You're probably familiar the terms "Big Tobacco," "Big Pharma," and "Big Ag." They're used by skeptical consumers to derisively refer to the colossal multinational corporations that dominate the tobacco, drug, and food industries, respectively.
These entities are notorious for putting profits ahead of consumer well-being. It's unfair to suggest that they always put their bottom-line ahead of your health and safety, but the examples of them doing precisely that are too numerous to count and very well-documented. Their legal and PR departments may churn out spin about how they "value consumer safety and well-being above all else," but behind the curtain there are still wealthy shareholders putting intense pressure on management to generate ever-increasing profits, year after year after year. And that pressure can lead to some very irresponsible and harmful corporate decision-making. See, e.g., Tobacco, Big. That's why many of us believe that the "Bigs" fully deserve their reputations as the very embodiments of corporate greed and callousness.
But there's another "Big" out there, and you may not be as familiar with this one. It doesn't get quite as much attention as Big Pharma (not yet at least), but it makes products that most dog-owners use every single month. It's got its dirty little fingers in stores across the country. It uses massive advertising budgets to spread its self-serving messages far and wide. It influences regulators and veterinarians, it shapes the way that we think about the health and safety of our dogs, and it plays a central role in perpetuating the canine obesity epidemic.
Around VP we like to call it "Big Kibble."
Dog food is big business. Really big. "How big?" you ask. Well, in the United States alone, more than $20 billion in dog food was sold last year. That's pretty big.
And more than 95% of the dog food and "treat" products sold in the United States are made by one of five huge corporations: Nestle-Purina (makers of Purina-branded products), Masterfoods USA (behind the Pedigree, Cesar, and Waltham brands), Proctor and Gamble (makers of Iams and Eukanuba products), Colgate-Palmolive (Hills/Science Diet products), and Del Monte (Kibble’n Bits, Milkbone, Pup-peroni, and others).
You probably recognize most of these brands. And you probably recognize some of the companies behind them too. After all, they're behind lots of other popular consumer brands. Ones that have nothing to do with dogs, such as Proctor and Gamble’s Charmin toilet paper and Tide laundry detergent or Colgate-Palmolive’s Ajax household cleaner and Irish Spring soap.
Now, the goal of this article is not to persuade you that Big Kibble is putting its profits ahead of your dog's safety, or that it's causing serious, tangible harm to America's dogs, or that it should not, under any circumstances, be trusted. (We'll save all that for another time.) For now, just consider the following set of factual propositions and see if they rouse your inner skeptics in the same way that they do ours:
-- Pellet-ized, meat-flavored dry food ("kibble") is the most common type of dog food product produced by Big Kibble. It's also (surprise, surprise) the cheapest and easiest kind to produce.
-- According to the National Research Council's "Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats" (the Bible of canine nutrition), kibble products are made up mostly of carbohydrates, with individual products ranging from 50% to 74% carbs, based on their "premium-ness." In order to make kibble, you need to use lots of carb-heavy ingredients to bind the pellets together. That's just the way it goes.
-- According to the NRC, dogs do not require any carbohydrate in their diet.
-- Wild wolves consume essentially zero carbohydrates. Their diet is made up almost exclusively of animal proteins and fats.
-- The majority (more than 52%!) of dogs in the United States are overweight. And those animals -- 18 million of whom belong to owners who don't even know that there's anything wrong with their dogs -- will die, on average, 14% earlier than their fit peers.
Look, it's not a slam-dunk like in the case of Big Tobacco. Assigning blame for the canine obesity epidemic is a more nuanced issue, there's a bigger grey area. But if your inner skeptics can read through that list of facts without waking up, stretching, sucking down a cup of coffee, and starting to scream bloody murder about the core business in which Big Kibble is engaged, then we guess that you're all more trusting souls than we are.