Who can forget the unfortunate misstep of a former president of Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) admitting on video that euthanized pets are probably in pet food?
It was with that indelible admission scorched in my memory that I stepped into an enormous hall, packed wall to wall with pet food industry big wigs, state, and federal officials at this year’s AAFCO conference held in New Orleans this week.
Joining me was Susan Thixton, the co-founder of our consumer association, the Association for Truth in Pet Food, whom I was finally able to meet in person. Remarkably, we were the only two consumer representatives in attendance, undaunted we entered the lion’s den surrounded by hundreds of the biggest players in pet food in the U.S.
Our Lord and Savior
Ominously, the first meeting began with a solemn prayer (most of which I don’t recall, aside from the bit that Jesus Christ was our Lord and Savior), which struck me as odd considering that it is usually thought of as appropriate to separate matters of church and state.
Following that uncomfortable opening to AAFCO, were the introductions; beginning with federal and state officials followed by a legion of industry representatives. Then it was our turn to stand up and announce whom we were.
Bullhorn and a platform
I guess the most thrilling part, for me personally, was standing up in that great hall among the biggest of the big of pet food manufacturers in the U.S., indeed the world, and announcing my affiliation and myself: the Association for Truth in Pet Food.
I confess it would have been more fun had I been able to introduce myself from a platform with the aid of a bullhorn, but even so, I suspect there were still many in that room that cringed when I introduced myself.
Will the two consumer representatives please stand up?
We know our presence is felt, as for the first time in AAFCO’s history, during introductions, two enormous slides appeared before the audience that read ‘Consumer Representatives,’ which was our prompt to introduce ourselves.
They obviously anticipated our arrival as those slides had never before appeared at an AAFCO meeting. Susan and I both glanced at each other in surprise at the unexpected depart from protocol, as we had prematurely announced ourselves during the ‘Industry Representatives’ slide, which Susan told me was the only opportunity to announce ourselves as there was no such thing as a consumer representative at AAFCO.
Regardless, the point forward Susan and I have our very own special official sector from which to introduce ourselves from.
A seemingly trivial change, such as the inclusion of a ‘Consumer Representative’ sector, probably seem insignificants to an outsider, but in truth, it signals an enormous shift in focus.
It signals a shift from how AAFCO has existed and operated in the past. Insulated, comfortable in its cocoon, it was consisted only of a close-knit cloister of state and federal officials, industry associations, and business representatives.
A new day has dawned, sort of
Now, it would seem that they realize those days are over. Presumably, this change came about following AAFCO’s formal recognition of the Association for Truth in Pet Food as an official and valid stakeholder group, which was founded initially for the purposes of being accepted into AAFCO. Now, we have positions as advisers in two AAFCO committees, the Pet Food Committee and the Ingredient Definitions Committee; two giant leaps forward.
Engraved and embossed invitations
Perhaps the impression that AAFCO has been reticent to accept consumer groups into the fold is not for lack of an invitation, but for lack of takers. It is just possible that only a handful of consumer advocates have ever darkened their doorstep not for lack of trying but for lack of interest. To my knowledge, Mike Floyd and Dr. Jean Hofve has been the only two consumer advocates involved with AAFCO in recent years. Mike Floyd no longer participates for health reasons and Dr. Hofve attends as often as her finances allow her to.
According to AAFCO’s Official Publication, it is the general practice of AAFCO to invite representatives of industry/trade associations and consumer groups to serve as advisers to the various committees, task forces. The question I have is why have other consumer groups not gotten involved in AAFCO?
What is AAFCO anyway?
Briefly, AAFCO’s function is to ensure the development and implementation of laws, regulations, standards, definitions, and enforcement policies for regulating animal feed throughout the United States. AAFCO itself has no enforcement authority, but its members do. AAFCO’s membership includes regulatory officials from each State who have the authority for ensuring the safety of feed. Although members of the feed industry and the public may participate with AAFCO and its committees, only regulatory agencies and officials are actually members and able to vote and conduct other official business.
The Pet Food Committee
Susan and I are advisers in the pet food committee. Although we are not voting members, as such we are there to give our advice and suggestions. The purpose of the committee is to work cooperatively with FDA, the pet food industry, and other stakeholders to monitor, review and recommend appropriate revisions to the Official Publication as related to pet food and specialty pet food.
The Ingredient Definitions Committee
Susan and I also sit on the Ingredient Definitions Committee, which defines feed ingredients under an agreement with scientists from the FDA. Acceptable feed ingredients along with their definitions are listed in AAFCO’s Official Publication (OP), published annually. New ingredients are added or existing definitions changed by means of petitions submitted by industry representatives. The petitions are reviewed by an AAFCO investigator, who has the responsibility for the applicable category of ingredients. AAFCO has more than 30 feed ingredient investigators, each with a different ingredient specialty. The investigators belong to State feed control agencies and FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Aah, the power of a microphone
During the sessions of those committee meetings, we sit at the front of the meeting hall at long tables with the other committee members, while pet food and animal feed industry representatives sit in the audience, watching. It is empowering to realize after our efforts, Susan and I were finally are able to sit side-by-side, microphones poised in our direction, with the ability to address the committee with any questions or concerns we might have.
Schmoozing is an art – really!
To me, a lot of the more interesting work goes on between the meetings, when introductions are made, relationships are forged, alliances are formed, enemies are made, information is shared, and they get to know us on a personal as well as a professional level. E-mails are exchanged, promises of help with pressing problems, follow-up with ongoing investigations, referrals made to experts in their field, photographs of adulterated pet food shared, theories considered, a heady mixture of promise and possibilities.
Rubbing shoulders with big wigs
For the first time, I was able to meet people I have known only through emails and phone calls, federal officials I have always wanted to meet, but never had the opportunity. I had conversations with veterinarians and scientists from the Center for Veterinary Medicine, AAFCO Advisor Eric Nelson of the FDA, the AAFCO immediate past President Tim Darden and president-elect Richard Ten Eyck and my state California Department of Agriculture officials. I would have loved to have met the president of the National Renderer’s Association, but he probably ran when he saw me coming.
On the inside looking out
Now we are in the fold, not on the fringes anymore. Our hope is that other advocates will join us as time goes on. This year we missed Dr. Jean Hofve, who was unable to attend in person, or to join the meetings via telephone conferencing because of technical difficulties.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi decided, wisely, to not risk traveling to avoid the arctic blast that grounded nearly 4,000 flights (including one of my flights which left me stranded in the Denver airport for a day and a half), but she has plans to join us in the future. At the next AAFCO meeting in Sacramento this year, we are looking forward to being joined by two of our favorite pet food manufacturers.
Join us in shaping the future of food for animals
I hope that in the future more independent pet food manufacturers will want to take an active role at AAFCO, along with other pet food advocates. In addition, as time goes by, perhaps other food safety advocates will want to do more than just write about the pet food industry and take a more active role in shaping the future of the pet food industry.
Thanks to the generous support of readers like you
None of this would have been possible without the generous support of members of the Association for Truth in Pet Food whose donations allowed Susan and me to attend AAFCO meetings, whose support I am deeply grateful for.
If you are not yet a member of the Association for Truth in Pet Food yet, please consider joining, as your financial support is desperately needed to continue the work that we do. You made it possible, so thank you!
To find out in more detail what occurred at AAFCO, visit Susan’s website Truth about Pet Food and read her articles about it here and here. In addition, Truth about Pet Food Members can read more about the AAFCO meeting here.