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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Great Veterinary Food Conspiracy?

Over the last week I've been discussing topics on pet foods, something that is often a polarizing issue.  Most veterinarians have a pretty good consensus on what we look for and consider "quality".  Some very passionate owners will strongly contradict this consensus with heated opinions of their own.  It can become difficult for vets and these owners to communicate effectively as both sides have contradictory opinions on what is best for their pet.

What irks me and many other vets is that many of these pet owners seem to get the feeling that there is a great conspiracy in veterinary medicine where food companies completely dominate education on nutrition and gleefully influence the weak-willed veterinary community into blindly recommending their diets, which everyone knows aren't really that good.  For those who don't read all of the comments, here are some quotes after my blog on corn in pet food....

of COURSE Hill's would push for dogs to eat a "balanced diet" chock full of corn and other grains, because they have one of the highest corn contents on the market!

I find it remarkably coincidental that so many veterinarians out there sing the tune of this post, while at the same time Hills throws large amounts of money at vet schools and clinics...

I feel that most veterinarians are against raw diets because either A) they don't know enough about it or B) they see clients who don't know enough about it

What about comments from several years ago when I talked about what I felt are the best pet foods?

So the 'top nutrition specialists' feed their dogs food full of corn, by-products, fillers, unnatural preservatives, etc.? Great to know that these are the people 'educating' us on pet nutrition.
I think you should do some more research. It doesn't sound like these 'veterinary nutritionists' were taught anything more than what little the regular vets are taught. It's all still heavily influenced by the very companies they are recommending. After all, Science Diet and the likes are the ones who sponsor/teach those pet nutrition courses. Coincidence? I think not.

The nutritionists you speak of may have done their own 'research', but it looks like they stuck close to what they were 'taught' and based it all off of that.
I'm content in the fact that there are indeed /some/ vets that have gone beyond what they were 'taught' by those companies and truly done their own research. I'm hoping more vets will begin to do so.

Your comments are what I call typical vet responses that I usually get from vets that have only been educated from one perspective. (That being from classes taught by the dry food manufacturers.)

The amount of research and money spent by manufacturers making heat processed food has convinced the public that because of that they must be safe and adequate to feed.

As for your "scientific data", who paid for those studies? Well, each and every one has been paid for by pet food companies. Think logically for just one second. Do you think a pet food company would pay for a study to be done on BARF? Certainly not! They already know what the results will be, so they avoid it all together.
I'll tell you one thing you'll see in BARF dogs, that's a lower risk of cancer. Yep, I said it. Do you remember in vet school what they taught you about cancer? ...or maybe they didn't. Well, here goes. Cancer feeds off sugars. What do carbohydrates get broken down to?

The problem I have with the Veterinarian profession is that their education centres around commercial food companies and little in the way of real nutrition is taught, much as with human medical instruction.

I think every veterinarian is familiar with these discussions and comments.  The words may vary but the sentiment is the same:  "Pet food companies teach the nutrition classes and sponsor the research, therefore what vets learn about animal nutrition is wrong."  That's the essence of this "conspiracy" about manufactured pet foods.  Unfortunately for the detractors of common foods, there is no validity to any of these claims.

Let's start with the classes.  Pet food companies absolutely do NOT teach the nutrition classes in vet school.  Veterinary colleges utilize professors that are specialists in their field and are independent of any for-profit company.  Various vendors and companies have given lunchtime lectures at schools, but that is not related to classes and are always voluntary.  The curriculum is also determined by academics to meet standards of education and testing in the field.  These companies have absolutely no influence whatsoever over the content of these classes.  I challenge anyone who feels differently to find an official for-credit veterinary nutrition course taught by someone working for a food company.

What about the "nutritional specialists"?  There is a specialty in this area just as there are veterinary specialties in pathology, radiology, oncology, cardiology, dermatology, and so on.  In order to become a board-certified specialist you must attend 3-5 years after vet school of intense training in that particular field, then take a qualification test.  Depending on the specialty, this test will have a pass rate of somewhere around 20-40%.  So someone who is a specialist and an official member of the speciality organization has had more rigorous training and a greater amount of knowledge in their field than anyone else in the profession, and certainly anyone outside of veterinary medicine.  These doctors are the ones who have done and are doing the research that lets us know how foods are absorbed, how they are utilized by the body, and how they are manufactured.  We wouldn't have any true understanding of animal nutrition and its influence on physiology without these specialists and researchers.  It takes an incredible amount of hubris and blindness to believe that the large majority of veterinary nutritionists are merely lock-step with the food companies.  The food companies listen to them, not the other way around!  Pet foods are manufactured based on the research that has been done, not just because they want to throw some ingredients in.

Then there is the research.  Yes, much of it is paid for by various food companies.  But this is true in pretty much any industry.  There is certainly the risk of bias, but that risk is well known by the researchers and is carefuly watched for.  Government and private grants are often few and far between, so research necessarilly has to be funded by pharmaceutical companies, food companies, etc.  Research costs money and can't be done without sponsorship.  While I agree that we should look very closely at the results from a company's sponsored research, such sponsorship doesn't automatically invalidate the study.  Also, there are many studies that have show a particular chemical or drug to be ineffective, including studies sponsored by the companies making that product.

One of the main things we are taught in vet school is how to think critically and how to follow diagnostics and scientific research.  There is absolutely no way that any doctor can memorize the entirety of medical knowledge, so we are taught how to think through a problem.  Veterinarians are also by nature very independent, strong-willed people.  It's just the nature of the kind of people who can make it into and through such intense training.  These kind of people aren't easily fooled and normally don't simply take the word of anyone they talk to.  Saying that vets are merely blindly repeating what the food companies say without having investigated it is doing a great disservice to the intelligence of vets. 

Here's the gist of the argument from people like those whom I've quoted above:  Many thousands of veterinary specialists, researchers, instructors, and general practitoners are merely dupes of the food companies and have no ability to think for themselves or really investigate the issues.  Only the small handful of vets who are against these foods really know the "truth" and are the only enlightened ones.  And of course all of the breeders, pet owners, and people on forums know more about animal physiology and diets than the huge majority of the veterinary profession.  Also, all of the pet food companies could care less about our pets, don't really have an interest in quality nutrition, and are merely trying to market crappy food as cheaply as possible to the ignorant masses.

If this were true it would require an incredible conspiracy between food companies and veterinarians, as well as incredible stupidity among veterinarians.  Does this really seem likely?  Doesn't it make more sense that the nutritionists and research is valid and these foods aren't really bad?

Many of you may be familiar with Occam's razor.  To quote Wikipedia....Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor from William of Ockham, and in Latin lex parsimoniae) is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in logic and problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected.  This principle is used throughout philosophy, science, and medicine and has applications to real life.  Essentially it is saying that the simplest explanation is most often the right one, and is certainly the one that should be investigated before going to more complicated ones.  Apply it in our current discussion.  Which fits Occam's razor best?  That the majority of veterinarians and researchers are right and are making good recommendations, or that the majority are deluded and wrong?

There is no great food conspiracy in veterinary medicine.


  1. The gist of it is, these people, for whatever reason, have latched onto the whole corn, by-product, whatever thing and won't let go. They're very unlikely to ever believe a word of good logical sense. I also don't think they realize how insulting that sort of behavior really is. But of course, those "enlightened" veterinarians (whom I've found quite often hocking their own grain-free, corn-free, by-product-free food for a pretty penny) don't have that problem. Who, in this scenario, is more likely to be biased? Unfortunately, these sorts of owners don't care. They're only goal is to feel smarter than the veterinarian because they jumped on some unproven bandwagon. It's fine. I just don't waste my time and energy with arguing.

    1. I don't give my pets food with byproducts in it because I wouldn't want to regularly eat byproducts myself. I do, however, feed them a commercial food (Blue Buffalo). Even if I had the nutritional knowledge to prepare my pet's food myself (which I don't), I don't have the time or the mental capacity to be that focused.

    2. M.K. - do you eat ice cream or butter? Use cream in your coffee or enjoy whipped cream on desserts? These are just a few common by products of the dairy industry. Just goes to show that every thing labelled a "By-product" is not bad.

  2. "Hill's pays for vet schools, so you must push their products" is my favorite argument. Trust me, the drugstore names around my school has no bearing on where I shop or where I'll work. Similarly, no amount of Jason's Deli brought in by SomeDrug's rep will incite me to suggest their product to a physician. It's all just a means to an end, people.

  3. Great post! As someone not in the veterinary field, I take my cat to the vet and follow her advice because I do not have the knowledge or ability to provide quality medical care myself. Maybe there is a larger issue of general mistrust of science at play as well?

    1. Totally agree with your point about mistrust of science. Hubby and I use a lot of alternative therapies (such as omega oil supplements and chiropractic care) to manage his chronic pain, but guess what? I checked them out in *gasp* medical journals before we started using them. If it really works, doctors are all over it as soon as they can verify that it works. Doctors are there to heal, not to just shove drugs at you.

  4. Excellent post! I wonder if perhaps your comment "One of the main things we are taught in vet school is how to think critically and how to follow diagnostics and scientific research" is one of the keys to the whole issue? The ability to think critically is one of the main benefits of any further education - and it's an ability that seems to be lacking in many posts in forums, shares on Facebook, etc. I recently wrote a blog post titled 'Vet builds solid gold house on kickbacks from pet food sales' ( that suggested vets should play a greater role in providing relevant information to their clients so they didn't need to seek unsubstantiated information from the 'experts' on the internet. Which, by the way, you do a great job of & I frequently share your Blog Posts with the Vetanswers community :)

  5. We had a nutrition course last year.

    I went in with a lot of the skepticism quoted above (without the vitriol) and promised myself that I would think carefully about what I would recommend later when I am a veterinarian.

    I was really surprised by what came out of it. Feeding a dog or cat is a different ballgame than feeding ourselves. Since we are omnivores, we can eat a whole range of items and tolerate a lot of deficiencies and excesses long term. It's not so for pets, especially cats, who can have all sorts of horrible problems develop if even one compound (like taurine) is left out of their diet. The AAFCO label guarantees (subject to discussion in Dr. Bern's last post) that the food will be complete.

    We also discussed extensively alternative diets, including raw and home made diets. I think people may not realize that a major part of what board certified nutritionists is craft homemade diet recipes for super-conscientious owners. We were also given extensive training in all sorts of things that can go horribly wrong when an owner uses an internet recipe, for example, which are often horribly unbalanced in many ways. (There are recipes out there that will kill your pet if fed over a long term) There are so many things besides just WHAT is in there - the food has to be effectively digested, absorbed, and not removed by something else in the diet.

    It's also important to keep in mind that there is NO research saying a balanced homecooked meal is better than a commercial one. Does that mean it's not better? No. But it's not like there is this hidden research out there that the pet food companies are covering up.

    I am an all-natural type of girl, and I pay a price for seeking out local grass fed meats, etc, for myself. As a veterinarian, I will be recommended high quality commercial pet food to my clients. Why? Certainly not because I don't suspect that there is something more nutritious about about whole, fresh foods than extruded pellets. But the commercial food WILL keep your pet healthy. There are so many ways that home made and alternative diets can negatively affect your pet's health if they are not done exactly right.

    If anyone feels strongly about NOT feeding a commercial diet, I highly recommended seeking out a board certified veterinary nutritionist to help you craft the perfect recipe.

  6. That was a great article, Judy, and I completely agree with what you wrote. I try to do my part from my little corner of the internet.

    LeAnne, that was a great comment. I also don't have a problem with homemade diets, as long as it's done properly. But preparing a food for a pet is actually more complicated than making it for a person, so it's generally easier and as healthy to feed commercial pet foods. I have recipes in a nutrition text for homemade diets for various medical conditions as well as healthy pets that I gladly photocopy for clients who want to do the work.

  7. I have virtually given up talking to people about food, unless they actually request my input. Just not worth it.

  8. My dog has a skin allergy, and it really has made a huge difference feeding her the wheat/corn/soy free products ... she no longer has bumps and doesn't go around scratching (making everyone think she has fleas). I wish I could save the money, though.

  9. Karen brings up a good point, as the overall discussion we've been having is for the average dog and cat. Pets with a documented food allergy do need very specific diets in order to stay healthy and problem-free.


    I need this post as wallpaper in my clinic.

  11. A very interesting post, one that slightly changed my view of corporate sponsorship of research studies. I tend to rely on scientific consensus (I'm studying to be a psychologist) and start looking for foil to make hats whenever someone mentions something "the doctors don't want you to know."

    I would like to offer a perspective and ask for the blogger and ask for his thoughts, though. All my animals get Blue Buffalo. I don't feed a raw or homemade diet because I know I don't have the time or dedication to feed them that. As of now, I don't do it because I also know I don't have the knowledge.

    The reason I don't use other dog and cat foods is that I don't want my animals eating something I would not eat everyday myself. I wouldn't want to eat something with "byproducts" in the label as a staple of my diet.

    While I assume a grain free diet is better for cats and dogs because it's closer to what their wild cousins eat, that's not why the kitties get grain free. They get grain free because one of them throws up a lot when she eats foods with grains in them.

    So, what do you think, Doc? Are grain-free diets really better because they're more "natural" or are they just better for my specific situation because of my individual animal's needs?

    1. One problem in "grain free" formulations is that they can overload with starchy foods. Say hello to feline bladder stones.

  12. In my opinion and research, grain-free is really only better with specific patients that have specific sensitivities. Overall there is no problem with grains in a dog's or cat's food. However, lots of hype has let to different companies proclaiming "grain free" as if it's a miracle food.

    You also can't judge a pet's food by whether or not you would eat it. Heck, you can't judge people food in that way! I have no interest in sushi, so if I went by whether or not I would eat it sushi would quickly disappear. Same thing with things like escargot, tripe, and chitlins. However, plenty of people like those foods. A dog or cat would be happy to munch on raw liver, stomachs, intestines, and kidneys, which is a large portion of "byproducts". We can't think of their nutrition and preferences in the same way we would our own.

  13. I'm a receptionist in a clinic where the doctors encourage the staff to increase our knowledge on many issues, including diet and nutrition. Our clinic philosophy is to educate, and if you are making an educated decision, then we have done the job. I trust the person with the DVM behind their name who has spent at least 7 years of their life in school. I would not go to a human doctor that did not do that, why would I trust my furry child to a doctor (or anyone else for that fact) that would not look to educate, give me options, allow me to brainstorm, troubleshoot and give my input and thoughts. That being said, I tell our clients that our pets have changed over the millennia, and no longer eat the same "raw food" they did even a century ago. With the introduction of pesticides, herbicides, environmental pollution, antibiotics, natural mutations and genetic manipulation, so many factors have changed. Bi-products are not bad, grain/wheat/corn are not as well, except for those pets with doctor diagnosed sensitivities. Work with your veterinarian, not against them.

    1. That may be true for dogs, but aren't cats different?

  14. I think you might appreciate this

    1. Great blog post! And that vet is absolutely correct on all points. Thanks for sharing that!

  15. I've never heard people claim food companies teach the classes. I *have* heard them claim that they give money to schools.

  16. Here's one problem when people start talking conspiracies, or anti-conspiracies: It's either black or white.
    Either it's ALL a conspiracy, or none of it is.
    One particular problem I have with the theorists, is that they tend to blame corporations. It's not un-substantiated, but neither is it a fool proof way of placing blame. The problem is that often there is a perpetuated error. Sometimes, there really is something terribly wrong, but it's not a "conspiracy". It's just that people keep building off of a bad foundation. It's the reason why people in Mexico only buy super bubbly laundry detergent. Back in the day, you did need big bubbles from your bar of soap to wash clothes by hand. But now-a-days we have enzyme cleaners that dont need to suds at all. Yet still, people believe that big bubbles means big clean.
    All this to say, I'm a bit of a "conspiracy theorist" myself, but a better description would be, "I usually believe everybody's kinda right". Aka, it's complicated.


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