The FDA's Dog Food Investigation Needs to Be Put on a Leash

The FDA should put its dog dietetics on the short leash and focus on the issues it was designed to address.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has perhaps the widest umbrella of responsibility of any federal agency, ranging from medication testing to e-cigarette (dis)approval to making sure meat is fit for human consumption. Unfortunately, the FDA has gone to the dogs by biting off more than it can chew (and inspect).

Skepticism Surrounding the FDA's Dog Food Investigation

Despite the agency’s horrendous track record in trying to figure out the “ideal” human diet, the FDA is dispensing dietary data to some 80 million of our canine friends across the country. The FDA is pushing dubious data showing a link between dog food and heart disease, scaring owners across the country into dumping their good boys’ favorite brands. Federal bureaucrats should quit barking up the wrong tree and leave the dietetics to Dogster magazine, a noted authority on doggie health care.

When food for pets or people is tainted with a dangerous contaminant, Americans can rightfully expect the FDA to take prompt action and get the food off the shelves. But mission creep abounds as the agency finds itself on a quest to figure out if some doggie foods are causing a heart issue known as canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

The FDA hasn’t done its due diligence, failing to examine whether there is some other factor underlying reported DCM cases and grain-free diets.

The FDA reports that cases of DCM are on the rise, particularly among breeds not known to have a genetic predisposition toward the disease. Indeed, reports submitted to the FDA about the disease have spiked since 2018, but maybe, just maybe, reports increased because “the agency notified the public about the potential DCM/diet issue in July 2018.”

Of around 500 confirmed cases, the study reports that 91 percent of the sick dogs were on grain-free diets at least some of the time. Such a link is certainly plausible since pet nutrition is a fairly new field. But the FDA hasn’t done its due diligence, failing to examine whether there is some other factor underlying reported DCM cases and grain-free diets. As veterinarian bills are not cheap, owners obtaining DCM diagnoses for their pets are likely to have more income to spend on providing proactive care for their furry friends.

These high-earning, empathetic canine parents also have huskier pet food budgets and are likely to hound Petco employees for the best and most premium brands of dog food. These luxury brands are almost always grain-free. Thus, it’s hardly a surprise that formal heart disease diagnoses and fancy diets go together. Even the FDA acknowledges that DCM in canines is a “complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”

The FDA Is Playing Catch-Up

That sort of humility, however, hasn’t stopped the FDA from drawing spurious links between diet and disease before. For decades, the agency pushed a definition of “healthy” that fed into the prevailing dogma that high-carb, sugary foods were good for consumers if they were low in fat. In 2015, the FDA barred KIND bars from (reasonably) claiming on labels that their high-fat, nut-centric snacks were healthy. Meanwhile, the agency gave carby snacks such as muffins a pass.

Even as nutrition science has begun to recognize that high-fat diets can be an important part of weight loss and a healthy lifestyle, the FDA is taking years to play catch-up. According to food scholar Baylen Linnekin, the agency has also drawn a dubious distinction between natural and added sugars, compounding consumer confusion and “stigmatizing foods with added sugar that may contain far less total sugar than that same orange juice.”

By pushing out preliminary, misleading results, the FDA is digging itself into a hole with taxpayer resources better spent elsewhere.

Fortunately, consumers and pet parents don’t need the FDA to dictate food choices. There’s plenty of solid nutrition reporting, which turns conventional wisdom on its head on a daily basis. Taxpayer dollars are better spent guarding consumers against compromised products, such as pig ear dog treats tainted with salmonella. Contamination threats require quick action and a centralized, coordinated plan of attack best suited for the FDA.

In contrast, finding out which foods and treats are healthy over the long-term requires the measured collection of information from multiple authorities. By pushing out preliminary, misleading results, the FDA is digging itself into a hole with taxpayer resources better spent elsewhere. The agency should put its doggone dietetics on the short leash and focus on the pressing issues it was designed to address.

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