be minimized wherever possible, then that is your right. Clean Label Project takes the stance less environmental contaminants and toxins is better than more."

If you're interested, you can find ratings and rankings for each product tested at Clean Label Project, as well as the methodology they use and other information.