Categories: Eat, Small Dog Nutrition-Published On: August 28, 2022-

I pride myself on being scrupulously careful when it comes to what I feed my two Havanese, and contaminated dog food is obviously not on that list. But this month, I found cattle hair…an entire little square of it, embedded in my dogs’ premium freeze-dried raw dog food. But before I noticed that lovely bit of bovine, I spied a streak of green across the top of another piece from the same bag of food.

You can see for yourself, here:

Vital Essentials Nugget with Green Something

Vital Essentials Nugget with Green Coloring or Debris

Vital Essentials Nugget with Cattle Hair

Vital Essentials Nugget with Cattle Hair

What Vital Essentials Says About Cattle Hair and Green Food Particles in Raw Dog Food

This is a food on which I’ve done extensive research, used for a well over a year with my own precious girls, and recommended on our website and Amazon shop. It’s a company that seemed to be doing everything right in terms of US-sourced, pasture-raised meats. And they have been mostly responsive.

When I found the material, I grabbed my macro lens for my iPhone and snapped a couple of closeups. I then reached out to Vital Essentials late on a Friday, and to their credit, they did respond before the weekend was up, with some initial theories:

Typically bone pieces may have hair left on them if they aren’t cleaned all the way at the harvesting facility.  While our production team does their best to eliminate any product received with hair on it, some raw material will sneak by and find its way into final production.

Vital Essentials obtains our protein meats and organs from several different USDA certified harvesting facilities.  Each supplier’s products will vary slightly (color & cut) based on harvesting techniques as well as what their USDA official deems appropriate. The green coloring is seen on the raw material received from our suppliers and is safe for our pets to eat.

Red Havanese on beach looking up

Do we LOOK convinced?

They also asked that I send the nuggets back to them so they could better examine the issue, and they sent me a mailing label, offering to provide a replacement bag as well.

I declined the replacement bag (I won’t be feeding the girls this now), but I initially agreed to return the substandard nuggets. I later changed my mind about mailing them back, as I figured it was best to retain custody until the matter was resolved.

Denatured Meats in Premium Dog Food?

When I didn’t hear more back from the company, I reached out again this past week and asked for more information about what had happened with this bag of food. Jason Goddard, Director of Quality Assurance for Carnivore Meat (producer of Vital Essentials Freeze Dried Raw, among other foods), provided the following expanded answer:

We did have discussions with our supplier after my last communication to you to gain further clarification regarding the green “ink”.  They communicated it is a denaturant that incidentally got onto one of the edible meat components they supply to us.  They explained the denaturant is applied to inedible meat components by a USDA inspector.  Given the close proximity of the edible and inedible components at the time the denaturant is applied, there are isolated occurrences of “overspray” of the denaturant onto the edible meat components.  They are working with the USDA inspector to prevent this from happening in the future.  They did confirm that the denaturant is a food grade.

What the FDA Will Have To Say About Denaturing, Cattle Hair, and Dog Food

Wooden handled stamp next to "Approved" circle in red

While the company might be providing a plausible explanation, I have no real way of knowing. So, I’ve reached out to the FDA to find out, and I’ve forwarded to them the pet food company’s explanations regarding cattle hair and denaturing product in the dog food.

Dog Food Regulation, The FDA, and Pet Parents

So, both the FDA and the USDA play a role in dog food regulation, and I will be talking to both government entities about my particular concern. Apparently, however, getting a clear answer is a Herculean task. Indeed, Susan Thixton, of consumer advocacy group The Truth About Pet Food, fought for years to win a pet parent stakeholder meeting with the FDA.

Since 2011, Susan has attended nearly every pet food regulatory meeting, but it’s my understanding that being allowed to attend doesn’t mean you’re able to provide input. Because the FDA talks with pet food companies all the time, she felt it only fair that we dog and cat guardians provide regular input as well. And it appears that, after her hard-fought battles, such a meeting will be taking place next month. I’ll look forward to seeing the replay, assuming they’re allowed to record it.

close up of hand holding white card with blue lettering reading "food safety" and cation reading "it's up to all of us"

In the meantime, while I’m waiting for clarification from the FDA, I’m not taking chances feeding my dogs potentially contaminated dog food. So, no more Vital Essentials food in this house or on my Amazon shop.

So, what’s a pet parent to do?

What Freeze-Dried Raw We Still Feed Our Small Dogs

Closeup of bag of Instinct Dog Food

Well, for now, I’m still feeding Instinct Freeze Dried Raw (affiliate link) (the one that undergoes the HPP high-pressure processing that kills any potential raw pathogens.) And I’m also returning temporarily to feeding Stella & Chewy’s (affiliate link), but rather than the “lil bites” that aren’t little enough for Scout’s mouth, I’m going to use patties and break them up myself.

Closeup of red back of Stella & Chewy's Surf N Turf Freeze Dried Dinner Patties

Having said that, revisiting the dog food safety issue has me wanting more guarantees. I’ve downloaded  Susan Thixton’s The Guide 2022: Foods I Would Feed My Own Pet. In my mind, Susan’s investigative work and the annual conversations she has with truly ethical pet food companies are unrivaled.  The Guide is comprehensive, and it’s $10.00 well spent, as she accepts no payments from pet food companies and the in-depth and time-intensive work of her organization is entirely reader-supported. I plan to work through some of the foods listed there to see if Phoebe and Scout like them.

A Pet Parent’s Place is in …..the Kitchen?

Open Cuisinart food processor filled with ground meat, greens, eggs, and supplements

But my encounter with potentially harmful ingredients in dog food made me revisit my long-term plan to cook for my dogs. If you can provide a balanced diet through carefully following recipes, then in the battle of dog food vs. human food, real whole “human” food will win every time. I like the fact that, with cooking at home, I know exactly the quality of ingredients.

We’ll report back in a month or two regarding our experience with some of the foods on Susan Thixton’s list, and we’ll let you know what we’re up to with home-feeding. I can tell you that with one beef recipe we’ve tried, Scouty was actually standing guard at the oven, waiting for it to come out. I kid you not. If only my human family was so enthusiastic, I might actually enjoy cooking 😊.

If you missed it, you might want to read our in-depth article on why we include freeze-dried raw foods in our Havanese’s meal rotation.

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