Are Cats Clandestine Consumers?

Are Cats Clandestine Consumers?

I once met with a representative from a meat producer trade group. I thought they might be interested in the work Feline Nutrition was doing to educate people on feeding raw meat diets to pets. One of the questions I asked was whether they had any figures on the amounts or percentages of human-grade meat that was being purchased for pets by consumers. The rep looked genuinely surprised by the question, like it had never occurred to them to ask this particular question. It turned out that it was something they didn't track at all.
Maybe the rep from the meat industry wasn't surprised by the question, but only surprised that someone was asking it. They may be very aware that this is going on, even if they don't actually track the figures. Maybe they don't want to track this particular aspect of meat consumption. There is likely a lot of meat that is going directly to pets. One trade publication lists the average amount of meat eaten by a woman in the US as 4.5 ounces a day. Interestingly, that is almost the exact amount eaten by the average cat per day. So, for every cat that is switched to a raw meat diet, it is like adding a new human consumer to the equation. For many households, it is the pets that consume most of the meat purchased, not the humans. If they don't track who is actually eating the meat, their ideas about human meat consumption in this country might not be accurate at all.
I can look to my own household for a rather dramatic example of this. My husband and I are meat eaters, but, we pretty much only eat poultry and a little fish. We also have many meals that are completely meatless. We purchase around 10 pounds of meat a month for ourselves. But, for our large group of cats - all rescues, all raw fed - we buy about 90 pounds of meat a month. Most cat parents wouldn't need this much, but we haven't even considered raw fed dogs, of which there are many. Adding dogs - one big dog could eat more than all of my cats combined - to the situation may really skew the figures the meat industry uses.
One of the things this rep was honest about was why they felt that they couldn't endorse the feeding of human-grade meats to pets. It wasn't that they were against it, but they were worried that the meat producers they represented might not like it. The producers would worry that the market for all of the non-human-grade parts and leftovers - you know, all of the stuff that goes to the pet food trade - would dry up. That is a huge part of their business and if consumers suddenly only wanted human-grade meats for their pets, well, that would be a problem for them.
One thing I firmly believe is that the raw feeding movement can have a positive impact on the meat industry. We may be the ones to force much needed change in how meat is raised and processed in this country. Ask the average person if raw meat is dangerous and you will get a resounding yes. This idea that raw meat is something to be feared is firmly established in our collective consciousness. We have all heard the dire warnings about cooking meat thoroughly for safety. What many people don't grasp is that meat itself isn't inherently dangerous. Fresh muscle meat from an animal is actually almost sterile. Meat becomes dangerous when it is contaminated from other sources and this contamination is a result of poor practices in how the animal was slaughtered and/or poor practices in how it was raised in the first place. The meat industry has come to depend on the fact that almost 100% of the meat it produces will be cooked, thus killing harmful bacteria that shouldn't be there in the first place.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think the meat industry is all bad. The US has some of the safest meat in the world and much has been done to improve the situation. They are genuinely concerned with this and we all understand that this is not an easy thing. But, as more and more consumers buy human-grade meat to feed to their pets raw, the demand for meat that is pathogen-free will increase. The meat industry will no longer be able to shift the solution to the problem, i.e. cooking it, to the consumer. The industry will have to come up with ways to improve the pathogen situation, hopefully by improving conditions and practices. As with most products, when there is a consumer demand, the market will find a way to meet that demand. Even though healthy adult cats are highly resistant to becoming ill from ingesting small levels of most pathogens, unlike humans who are pretty wimpy in this respect, it is still something we shouldn't have to worry about.
As a group, people who feed raw diets are intensely animal-focused. After all, we feed our pets a raw diet out of a great concern for their health and well-being. That concern for animals doesn't stop at our own pets. We are a little more connected to the fact that our pets are eating other animals than people who dish out the kibble. It's pretty inescapable when you deal daily with raw animal parts. You can't look at your cat's dinner of chicken hearts and liver and pretend that another animal hasn't died to feed your pet. We get that. We don't want those other animals to have suffered or been mistreated for the sake of our animals. As we grow in numbers and become a larger portion of meat-buying consumers, we can demand that meat animals be treated more humanely. Simply by shifting our purchases to more humanely-raised meats, we influence the industry.
Something else that goes hand-in-hand with better practices for meat safety is better quality. People that feed raw meat diets become intensely interested in the nutrient profiles of the meat they feed their pets. They realize that the meat with the best nutritional makeup is from animals raised under better and more natural conditions. Interestingly, many people only start to question the nutritional value of the meat they buy once they are feeding it to their pets. They often don't seek out that information when they are the ones eating it.
There is opportunity for the meat industry in the growing change in demographics that is occurring right now. For example, almost all of the chicken hearts from the US poultry industry are currently exported, even though they are an excellent and sought-after food for raw fed cats. Male chicks, which the poultry growers have no use for, are ground up for feed - sometimes cruelly, but that is a whole other controversy - and they would make an excellent food for cats if sold whole. Rabbit is a great food for cats and dogs, but is not widely grown in the US. I think that the industry can and will adapt as the demands of consumers change. And I also think that as more and more people change what they feed their cats and dogs, that we will be a positive influence on the whole industry, whether they like it or not.
Margaret Gates is the founder the Feline Nutrition Foundation.
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