Here at THE PACK we’ve barked ourselves hoarse about the environmental damage caused by the production of meat-based pet food, as well as the health risks. More recently, we explored the reasons why meaty dog chow is currently so much cheaper than the plant-based version, despite the obvious costs associated with raising animals for food. Spoiler – it’s barking mad!
Yet we’re seeing increasing evidence that this situation is no longer sustainable. Our existing, meat-reliant food system is broken, with producers struggling to supply animal meat to consumers, meet demand for ‘high welfare’ products and keep dairy, eggs and meat affordable as the cost of living rises. So what’s really going on behind the scenes?
From bird flu to a bowlful of bacteria
You may have read recent reports of thousands of seabirds dying in a bird flu outbreak in the UK. Devastating as this is, avian influenza isn’t just impacting wild birds: it all began with an epidemic which affected captive birds, namely chickens. There have now been more than 120 outbreaks in the UK this year and the same deadly strain of avian influenza virus has infected tens of millions of chickens across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. More than 77 million ‘food’ birds have been culled to curb the spread of the virus and, consequently, we’re seeing reductions in supplies of poultry for both human and pet consumption.
What’s more, the meat and eggs that are available risk losing their ‘high welfare’ labelling. When bird flu broke out in the UK last winter, the government ordered that all birds be kept indoors, meaning free-range eggs were unavailable throughout the entire country for five weeks. For many animal-loving pawrents, buying ‘high welfare’ meat-based pet food has been an ethical compromise. But this is increasingly challenging, especially given that the higher the welfare, the higher the price tag – and most of us have less disposable income than we did six months ago.
Currently bird flu is very low risk to pawrents, but there are worries that the viruses could mutate to infect humans and cause a pandemic. Meanwhile, there’s a real, immediate zoonotic risk we should be worrying about… the link between raw meat dog food and biosecurity. According to the major veterinary organisations, raw meat can introduce bad bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, and even parasites, into our pets and into our homes. An FDA study has shown that raw pet food is more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria than other types of pet food, and studies show that raw meat could cause a public health risk.
With all this in mind, is that chicken-meat dog food really worth the trouble?
Animal farmers are facing ruff times
Now the meat industry is facing even more economic pressure from the conflict in Ukraine and the rising cost of living.
The war in Ukraine has negatively impacted imports and exports to the UK, with cattle prices rising 72p above the five-year average as the costs of labour, energy and feed grain prices escalate. The latter, animal feed, is a major issue because Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of the global wheat trade, causing a 30% increase in cost as this supply disappears. Pork production has also been impacted by these rapidly rising feed prices. In fact, the low cost of pork compared to the cost of production has led some pork producers to significantly reduce the number of pigs they keep, or even stop pig farming altogether. This comes after thousands of pigs were culled in 2021 due to a shortage of skilled butchers and slaughterhouse workers post Brexit and the COVID pandemic.
Let’s go back to chickens. Russia normally exports poultry to developing world countries and, with those exports gone, these countries are now looking to Europe for supply. That means additional strain on European markets, including the UK, for poultry. Adding to this pressure, and of course the loss of birds in the influenza outbreaks, we’ve lost a big chunk of our poultry imports. This is because Poland used to be the largest poultry exporter to the UK (accounting for 20% of all our poultry imports) but they’re now keeping their chickens for their own consumption and to feed refugees.
These problems are plaguing an already vulnerable industry. Research by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in the UK says spiralling costs have forced some farmers to make significant changes, with others going out of business. These costs include the price of fertiliser (which has trebled in price this year), the red diesel used for tractors and other farming machinery (which has doubled in price) and the general cost of living (farmers need to feed themselves too, as well as heat their homes and farms). Naturally these things also impact arable farmers but for animal farmers struggling to afford feed, it’s the icing on a grim cake. The NFU surveyed 610 dairy farmers and 525 arable farmers and found that 7% of dairy farmers (840 farms) are considering stopping milk production by 2024.
A shortage of pig, cow and chicken meat, and even eggs and dairy, seems inevitable. And the meat that is on the shelves is going to need to be more expensive to cover farmers’ costs. That includes pet food. We’re already seeing the price of pet products soar: according to the UK Consumer Prices Index, they’ve increased by more than 6% since 2021.
Meat-based dog food can’t keep up with demand
In the last decade, the value of global pet food sales has increased from 60 billion dollars to 103 billion dollars, a 71% increase. As the human population continues to grow and more of us become pawrents, the availability of ingredients will naturally need to increase to keep up with the growth in pet food sold. At the moment, a significant percentage of those ingredients are animal meat and, according to industry experts, the average animal protein content in pet food has been increasing over time.
Often pawrents assume that by feeding meat-based pet food, they’re simply using up inedible ‘by-products’ of meat produced for human consumption. But, actually, the ever-increasing demand for ‘human-grade’ meaty dog food, including those raw meat diets, requires extra meat production. Cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals are being bred and killed specifically for dog food, rather than our pups using up our leftovers.
In the US, this situation is so dire that demand for meat-based pet food is already exceeding the amount of meat being produced. A recent paper prepared for presentation at the 2022 Agricultural & Applied Economics Association Annual Meeting in California states that “animal protein production is growing at a slower pace than pet food production”. To put it another way, the amount of meaty pet food produced in the US has been growing at a faster rate than animals slaughtered for human consumption. Rather than simply ‘using up’ by-products, all those pups wolfing down animal meat are fuelling demand for production of more animal meat.
With all the pressures discussed above, how long will producers be able to meet this demand?
The animal-based food system, which includes meaty dog food, is becoming increasingly vulnerable. Remember those empty shelves we saw in supermarkets during the COVID pandemic? Well, you might soon be confronted with the same picture in the meat-based pet food aisle.
Yet there’s a simple solution: switch to a dog diet that doesn’t rely on a fragile system based on animal exploitation. A plant-based diet that meets all your dog’s nutritional needs and is healthier for them, for other animals and for the planet. A ‘vegan’ diet that won’t be brutally hit by bird flu, slaughterhouse worker shortages, or rising feed and energy costs.
In doing so, you’ll be securing a more sustainable future for your shopping list, your pup’s long-term health and happiness, and the planet that we all share.