It might be called Beef Meal or Chicken Meal, but most ‘meat meals’ contain very little beef or chicken…meat.
It’s another frustrating challenge for pet owners. The pet food label says Beef Meal or Chicken Meal. That means it has beef or chicken in it right? Not quite. Beef Meal or Chicken Meal might have parts of a cow and parts of a chicken in it, but it’s not necessarily the same kind of beef or chicken as in human food. Not even close.
And the problem magnifies because pet food manufacturers are not required to tell pet owners exactly what is in their ‘meat’ meal.
What is a ‘meat’ meal? And what’s in a ‘meat’ meal?
Probably the biggest mistake is to term these ingredients a ‘meat’ meal. (I’ve made the same mistake many times.) This mistake is made because the language of pet food is very different than the language of pet owners (or any average consumer). To understand what you are feeding your pet, it’s (sad, but true) necessary to understand the language of pet food.
Any animal protein pet food ingredient that includes the word ‘meal’ behind it – is a rendered ingredient.
In the USDA document “Rendering, Carcass Disposal, a Comprehensive Review” rendering is defined as: “A process of using high temperature and pressure to convert whole animal and poultry carcasses or their by-products with no or very low value to safe, nutritional, and economically valuable products. It is a combination of mixing, cooking, pressurizing, fat melting, water evaporation, microbial and enzyme inactivation.“
From the rendering industry trade association, the rendering process itself is diagrammed below. Raw material is ground (sizing), cooked, pressed to remove fat, the remaining material is ground again and becomes a ‘meal’ ingredient.
The ‘meal’ ingredients are a powdery substance that looks (exactly) like this:
Though it has NO resemblance to meat, the above picture is a load of ‘meat’ meal being unloaded at a pet food manufacturing plant (provided by a pet food manufacturing employee).
Why do pet food manufacturers use ‘meal’ animal protein ingredients instead of meat ingredients?
One reason could be is that ‘meal’ ingredients are simpler to store and transport for pet food manufacturers. Meal ingredients are transported by rail cars or by truck dump trailers to pet food manufacturers un-refrigerated. Meat ingredients on the other hand would require freezing or refrigeration to prevent spoilage.
Meal ingredients are stored at a pet food plant in large bins that (can) look like this:
The picture below is a Google Earth image of a kibble pet food plant in Oklahoma. You can see similar bins in the image, along with two trucks and a rail car (left side) that appear to be delivering ingredients to this pet food plant.
Needless to say, it is A LOT more economical for a pet food manufacturer to have delivered and store animal protein ingredients un-refrigerated than refrigerated. But, convenience is not the only reason many pet food manufacturers use meat meal ingredients. From Purina: “If we tried to use all chicken breasts for example, which are about 75% moisture, to make kibble, it would be way too watery and would not come out properly through the extrusion process.”
What types of animal protein is in meal ingredients?
For the answer to that question, we turn to what the rendering industry itself tells the public. A rendering industry trade publication – Waste Advantage – states:
“The majority of the waste material that is processed in rendering comes from slaughterhouses and can include fatty tissue, bones and other processing offal. Offal is the parts of an animal that are not fit for human consumption, such as organs, blood and feathers. Almost 30 percent of an animal’s live weight ends up as offal, which would be expensive to dispose of and wasted if not for the rendering process.“
From a slaughtered cow, what is used for human food is diagrammed below (from Cattle-Empire.net).
Add into consideration, after the cuts of meat diagrammed above are removed, most of the remaining meat is then removed by mechanical separation and sold for human consumption (hot dogs, bologna).
This leaves – for rendering into a beef meal pet food ingredient – little to no actual muscle meat (meat). What’s left is basically bones and internal organs (those that are not used for human consumption such as liver). The same would be true for any other ‘meat’ meal ingredient (such as Chicken Meal, or Lamb Meal).
There is one more piece of pet food language that pet owners can benefit from regarding animal protein meal ingredients. And that is the type of rendering facility the animal protein parts are manufactured at.
In 2004, the Congressional Research Service provided a report to Congress titled “Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy“.
This report to Congress explains there are two types of rendering facilities; “Integrated plants” and “Independent operations“.
Integrated rendering plants are defined as facilities that “operate in conjunction with animal slaughter and meat processing plants“. Integrated rendering facilities are attached to a USDA inspected slaughter facility and process what was described above – what is left over from the processing of an animal for human food.
From the CRS document: “These plants also render inedible byproducts (including slaughter floor waste) into fats and proteins for animal feeds and for other ingredients.” This means that the material that is rendered from integrated rendering plants (attached to a USDA inspected slaughter facility) is not only the parts of a USDA inspected and passed animal not consumed by humans, it is also parts of a slaughtered animal that were rejected for use in human food (condemned material).
Many pet foods will tell you their meal ingredients are “sourced from USDA inspected facilities“. “Sourced from” guarantees the pet owner nothing. The above described “waste” is sourced ‘from’ USDA inspected facilities, rendered on site and sold to pet food. Being ‘from’ a USDA inspected facility doesn’t guarantee a pet owner the meal is quality or meat; “waste” comes ‘from’ USDA inspected facilities.
While integrated rendering facilities “handle 65%-70% of all rendered material“, independent rendering facilities process the rest.
“These plants usually collect material from other sites using specially designed trucks. They pick up and process fat and bone trimmings, inedible meat scraps, blood, feathers, and dead animals from meat and poultry slaughter houses and processors (usually smaller ones without their own rendering operations), farms, ranches, feedlots, animal shelters, restaurants, butchers, and markets.”
These are some pictures of an independent rendering facility provided by a neighbor of the facility:
Should you give your pet a food with a ‘meal’ ingredient?
No one can make that decision for you. It’s a personal decision. However you can ask your pet food manufacturer for some clarity to exactly what is in their meal ingredients in order to make an informed decision.
Example questions are:
- is the meal sourced from an integrated rendering facility or an independent rendering facility?
- are ingredients used to make the meal from 100% edible sources (USDA inspected and passed sources)?
- can you guarantee me that NO waste or inedible material is included in the meal?
- what is the percentage of muscle meat in the meal?
What can pet owners do?
Improved pet food ingredient definitions have been submitted to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) in hopes to provide clarity to pet owners in their pet food purchasing decisions. Our proposed definitions have just entered the first step of the AAFCO process. If they survive this step (we have high hopes), the next step will be submitting them for discussion to the AAFCO Ingredient Definitions Committee. When we move onto the next step, we’ll need pet owners to become active reaching out to the state AAFCO representatives to move through the process in a prompt manner.
In the meantime, ask your pet food manufacturer to provide you with a written guarantee to exactly what is included in their Beef Meal or Chicken Meal or any other meal ingredient. If you are trusting your pet’s life with their pet food, they SHOULD be more than willing to provide you with a written guarantee.
Wishing you and your pet(s) the best,
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