Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. One of the country’s most outspoken critics of the food industry, she has published widely on food politics. Debra Weinstein spoke to her about her recent book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008)
You have had a distinguished career writing about food and nutrition. Why have you turned your attention to pets at this time?
I hope you are not suggesting that food for pets is somehow less worthy of academic inquiry than food for people. I view pet foods as a logical extension of my work, not a departure. I am interested in the social and institutional forces that influence food production and consumption. The same agricultural system that produces food for people also produces food for pets and farm animals. Animals eat the same foods we do — just the parts that we are unwilling to eat. For example, we slaughter 35 million beef cattle annually in this country but are willing to eat only about half the animal. The other half would be wasted if pets and farm animals didn’t eat it, which would present a monumental disposal problem. So: pet foods perform an important public service.
Can you talk about the pet food industry?
Americans own about 165 million dogs and cats. On the consumption side of the food chain, we buy about $17 billion worth of pet foods annually. Pet foods are big business. From a nutritional standpoint, they are especially interesting; like infant formula, they provide complete nutrition in one package. The products are branded, packaged, and marketed to appeal to pet owners as well as the animals. One other connection to human food is that most brands are marketed by major food and consumer product companies: Nestlé (no relation), Mars, Del Monte, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive.
What can we do to protect our food supply?
I am hoping this book will turn readers into food safety advocates. This means grass roots political action and the exercise of democratic rights as citizens. Write your congressional representatives! Tell them you want a stronger and more effective FDA or, better yet, an independent food safety agency that oversees the food supply from farm to table. Tell them you won’t buy imported food from countries that don’t enforce food safety rules. Tell them you want country-of-origin labeling to be taken seriously and enforced. And in the meantime, buy local, buy organic, and be careful about food safety at home.