Thoughts on risk

(Note: This was originally posted to my Livejournal.)

An explanatory note: For those of you who don’t know already, I feed my cats mostly raw food—some of it home-made, some of it commercial—and supplement my forgetfulness and laziness with canned. (Canned is also good for trips out of town when the only available cat-sitters are squicked by feeding raw meat.) The bulk of their raw diet used to consist of ground rabbit (bones inclusive) supplemented with raw chicken liver; rabbit is far too low in fat and fat-soluble vitamins by itself to be a good, balanced diet for cats. I used to do another version, whereby I buy many pounds of whole meat and organs, cut them up so they’re about as big as my thumb, and then feed them to the cats with an accompanying calcium supplement (usually a commercial calcium carbonate supplement, but sometimes I’d use chicken necks rolled around in canned food). And then law school happened, and I gave up on the chunks o’ meat meals because they became far too time-intensive to prepare.

So! To get to my thoughts proper:

The price of the rabbit I get has been going up steadily. It used to cost well under $3/lb., but it’s now pushing $4/lb. At the same time, the price of commercial raw food has been steadily decreasing, especially Nature’s Variety and Primal. It’s now just about as cheap for me to get 2-lb. chubs of Nature’s Variety and Primal as it is for me to make my own food from rabbit.

And in some ways, that kind of worries me. I wonder why the prices are decreasing. Is it due to economic pressure? Raw food is considerably more expensive than just about anything other than super-premium canned food, and when the pressure hits the wallet, downgrades in pet food are often the first thing to happen. A smart raw food manufacturer has a pretty strong interest in keeping their food affordable.

Or is the price decrease due to something else, like increased market efficiency—e.g., these companies are getting their grind from centralized suppliers, who can cut them sweet deals because of the bulk they process? Or are they getting meat from cheaper sources?

Here’s the thing: I don’t trust centralized, industrialized food processing—not for human food, and ESPECIALLY not for pet food. I think the pet food recall scandal taught pet food owners this much: all your food essentially comes from two, maybe three major suppliers. Those labels claiming premium ingredients and premium processes are basically so much horseshit (and y’know, I’m willing to bet that pet food has seen more than its fair share of contamination by shit of various kinds, up to and including the equine variety). Purina vs. Science Diet vs. Natural Balance: they all use the same manufacturer (or used to, anyway—I have no idea whether they’re all still using Menu Foods) and if something big and bad hits one supplier, like, say, fertilizer, rat poison and cyanuric acid, it all gets passed down the food chain. Quality control is iffy enough as it is for pet food; when you’re processing immense quantities of food in slurry form (most of it well on the way out—ask people in the trucking industry what the rendering trucks smell like), implementing any kind of meaningful process or check becomes well-nigh impossible.

So I see these price drops, and I worry a little. I don’t worry about my rabbit supplier, because I know her, and I know her operation is small enough that she can exercise pretty strict quality control, but I have no idea what’s going on with the suppliers for Big Raw, like Nature’s Variety, or Primal.

I’m banking on a few things right now:

1. That the realities of the market are keeping them honest. The big pet food companies hate raw food. HATE. Not only are the raw food companies stealing market share, they’re actively exploding a lot of the myths perpetuated by the pet food companies, like the fact that feeding your pets a balanced diet is impossible unless you buy them something that’s been pre-formulated in a bag or in a can. If Big Raw fucks up, you can bet your ass that the negative press is going to be immediate and massive, and that the repercussions are going to be much bigger. Science Diet is still in business, and so are all the brands implicated in the 2007 pet food recall. I don’t think the raw food companies have the same deep pockets and massive resources that the big pet food companies do.

2. Along the same vein: one of the biggest hurdles raw feeers have to overcome on the way to feeding raw is the fear of food-borne disease like E. coli and Salmonella. Most of us haven’t been lured into the same sort of complacency and trust for our raw food companies yet. I think raw food companies are acutely aware of how paranoid we tend to be, and are toeing the line—for now, at any rate—because they know we’re watching them.

3. It’s somewhat harder to make raw food with rancid meat, or visibly contaminated meat. One of the things I like best about feeding raw is how the food doesn’t really smell like much of anything, and how I can smell something wrong pretty much immediately. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the meat won’t contain a lethal dose of bacteria, or that it won’t be full of pesticides or rat poison, but it does mean that I can spot and eliminate a couple of problems I have with regular pet food. Some control is better than none.

Ultimately, my conscience is pushing me to go back to making my food from scratch, but I don’t have the time or energy right now, so I’m knowingly taking the risk. And it’s all ultimately about risk management. Pick your poison, and hope you choose the right one.

Another, minor thing: My cats eat a LOT. Most companies recommend feeding between 4 to 5 ounces to cats the size of Eric and Hitler. They each eat about 8 ounces a day instead. It’s crazy. And they’re not even remotely overweight.

I have something else I want to say about food and religion (a lot of the pure/impure divide that were governed by religion are now governed by our food choices and how we feed ourselves—organic/conventional, fair trade/unfair(?) trade, local and seasonal/trucked across long distances so we have produce year-round, etc. And holy crap you see this kind of divide among raw feeders. The ones who want to feed vegetables along with the meat vs. the ones who don’t vs. the ones who feed ONLY whole prey vs. the ones who use ground-up meat vs. the ones who use commercial raw vs. the ones who feed only “species-appropriate” prey vs. the ones who think you need to feed only one species per meal at a time. It’s crazy, and crazy-making, and people get really, really passionate about it. It’s fascinating.

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