By Cindy Atoji Keene
Some of the ingredients in processed dog food could be considered almost toxic: Cancerous food dyes, meat by-products, artificial flavoring and colors, sodium, and preservatives. When Newton resident John Edwards, 36, started researching pet brands and comparing labels, he realized that Sasha, his golden Lab mix, might be healthier if she ate the same natural, fresher, and locally sourced foods as humans. With more consumers interested in a more holistic approach to pet food, Edwards saw an opportunity in the $52 billion dollar pet product industry for a pet food made in New England with organic, premium ingredients. He launched The Well Fed Dog in 2010, formulating recipes made in small batches in a commercial kitchen, including beef and sweet potato; salmon and pumpkin; and unorthodox pet food ingredients such as collard greens, blueberries, and celery. “More and more pet owners understand that responsible ownership means making their dog’s health a priority. That means investing in a nutritious, balanced diet,” said Edwards, who said he is part of a new breed of “pet-preneurs.”
Q: What are some ingredients in commercial food that you find particularly offensive?
A: Meat meal is a dried meat product that comes from ground bones and flesh, but it’s a non-specific animal, so it could be a mix of pigs, llama, horses, deer, or anything else. This mulligan stew of junk can’t go into the human food supply chain. Even road kill makes its way into it. Instead, our dog food is locally produced with fresh fruits and vegetables and human grade meat.
Q: How does one break into the pet food market?
A: It is a difficult task, since there’s a lot of oversight from the USDA, FDA, AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), and each state’s department of agriculture. As a former banker, I went from one very regulated business to another, but this background was helpful in picking my way through the red tape. There are regulations on how ingredients can be labeled, what testing needs to be done, preparation and storage, and other best practices.
Q: In your opinion, when does dog food go “over-the-top?” Isn’t it unnecessary to have grass-fed bison, or free-range emu in pet food as some places offer?
A: What’s important to one person might not be to someone else. Some people may think that cruelty-free protein sources like grass-fed bison in dog food is over-the -top, but having options can give you peace-of-mind. Although some of these protein sources may seem strange, multiple allergies in dogs are incredibly common. My own dog is allergic to chicken, which is in almost every major food brand because it’s a cheap protein source. She was very sick until we discovered it and removed it from her diet.
Q: The consumer is often faced with a glossary of pet food terms, ranging from “natural” to “human grade,” etc. What advice would you give them to help navigate this maze?
A: Consumers face this with human food too and it’s terribly confusing. The phrases can mean different things in different situations, so it can get pretty complicated. I wouldn’t rely on any of these terms in isolation as a proxy for quality. “Natural” or “Human Grade” could be a marketing gimmick or it could be a true indication of quality. The bottom line is that people can’t rely on these terms to choose a quality food and need to do their own research. Talk to your vet, investigate the manufacturer to see if there is a history of recalls, and shop at stores with knowledgeable staff.
Q: Allergies, obesity, high-maintenance — what are some other special needs of dogs that you’ve addressed in your dog food?
A: A local vet I work with recently told me about a really interesting patient of hers with a food allergy. The dog had a history of biting people and the owner was getting frustrated with the situation. They’d tried working with trainers and behaviorists with no luck. As kind of a last ditch effort, they switched up the food, and almost immediately the biting stopped. If a dog is suffering from a food related condition they cannot always communicate that and will sometimes lash out. An animal’s wellbeing goes far beyond just providing the minimum level of nutrition.
Q: Obesity in dogs is increasing. Is this an owner problem or a dog problem?
A: Diet and lifestyle are the first victims of our busy lifestyles. The solution for obesity in pets is the same as for people; a little less food in the bowl and a lot more exercise. Losing weight can be a great team project for you and your dog; dogs make excellent walking companions. A dog being overweight is really an owner problem because they rely on us to take care of them.
Q: Are you planning on coming out with a line of cat food?
A: Cats and dogs have very different nutritional needs, although we tend to think of them in the same class. Cats are really carnivores and hunters in their natural state, while dogs have been evolving next to humans for the last thousand years and are perfectly designed to steal food off your counter. They require more diverse nutrients and carbohydrates.
Q: Does your dog Sasha get blueberry facials or wear rain slickers?
A: That’s not my thing. I start to get a little worried about dogs that are dressed in silly costumes.