South Africa, World

To the dogs: What pet food reveals about the dawn of the Trumpocene

By Kevin Bloom 19 January 2017

Ten years ago, the signs were everywhere. The “2007 pet food scandal”, for instance, which snuffed out the lives of thousands of pets in North America, Europe and South Africa, was just another tear in the fabric, one more clue that behind the curtain were a bunch of deranged clowns who controlled all the information. But because the pet food scandal had a local slant, and because the facts were so skilfully discombobulated, there was something a little special about this particular harbinger of the inauguration of President Trump. By KEVIN BLOOM.

In case you didn’t know it, “dog” is “God” spelt backwards. Here’s something else that maybe you didn’t know about dogs. The global pet food industry is run by humanity’s most amazing multinational corporations.

They’re so amazing, these corporations, that the most recognisable of them – Nestlé – admitted last year to instances of slavery (!) in its Thailand operation while continuing to fight a child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast.

So amazing that another of them known for dabbling in forced labour in Indonesia – Colgate-Palmolive – remains the only company in the United States that still laces its toothpaste with a chemical banned from soap.

So amazing that the CEO of the one with a customer base of nearly 5-billion people – Proctor and Gamble – said some wonderful things recently about “not overwhelming consumers with too much choice”, even though he’d been a little less talkative about a) the arrest of nine Greenpeace activists at his company headquarters in Cincinnati, and b) the accusations against him of large-scale tax fraud in Argentina.

Thank Dog, then, that our pets are being fed from the hands of such responsible corporate citizens. And thank Dog for Donald Trump, who, when he was still in the race to be the planet’s Top Dog, let us know how dog-tired he was of all the pet food recalls being ordered all the time by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA food police,” was how the Trump campaign put it in a fact sheet back in September 2016, “which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food.”

If you didn’t get the significance of that “even” the first time, the fact sheet was kind enough to repeat it for you in the next sentence. “The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even [italics ours] what animals may roam which fields and when.”

Yup, according to the Trump presidential campaign, Big Government wasn’t only interfering in the inalienable rights of all God-fearing Americans to put whatever junk they wanted into their own Goddamn mouths, it was even interfering in the inalienable rights of beings with no Goddamn rights whatsoever, being (non-God-fearing) animals. The “nutritional content” of dog food? For real?

For real. The FDA was (is?) un-American.

But hindsight, as someone once said, is an exact science. Now that Trump has won and the Chairman (and CEO) of ExxonMobil is about to become the most powerful foreign diplomat in the known universe, it’s all so blindingly obvious. Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble (not to forget Del Monte Foods, Marc Inc. and Mogiana Alimentos) sit atop a global pet food market of $70-billion, and it has never been in their interests to give a fuck about the “true” nutritional value of their products. There was a time, of course, when they used to pretend to give a fuck – a time when the FDA wasn’t seen as a tool of liberal stooges, a time when poisoning by salmonella actually meant something to POTUS and his administration, a time when the swindles and fixes and collusions were still subtle, cunning, appropriately difficult to spot.

The year 2007, for instance, which would one day be remembered for the eponymous “2007 pet food recalls”. If there was any occasion when the pet food industry needed to come together and pretend to give a fuck, it was this. The crisis flared up in March, with veterinary organisations reporting more than 100 pet deaths linked to ingestion of the industrial chemical melamine. Less than two weeks into April, one online database was reporting 3,600 deaths. Although the first recalls were announced in the United States by Menu Foods (a contract manufacturer for Proctor and Gamble), the ensuing months would see the recalls spread throughout North America and across the Atlantic into Europe and South Africa. The affected brands would eventually include such well-known doggy and kitty staples as Nestlé Purina Petcare, Hill’s Pet Nutrition (a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive), Royal Canin (a subsidiary of Mars, Inc) and more than a dozen brands owned by American processed foods giant Del Monte.

In May 2008, down in South Africa, a superhero consumer journalist by the name of Wendy Knowler decided to assess the damage to the industry. Under the header “Wonder nutrition or modern scourge?”, Knowler published an article in The Star that asked whether South Africans had suffered a crisis of confidence in their pet food. “Apparently not,” she concluded, citing the executive director of the Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa, who noted that the local market had grown over the previous year by two percent, mainly because of the “upfront way” in which manufacturers had responded to the crisis.

Knowler, shifting up into “bullshit alert” gear, explained it like this: “What the industry has always done very well is discourage pet owners from feeding their cats and dogs anything which doesn’t come out of a bag, pouch or tin.” In other words, no table scraps, no home-cooked meals, no raw meat, and no bones. “In the case of the ‘premium’ brands sold at veterinary practices,” she continued (for ‘premium’ brands, ref above), “the vets strongly advise pet owners to feed their animals solely on packaged food. Coming from someone with a medical degree, it’s a very powerful endorsement. And it’s backed by the SA Veterinary Association.”

Implication being, some dissenting voices were accusing the processed pet food industry of orchestrating a giant scam. As Australian vet Dr Tom Lonsdale, author of the book Work Wonders: Feed Your Dog Raw Meaty Bones, told Knowler: “We as a profession have been led by the nose by vested interests into the current situation, where younger vets actually recommend commercial pet foods as the best available way of feeding domestic pets.” Knowler had a simpler phrase for it, which she borrowed from the (human) medical profession: “perverse incentives”.

Remember the movie Love & Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick, which was based on the non-fiction book by Jamie Reidy Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman? Yes? Well, it goes something like that – a rep for one of the big pharma companies takes the doc to lunch, gets the doc drunk, pays for the doc’s island holiday (listed, in the financial statements, as a medical conference). In South Africa, referring again to the human medical profession, these practices were mostly outlawed in 2004 with the passing of the Perverse Incentives Policy, implemented as part of the Marketing Code of the Medicines Control Act.

But walk into almost any non-human medical practice in this country and you’re likely to see the reception area packed floor to ceiling with pellets from the above-mentioned “premium” brands. It was true when Knowler’s article was published, and it’s true today. Knowler wrote about a 2007 congress for vets at Sun City paid for by Colgate-Palmolive’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition; today you’ll find the same company paying for the Hill’s Global Symposium in Hollywood, a physical and virtual event designed to “inspire and educate veterinarians and veterinary health care team members to use nutrition to improve pets’ lives”.

So what to do? Paul Jacobson, owner of Vondi’s Holistic Pet Nutritionyes, it’s really a thing, and yes, it was founded in Cape Town – said this to Daily Maverick: “You don’t need to spend more on premium, they’re no better for your dogs or cats than the cheap brands, like Epol.”

Sure, Jacobson was talking his own book – which happens to be “all-natural home cooked” – and sure, for every study that says dried kibble pellets are not an appropriate food for your pet, there’s another study (or 10) saying the opposite. But the debate is not the point. The point is the deranged clowns behind the curtain who are controlling the information.

It’s not 2007 any more, Dorothy, and we’re no longer in Kansas. In the last decade, we’ve learned what the private funding of extreme pro-corporate politics can actually do to a planet. While the oil and gas conglomerates have been funnelling billions of dollars into a giant misinformation campaign that pretends to discredit the science behind climate change, the $1.5-trillion Big Food conglomerates have been throwing their money and weight around the developed world’s capitals, casting shade at the (pretty indisputable) fact that the agricultural sector emits more greenhouse gases than transportation, and that monocultures – as former US president Barack Obama said in 2008 – are “partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity.”

President Trump, even if he doesn’t do to the “FDA Food Police” what he threatened to do during the 2016 campaign, will never utter a sentence like that. Which as of today means that Big Food – ie. the conglomerates that also control the global pet food industry – can be a lot less coy about getting what it wants.

And that’s not just bad news for the dogs. DM

Photo by EmmyMic via Flickr.

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