Saturday, January 26, 2013

Honest Kitchen?

As always, I do not care what people feed their dogs. 

To tell the truth, most dogs do fine on nearly anything that is fed to them, from frozen raw meat to generic dog food bought at WalMart, and from low-salt table scraps to home cooked meals assembled from organic exotic foods bought at the local farmer's market.

The simple truth is that most dogs do not suffer from poor nutrition -- they suffer from being over fed. 

With that caveat, whenever people sell or buy anything, I always give points for simple transparency, and I take away points for self-delusion.

There's not much transparency in dog food sales, and there's a lot of self-delusion when it comes to dog food purchases.

In the past I have talked about a lot of brands, from Purina (what I feed my own dogs), to Natural Balance, Canine Caviar, Wysong, Blue Buffalo, Redpaw, Dick Van Patten's dog food, Humane Choice as well as occasional mentions of companies like Canidae, Apex, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, Country Value, Wellness, Premium Edge, Professional, 4Health, Solid Gold, Taste of the Wild, and Kirkland (Costco), all of which hired, at one time or another, Diamond Dog Food to "co-manufacturer" their brand.  

As I have noted, "Co-manufacture" is nothing more than fancy-talk for "we pay a company in another state to make the food, while we tell grand stories about it in the ads and on the label."

So what's new in the world of dog food, other than scientists telling us that dogs were made to eat carbohydrates like corn, soy, wheat and potatoes?

Not much.  Same-o, same-o, in fact. 

There is still a lot of "co-manufacturing" going on.  I call this "lick and stick" dog food, because that's the real relationship between the contract company that actually makes the food and the company that designs the label and the marketing campaign.

Lick and stick dog food company owners are not at the factory testing the ingredients or overseeing the manufacturing on a daily basis.  If something goes wrong (and it often does in the world of dog food) they can blame the manufacturer as so many have done before.

In all fairness, lick and stick is pretty common in the world of dog food because the whole thing is, more-or-less, a sham. 

No dog food has ever been proven to be better than any other dog food. 

No recipe or list of ingredients can be copyrighted or patented. 

What that means is that the business  of dog food mostly comes down to two unimportant things and three important things. 

The two unimportant things:  the label and the "story" that is used to sell the brand.  These are vital to profit and market penetration, of course, but completely irrelevant to the quality of the food or its manufacturing security.

The three important things are:  a vertical, well-known and old supply chain of domestic-produced ingredients; direct manufacturing of the product by the named company itself, and; a food that is made of bagged, fire-cured, hard kibble (fire kills most pathogens and hard kibble stores better).

So how does "Honest Kitchen," the latest bit of trendiness in the world of dog food, fare when we look at it through this common-sense lens? 

Not great. 

Which is NOT to say that it's not fine dog food.  The people who buy Honest Kitchen dog food seem happy with it, and that's good enough for me, even if it's not good enough for my dog.

Let me start with the name -- it's a lie. 

"Honest Kitchen" is not dog food made by hippies in a kitchen in California, where it is headquartered.  This is dog food made in a giant junk-food factory in Illinois, several time zones away. 

This is dog food made by people who come straight out of the corporate dog food business and who (probably correctly) believe that dog food is a soft market where real money can be made. 
I do not fault them for this.  I believe in capitalism, and I would prefer experience over no experience. 

That said, is "Honest Kitchen" the right name for this dog food? 


For instance, where, exactly, is the Illinois food factory that makes this dog food?

"The facility names are confidential due to privacy for the other high-end human foods that are also made there, as well as for homeland security."

Right. Alarms are clanging. 

I am sure everything is fine at the factory, but homeland security has never restricted consumer knowledge about where human foods are made (and certainly not for dog food!).  You want to know who makes MREs for the troops?  Here you go.  Just don't ask for the Illinois address where Honest Kitchen makes its dog food!

So another lie. Why, why, why??

Another small point:  This is not raw food.  This food is cooked at 104-165 %.  Cooked is cooked.  Yes, this dog food is cooked at a lower-than-normal temperature, but that's not necessarily a good thing, as anyone who has ever wielded a meat thermometer can tell you. 

Again, everything is probably fine, but if you are a raw-food faddist, then this food is outside that arc.

Another thing:  this is processed food. This food is chopped, ground and extruded in a factory that normally makes cookies and cakes. The result, as the Honest Kitchen web site notes, is a product that has "a texture resembling muesli or ‘loose mixes’ before hydration, with some colorful pieces of recognizable fruits, veggies, and grains."   

The average Honest Kitchen dog food mix is loaded with grains, such as oats, barley, rice, rye, and quinoa. The fact these are grains are not corn or soybeans does not make them healthier or better, nor does repeating nonsense claims such as these "grains provide primarily qi, blood and yin to the diet. They are usually more cooling than meats in nature." 


Qi?  Yin?  Grains provide blood to the diet?? Cooling??? Since when did we begin citing Chinese voodoo nonsense when making dog food?

This food is loaded with foreign-sourced ingredients. We are told the ingredients are "carefully sourced from around the world," but that none comes from China. 

Right.  China sucks. Screw the Chinese. 

But it's OK to eat stuff from Thailand, Egypt, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, India, Iceland, and the Philippines? 


It's not like "Honest Kitchen" has a clue how any of the stuff they put in their dog food is handled as it moves from dozens of farms in more than half a dozen countries on five continents to a factory-with-no-address located in another state two time zones away. The folks at "Honest Kitchen" take it on faith (and maybe contract), same as all of us do everyday when we go to the grocery store to buy food, or when we eat at a restaurant. They hope it works out all right. But are they actually running a factory or standing at the loading docks anywhere? Nope.

And how about those "free range" chickens that are used in making Honest Kitchen dog food? 

It turns out those chickens might be a little less "free range" than most consumers imagine. Honest Kitchen says it uses "chickens from Petaluma Poultry, but when Michael Pollan actually visited Petaluma Poultry (which has a real address, never mind "Homeland Security") he found their "free range" chickens spend most of their lives in crowded sheds and not a single bird was outside either time he visited.  Of Petaluma's "free range" claim, Pollan writes:
Since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled in their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture out into what must see to them an unfamiliar and terrifying world. Since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two week vacation option.

So strip it all down, and what have you?  

Simple enough: you have a dog food that is probably as good as any other, but not provably better.   

You have one more "lick-and-stick" dog food company that is all about its marketing story. 

You have one more dog food company that has a lot of foreign-sourced ingredients combined at a no-name factory that puts it all together several time zones away from where the company is actually headquartered.

You have one more dog food company that wants you to marvel at all the exotic ingredients they have wrapped in cool adjectives. The haddock (it's not just fish) is "wild caught" from Iceland, the grain is "quinoa," the chickens are "free-range".  

When you buy their dog food, it will be made out of  cool stuff like bananas, coconut, potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cabbage, celery, papaya, apples, basil, wild whiting (another fish), kelp, cranberries, wild salmon (there seems to be a lot of killing of wild animals here!), and garlic.


I am pretty sure dogs have been doing fine without bananas, coconut, and quinoa for a few millennia. 

But because these kind of exotic ingredients appeal to human owners with a lot of money to waste, and a need to feel they are special people with special dogs that must be treated in a special way, these nonsense ingredients are tossed into the mix. 

What matters here is story, not common sense.

And isn't that always the way with dogs? 

Remember how many people will turn up their nose at a Heinz-57 puppy straight from the pound. 

Give that dog a good wash and a haircut, and proclaim it to be a Baravarian Trufflehund with a nice exotic just-invented history, however, and these same people will often shell out $1,200 a pup!

Same thing with dog food.  

Take the right mix of protein, carbohydrates and fats, and slap a well-designed label on it, and an exotic story, and people will show up running. 

And if it's packaged weird -- freeze-dried, frozen, shipped only in 100-pound lots, or whatever -- so much the better.

And will the dogs do fine on it?  No doubt.  Of course, the people who buy Bavarian Trufflehunds will also tell you that their special breed has a special personality as well -- and never mind if it's a different personality with every dog!

And so it goes.

I could review the two new "Herbal Teas for Pets" that are now being produced by Honest Kitchen, but I am going to trust that you can figure that one out yourself.   

Herbal tea?  For dogs?  This is from The Onion, right?

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