Bad science and the big pet food companies
I recently settled one of my sons into university. He is a natural scientist, a keen biologist and, being a passionate animal lover, deeply concerned about habitat loss. Despite this he has decided to study politics and philosophy. Why? He felt that he didn’t want to spend his professional life scrabbling around for the money required to undertake the sort of uncommercial research he is interested in pursuing. His mother and I tried to persuade him to change his mind (he is a natural scientist, interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake) but the more I think about it, the more I understand his decision.
Science is not in a good place at the moment. True science is based on repeated evidence-gathering and the testing of falsifiable hypotheses. It aims to produce more and more accurate explanations of how the natural world works, what its components are, and how it got to be the way it is now. The knowledge built by science must always be open to question and revision. Why? Because science is always looking for new evidence. Ideas which are accepted one day (that ultra-processed kibble is good for dogs, for example, or that routine annual vaccination of dogs is harmless) may be rejected or modified by new evidence in the future. Science is there to explain and, to a lesser extent, to predict.
Unfortunately, and we frequently see it in the world of pet food, there is a lot of bad science out there. Here are some of the ways in which science is being used to defend the indefensible:
- Sensationalised headlines. When scientists release their findings, they will often oversimplify the results. They may also sensationalise and even misrepresent them. This is often at the request of whoever is funding the research. We see it a lot with research into canine health and nutrition which is almost entirely funded by the major pet food and veterinary pharmaceutical companies.
- Misinterpreted results. Again, commonplace in the world of canine health and nutrition research. Findings are distorted to support something which is, in fact, not true or unproven.
- Conflicts of interest. If Nestle, Mars or one of the other global pet food companies sponsors research into dog food there is automatically a conflict of interest. They make millions of pounds of profit a year in the UK alone from selling ultra-processed kibble and wet food, so they are hardly going to support genuinely independent research into it.
- Correlation and causation. You know the famous Mark Twain quote ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ – well this is similar. A correlation between subjects doesn’t always mean that one is causing the other. I believe that the main reason for obesity in dogs is ultra-processed food. Certainly, with the rise in popularity of kibble and canned food, dogs have got heavier and heavier. But – and this is the crucial point – there may be other causes. For example, it could be because dogs are receiving less exercise or more treats. Good science proves that one thing causes another.
- Unsupported conclusions. As someone who reads a great number of scientific papers, I am amazed at how often they draw unsupported conclusions. Speculation (not always a bad thing) is rife in the world of research and often leads to sensationalised headlines (see above).
- Inadequate sample sizes. This is one of the biggest areas for concern in research into canine health. To prove, for example, that a dog food is complete a manufacturer only has to trial it on six dogs. All the official recommendations on the amount of zinc that dogs need are based on a 1991 study on ‘the effects of two levels of zinc intake on growth and trace element status in eight Labrador puppies’. Larger sample sizes are clearly needed to get representative and replicable results. Incidentally, most studies do not last long enough to really prove their point. It takes up to two years for some nutritional deficiencies in dogs to show up… but trials only have to be for six months.
- Unrepresentative samples. It’s important that the subjects chosen for research are representative of the group you wish to learn about. For example, everyone’s currently interested in learning about the canine biome but there are a great number of reasons why that biome may differ from dog to dog – not least diet. Will the researchers take this into account when they choose their subjects? We can only hope so.
- Lack of a control group. In any clinical trial there should always be a control group – i.e. a group who aren’t given the substance/food/whatever being tested. The control group must be of the same nature as the sample group. You won’t find mention of control groups in much of the canine research that is conducted.
- Lack of blind testing. The avoid bias it is important that subjects don’t know whether they are in the test or control group. Not as important when testing dog food, of course, but an important factor when it comes to medication, supplements etc..
- Selective reporting. Researchers (pushed by their funders) may cherry pick data to prove a point ignoring factors that suggest a different conclusion.
- Unreplicable results. It is generally considered important that a piece of research can be replicated and that if this happens the results will be the same. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Very little research into canine nutrition is ever replicated.
- Lack of proper review. Scientists bang on about the importance of peer reviewing. This means that before research can be published it should be reviewed by independent experts. However, such appraisals are often a joke since those doing the appraisal and critique may have a vested interest in approving it. Supposing you are a scientist looking for funding from Mars – you are hardly going to knock research by another scientist who has already been funded by Mars.
You will have gathered from the above that I have a low opinion of almost all the research I study – and I study every paper on canine nutrition that I come across.
The core problem is that very little true scientific research is being carried out into the connection between canine health and nutrition.
The ultra-processed pet food companies clearly have no interest in funding such research since it would, without question, reveal that they are selling food that damages rather than supports canine health.
The raw food pet food companies don’t have the money to fund more than the occasional study (such as the one we conducted a couple of years ago).
Members of the raw food movement – I am thinking particularly of those who feed their dogs a species appropriate diet – doubtless feel that research is pointless. They have seen the benefits of raw feeding for themselves, so why spend money proving something which (to them) is self-evident?
Last week I wrote about why so many veterinary professionals are sceptical about species appropriate feeding and pointed out that a major reason is the perception that it hasn’t been ‘scientifically proven’. I would argue that this isn’t true. There is lots of hard evidence that species appropriate feeding is both safe and beneficial. There is also lots of hard evidence (see above) that ultra-processed food is being supported and defended by ‘bad science’. Hopefully, those sceptical vets will begin to wake up to the fact that they are being duped.