Friday, October 30, 2009

What is Edible Defines What Owners Will Feed Pets

One presentation in the Pet Food Institute webinar focused on pet owners' perceptions of food and how that affects what they are willing to feed pets. A lot of research has been done on cultural differences in what people consider to be food. Fried insects, sheep stomachs (Scottish hagis), and snails are examples. For some people, these items are food, for others disgusting thoughts. We are all socialized from infancy to know what our culture considers edible and what is not. The idea of eating what we define as inedible evokes nausea and disgust.

Some pet owners feed companion animals like other family members. Although they may recognize pets do not need starches and sweets, the meals they feed pets are much like their own plates of meats and vegetables. Other pet owners view carnivorous pets as different from human omnivores and honor pets by feeding an appropriate carnivore diet of meats and meaty bones. In both cases, however, what owners consider to be food directly affects their choice of food items for pets.

When I learned how much beef goes to the local landfill, because 50% of cows is not considered human food, I realized that some of these parts could be raw pet food. The USDA inspector at the local meat packing plant agreed and offered to approve some beef parts as healthy for pets only -- spleens, lungs, tracheas, esophagi, noses, ears, and tendons. With enthusiasm, the meat packing manager and I set out to popularize waste beef parts as raw pet food. I fed my own dogs spleens, lungs, tendons, tracheas, esophagi, noses, and so forth. Through Kona Raw, my local raw-meaty-bones co-op, I offered samples of these parts to pet owners free of charge.

A few pet owners tried tendons once. No one would even try to feed their pets the other beef parts, because they find them disgusting. The idea of feeding lungs, spleens, and tracheas was just too revolting, even if they recognized their pets might find them perfectly edible. Even tendons were found to be too disgusting to feed more than once, because you can see the cow's five toes that hide inside the hoof (which fascinated me -- mammalian evolution retains the basic form, even where outer adaptations have changed feet into hooves). Problem is these beef parts are not human food, and many people cannot bring themselves to feed pets foods they would not eat themselves.

Commercial raw pet food companes grind meats and bones into an unrecognizable mince. By grinding up bones, they destroy their teeth-cleaning function -- a major benefit of feeding raw-meaty-bones. That aside, by grinding up all meaty parts into an amorphous mince, they destroy the identity of the parts. More people can accept the idea of lungs, spleens, and tracheas in pet foods if they can't recognize the parts.

Green tripe is a good example of how grinding makes the food acceptable. I feed my dogs raw green tripe, cut into large hunks they have to chew. Kona Raw Co-op members feed ground tripe, but not whole tripe, because it's texture and appearance are disgusting to them.

They feed raw beef hearts and livers, because these are human foods. Spleens and lungs are not food, even though their appearances and textures are not very different from items they consider edible. Nutritionally, spleens and lungs are good organ meats and less expensive than hearts and liver. Intellectually, co-op members agree they should be able to feed spleens and lungs, but they just can't.

Tracheas are featured in Indian cuisine, but not in European or Polynesian cooking. Indian pet owners probably can bring themselves to feed their pets raw beef tracheas, whereas most Americans cannot. Cooking also helps to reduce the identifiability of parts not considered edible, although most people want to know the identity of what they eat.

The mindset required to feed pets foods we don't eat is that dogs and cats are not human family members but carnivorous pets with different dietary needs. If they could picture wolves feasting on the carcass of a cow, they would see wolves tearing open the abdomen and consuming the internal organs -- all of them. Fido and Fifi would do the same, if given an opportunity.

I have to figure out how to desensitize my fellow pet owners to raw pet foods they would not eat themselves. The probems are not intellectual or informational. Emotional reactions to food are powerful feelings that define edibles and inedibles very early in life. A more positive approach is to differentiate pets's diets from our own by categorizing pets (accurately) as carnivore species that will eagerly eat foods we would not consider edibles.

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