Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Chicken meal

What do our pets eat?

By
February 18, 2009

Honestly, I don’t know much about pet food. Yes, we’ve run articles on Culinate about it, including an interview with pet-food expert Kymythy Schultze and an essay about making homemade dog food, not to mention taking note of nutritionist and food activist Marion Nestle’s most recent book, Pet Food Politics, about the 2007 melamine-contamination scandal in pet food. But, frankly, I’ve always been a mainstream American pet owner: I buy bagged and canned food for my pets, and they eat it.

Lately, though, I’ve started to feel guilty about the foodie double standard in our household. The humans? Well, the fridge and pantry in our house are stocked with plenty of local/organic/homegrown/holier-than-thou goodies. The cat and the chickens? Not so much.

The nutrition label from our bags of non-organic chick feed.

Let’s take a look at what the cat eats (quite happily, I must say). Dry kibble is her standard fare; I buy her stuff with pseudo-virtuous labels like “natural,” knowing full well that “natural” doesn’t really mean anything, despite the USDA’s recent attempts to define the term for meats. I buy it because the ingredients list is less creepy than the ingredients lists on the other bags of dry cat food, but I’m still not perfectly at ease with it.

It’s the wet food that really creeps me out. (And this glop, of course, is what our cat begs us for every evening, shunning the dry food until she gets a spoonful of goo.) For a buck, I can get three cans of processed meat product festooned with amusingly euphemistic names, like “Prime Fillets” (tripe and lungs, I think, judging by the look of the stuff), or “Mixed Grill,” which makes me think our cat is sitting down to a platter of surf-and-turf at her local steakhouse.

Here’s just one example. The cheapest brand of wet cat food at our local supermarket is called Pet Pride. It’s distributed by the vaguely named Inter-American Products, out of Cincinnati. The Turkey & Giblets Dinner, for example, contains the following ingredients:

Meat by-products, poultry by-products, sufficient water for processing, turkey, poultry giblets, fish, guar gum, salt, titanium dioxide, carrageenan, potassium chloride, sodium tripolyphosphate, vitamins [a long list follows here], minerals [yet another long list], choline chloride, taurine.

OK, so “by-products” always sounds a little scary. Cow bones? Chicken feathers? Who knows? But at least there really are turkey and giblets in the can. Titanium dioxide, however — well, you’re probably more familiar with that as a prime ingredient in sunscreen, or if you paint, as the basis of the color known as titanium white. Yum.

The nutrition label from our bags of organic layer-hen feed.

The cans and bags all also say things like ““nutritionally complete for growth and maintenance.” Well, are they, or are they just meat leftovers with lots of vitamins and minerals thrown in? In an interview, Marion Nestle declared that yes, this claim is valid:

I think the food should be varied, but the complete and balanced stuff is fine. The commercial companies go to a lot of trouble to make sure that complete and balanced really is; they work hard at it. I’m not coming out of this thinking that commercial foods are poison — unless they have melamine in them, of course.

OK, so I guess I feel a little better — although the fact that our cat shuns fresh fish and meat scraps in our kitchen when offered in favor of the commercial stuff does make me wonder whether she’s just addicted to junk.

The same isn’t true of our chickens, who happily eat both their chicken feed (disparagingly referred to around our house as “Monsanto Meal”) along with anything else we throw their way, especially anything green or grub-like.

Do our birds really need chicken feed, or would they get what they need if left to forage for themselves in our yard? Well, if we turned them loose every day, they’d certainly get plenty of greens and grubs and worms and grit (essential for chickens to eat to help grind up their food). But, frankly, as urban chicken owners, we can’t do that; as it is, every time we let the chickens into our front yard to wander around, concerned passersby bang on our front door and yell, “Your chickens are on the loose!”

Which means that the birds spend most of their time in their coop (slim pickings there) and in their run (totally stripped bare by the birds and the winter weather). If we didn’t give them feed, and grit, and oyster shell (to ensure their eggshells are thick and firm), they’d starve. Yes, they eat kitchen scraps. But kitchen scraps alone probably aren’t enough, in quantity or quality.

two eggs
Sometimes a chicken will lay a really, really tiny egg (left) alongside a regular-sized egg (right). It’s normal. Really.

So I contacted the manufacturers of the two brands of chicken feed that we’ve given to our birds over the past year. (We didn’t exactly have much selection in the chicken-feed department; our local feed-and-seed store sells only one type of chick feed and only one type of organic layer feed.) The results to repeated requests for info and chat time? Pretty much what you’d expect: the non-organic feed manufacturer, Albers, practiced a policy of total non-response, while the organic feed manufacturer, Payback Poultry, not only made their employees’ contact info easily available, but those employees actually got back to me. (Both companies are actually subsets of much larger companies: Land O' Lakes/Purina for Albers, and CHS Nutrition for Payback.)

Bruce Kollmann, CHS Nutrition’s Pacific Northwest sales manager, assured me that yes, their Payback Poultry organic products really are certified organic, and that those mysterious “grain products” on the feed label are mostly sourced locally, in Oregon and Washington, and include corn, barley, wheat, peas, and flax. Well, whaddaya know.

OK, so the organic feed includes some soybean meal, imported from — gasp! — China. But so far our chickens haven’t shown any sign of melamine poisoning.

The crucial difference between our chickens and our cat, of course, is that we eventually eat what our chickens eat, in the form of the eggs they lay. And those eggs are still mighty tasty.

Am I going to try to make my own chicken feed or cat food? Not likely. Am I still going to feel guilty about it? Probably. Am I going to worry about eating our chickens’ eggs? Just a little.

But the cat and the chickens seem pretty content.

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1. by Cynthia Lair on Feb 21, 2009 at 1:48 PM PST

Hi Caroline,
One of the classes I teach at Bastyr University is on “How to Teach a Cooking Class”. Students design their own class and practice teach it. This semester I have a student who is teaching a class on feeding dogs. I applaud. I feel that we do with dogs sort of what we do with babies - accept that we don’t have the knowledge to feed them correctly and let Gerber or Wysong figure it out for us. The result is that both get dry lifeless stuff that they all seem to manage to survive in spite of. People seem to paint the choice balck and white - hours of extra labor in the kitchen and extra food expense - or the ease and convenience of a bag or jar. In reality you save oodles when you give your pets and babies real food because you save on medical bills. And the time thing - well if you’re eating well yourself it’s not so hard to put some brown rice, chopped up parsley and some raw beef or chicken in your pet’s bowl. It can be just an extension of what you’re already fixing for breakfast or dinner.

2. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 21, 2009 at 3:07 PM PST

Cynthia -- Thanks for your comments. I do think the choice feels black and white: it IS more time and expense to buy and make your own pet food, and the corporate products ARE easier to buy and dump in a bowl.

Obviously pets have done just fine for millennia by eating human scraps. But as I pointed out, our chickens’ scavenging options (including our dinner scraps) simply aren’t enough for them. And our cat absolutely refuses to eat our scraps unless it’s dairy products. Fresh salmon? No way. Ice cream? Bring it on. Somehow I doubt that a feline diet of Haagen-Dazs is nutritionally complete.

I know there’s controversy over the whole “do pets really need special diets designed for them” idea (some vets say yes, some pet owners say no). I’m just going on what our pets seem to need and want, and frankly, I’m not willing to inflate my already far-too-spendy grocery budget to buy and make things for them that they might shun.

Human babies, however, are a different matter. They eat what we do — no worries about “is the baby getting a baby-appropriate diet” — and I am perfectly willing to make homemade baby food instead of buying Gerber.

Besides, if the baby shuns it, I can always eat it myself. I’m less enthused about picking up leftovers from the floor of the chicken run.

3. by Hilary Cable on Feb 22, 2009 at 2:24 PM PST

I cook for my cat. It takes a couple of hours a week and has made a huge difference in his health. As for expense, it’s cheaper for me to make it with the same meat and vegetables I would eat than it is to buy the prescription stuff my vet sells (that was conditionally recalled in 2007). My cat was eating prescription food because the dry stuff he loved have him a urinary-tract disorder and made his skin itch constantly. I’ve been cooking for him for two years April. I figure every dollar I spend on his food is a dollar I don’t give the vet :) Kudos to Cynthia - yes, it takes research to figure out what pets (and babies) need. Worth it, though. Now a flock of hungry chickens? I have no idea what they eat!

4. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 23, 2009 at 11:57 AM PST

There are plenty of books out there with recipes for cooking homemade grub for your cats and dogs — including Kymythy Schultze’s Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats. But I’m not aware of any books specifically about concocting your own chicken feed at home . . .

5. by caleb bo baleb on Feb 24, 2009 at 9:42 PM PST

One of the amazing thing about animals, including humans, is that we convert nutrients in plants into simplified, concentrated forms. This is at least true of protein and of vitamin A.

Chickens are protein-extracting machines. They take the 16% protein in their whole wheat feed and convert it into eggs - roughly one each day - that has a yolk which is 50% protein.

If we gave them steak instead of Monsanto Meal, they would not produce more protein. Higher protein feeds might help them gain wait and bulk up for the broiler, but it isn’t going to make our eggs any better.

Does organic feed matter? Yes. Does a varied diet matter? Yes. Do we get any practical benefits if we stop giving them livestock feed as their primary diet? No.

Most of all, freshness matters. Our eggs are delicious.

6. by stefanie on Feb 25, 2009 at 11:25 AM PST

I lost my beloved cat to melamine-laced pet food. The horror of poisoning him with my own hands led me to decide that if I ever got another pet, I would feed it human-quality food. After two years of feeling like I did not deserve to caretake living creatures, I finally have two new cats, and I make them raw food. Every other Sunday, I grind up two whole chickens, add organ meats and supplements, and stick it in the freezer in two-cup containers. It costs me about 10 dollars a week to feed two cats a species-appropriate diet. I can’t believe I ever fed an animal the meat-flavored cereal that passes for pet food. Hopefully, it won’t take the tragedy of losing a pet to get more people to think clearly--and lose the complacency--about what to feed their animal companions.

7. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 25, 2009 at 1:05 PM PST

Stefanie — I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your cat. But I don’t think you should feel guilty about feeding your cat melamine-laced pet food; after all, you weren’t the one adding the poison to his food. Neither were the parents who thought that buying jars of peanut butter would be safe for their kids.

Someday we might find a source of raw food for our cat that we deem both cheap enough and wholesome enough (i.e., not Tyson leftovers) for her to eat. In the meantime, we’d have to wean her from the “kitty crack” she clearly prefers (do you think pet-food manufacturers add MSG to their products?) over fresh whole foods. And yes, $10 a week sounds perfectly reasonable — although right now we’re spending about a buck a week to feed her.

As for our chickens, they’re clearly living in a miniature version of a CAFO: a confined animal feeding operation. Of course, they have room to roam and roost and lay, far more than battery chickens do. But they’d almost certainly be happier if, say, they had a few acres of their own to explore every day. And our property just isn’t big enough for that.

Those delicious eggs they lay for us? Totting up all the money we’ve put into coop and run construction, chicken supplies, and regular purchases of organic feed, scratch, grit, and shell, we’re not exactly saving the big bucks. But yes, they’re tasty.

8. by Caroline Cummins on Mar 4, 2009 at 10:59 AM PST

Fun fact: The 2008 edition of Hoover's Handbook of Private Companies breaks down Land o’Lakes products/operations by 2006 sales:

Dairy foods: 46 percent of total sales
Feed: 38 percent
Seed: 11 percent
Layers: 5 percent

And you thought they just made butter.

9. by Hilary Billington on Mar 30, 2010 at 2:42 PM PDT

Caroline-
I have to laugh because I too live in Portland, OR and I too have chickens (1 year old layers) and I too have started to question the Organic feed that I’ve been giving them. So when I googled Pay-Back chicken Feed - your article came up. And the good news is that we do have a chicken food choice: Q-Bar Farm in Dayton OR is making their own Non-GMO, no corn, no soy, all locally grown in dayton, chicken meal. It’s not organic, but I believe they are working on that. The only draw back is that I can only find it at 2 stores in SE - Concentrates NW, and Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply.
Thanks for doing the leg work to help me make the decision that Yes, I do want to switch what I’ve been giving my girls. Next, I want to see if I can get Linnton to sell it - as they are also my local feed store.

10. by caleb bo baleb on Apr 7, 2010 at 11:07 PM PDT

The Urban Farm Store in Portland also has a custom organic layer mash. Our birds love it but make a mess of it - which must be part of why the Payback is more efficient.

I’ll definitely check out what Naomi’s has to offer.

11. by Michael House on Aug 10, 2011 at 8:35 PM PDT

Here in Salt Lake there are reports of mercury in the eggs of local urban chix. The only conclusion is to feed organic.

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