Dan Murphy: Faux Food for Fido

’Tis the season.

For extravagant Christmas gifts — for pets.

Among all the toys and treats people can lavish upon their pets — er, “companion animals” — there’s no shortage of fancy (and pricey) holiday choices.

How about a classic Santa Suit Doggie Hoodie? Best sized for those miniature breeds that specialize in constant, high-pitched yapping.

Or a holiday-themed plush gingerbread house, complete with adorable gingerbread men squeaky dog chew toys? Because silence isn’t golden when it comes to Christmas.

Or how about an Old World Chocolate Labrador Retriever? No, it’s not edible, even for canines. It’s a glass tree ornament that retails for only $14.99 (with free two-day shipping!).

But when the holidays are over, the decorations all safely stored away and the outdoor lights taken down (feel free to wait until springtime — my neighbors do), what can you do to pamper your pet the other 11 months of the year?

Answer: Invest in non-meat faux food for Fido and Fluffy.

According to an article on Quartz, a Colorado-based start-up is developing cell-cultured non-meat “meats” for cats and dogs, presumably to be marketed to the same folks who forked over fifteen bucks for a fake chocolate Labrador tree ornament.

According to the story, the concept is being pursued by a former ad executive named Rich Kelleman, who is launching the Bond Pets company after he and his wife “struggled to find a pet brand that was healthy and transparent about its ingredients.”

Let’s explore that statement a bit, shall we?

What dogs really crave

As the Quartz article noted, “Pet food can be filled with all sorts of stuff humans might rather not think about — things such as undeveloped eggs, chicken necks, animal bones and hair, even manure.”

Now, anyone who’s ever owned a dog, or watched what they’ll wolf down when they’re hungry, knows that “animal bones and chicken necks” are like chocolate and caviar to a canine. For pet owners who flinch at that thought, the question is, what do you think dogs and their kin eat in the wild?

Certainly not the contents of a bag of doggie chow, to listen to the critics, such as Mr. Kelleman.

“The sourcing of meat proteins [in pet food] is opaque,” he stated in the article. “When we found boutique options that were out there, the science was suspect.”

“Boutique” isn’t a word I’m used to seeing applied to dog and cat food, but given what people will be buying to lavish on their pets this holiday season, it makes sense.

What’s driving Kelleman and others intending to market upscale, organic, vegan pet food is concerns about the formulations found in cat and commercial dog and cat food. Clearly, that’s how they intend to position their pricey pet foods: They’re worth the upscale price tag because they’re not made with “cheap” ingredients that could (allegedly) compromise a pet’s health.

For example: adding corn and wheat gluten as fillers, instead of the lean meat pet food marketers insist your pet is craving. But if you listen to the companies that market upscale human foods, wheat gluten is a whole ’nother story.

Those manufacturers call wheat gluten seitan, which is described as “wheat meat,” a super-nutritious food (so they say) that’s “surprisingly similar to the look and texture of meat when it’s grilled or stir-fried,” according to an article on The Spruce, a lifestyle website that’s obviously taking its cue directly from veggie marketers. “Seitan is also high in protein,” the description continued, “a popular protein alternative for vegetarians and the basis for several commercially available products.”

Those products include such best-sellers as as Tofurky deli slices, Morningstar Farms Vegetarian Sausage Patties, Gardein’s Teriyaki Chick’n Strips and Quorn Meatless Breakfast Sausage Patties — all of which are formulated with soy and/or other plant proteins, plus lots of good old wheat meat.

That doesn’t sound like the “low-quality ingredients big manufacturers like Friskies and Pedigree use in their products,” as the article about test-tube pet food project noted.

In the end, all the hype about vegetarian alternatives and fake meat pet foods has nothing to do with animals’ nutritional needs. It’s all about pet owners’ need to pretend that the cats, dogs and other animals sharing their household actually care about ingredient sourcing or labeling claims describing the farm animals’ lifestyles.

No, wait. I take that back.

Some years ago, when I lived outside a small town in Oregon, a neighbor on a nearby five-acre homestead decided to start raising free-range chickens. Their family dog, an Irish Setter, was really excited about the venture, which allowed the hens to roam freely throughout the property.

In fact, about two weeks after the natural chicken project began, the dog spent an afternoon confirming how much that production method appeals to pets.

He killed and ate all but two of the flock.

I guess how food animals are raised really does make a difference with people’s pets. 


The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator