The poultry industry in the USA is a high volume business. Annually, an estimated 8 billion broiler chickens are produced, resulting in almost 3 billion pounds of feathers. Until recently, feathers were an expensive end product of poultry processing, able to be disposed of in only one of three ways – sold cheaply to the large animal food industry, sold to fertilizer companies, or by paid disposal to landfills. The so called ‘Mad Cow’ scare saw a decrease in demand for animal by products as a large animal feed additive. This combined with a rise in the cost of landfill usage fees to make lightweight feathers a heavy expense for the poultry industry. Luckily for them, there seems to be almost nothing that the pet food industry isn’t game to try as an ingredient.
Feather Meal, or “FM” as it is referred to in the industry, has long been used as a fertilizer before it was even considered as a pet food or livestock feed additive. It has a high nitrogen content, and is also high in protein, but it is indigestible unless very highly – and expensively – processed. There have been numerous attempts to use feather meal as a food additive for animals, but published studies as long ago as the 1980’s determined Feather Meal to be of “Low Nutritional Value” as a feed ingredient, based on its indigestibility, and the exorbitant cost of proposed processing methods.
Beginning as early as 2000, there were rumblings within the pet food industry about a great new ingredient that was lowering costs for pet food manufacturers who used chicken and poultry meals as the basis for their foods. A German manufacturer, Goldmehl, had patented a revolutionary new and affordable method of Feather Meal processing for the pet food industry. They promised that their method would increase “feces scoring” in feeding trials. Feces scoring refers to the stool quality of dogs fed a diet based on a specific feed ingredient. In the case of feather meal, inclusion of more than 9% FM by dry weight resulted in dogs with a feces score of “1” – industry shorthand for explosive, watery diarrhea. Goldmehl’s patented Feather Meal would allow manufacturers to include up to 14% Feather Meal, with ‘acceptable’ feces scores.
In spite of Goldmehl’s advancements, there wasn’t much discussion publically or within the pet food industry of Feather Meal as a viable pet food ingredient until 2013 , when Keith Levy, the President of Royal Canin USA, admitted in an interview with Forbes Magazine that Royal Canin had spent ten years developing a food that used feather meal as its primary protein source.
We have a team in France that is traveling the world to find ingredients. In this case it’s feather meal. It’s not only nutritious but can also be made very palatable to dogs. Feathers are broken down to an amino acid level and don’t have much of a taste. Then we add palatizers for taste. In this case, we have to be very careful not to provoke an allergic reaction.
Levy later in the interview mentioned that Royal Canin also uses hydrolized soy protein as a pet food ingredient, and that Royal Canin is “currently researching worm meal as a potential protein source for some of our foods in China”.
Levy illustrated the best example of the Pet Food industry’s theory of ‘garbage in, pet food out’ when he said –
By using alternative sources of protein, we’re using something that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
Some ingredients, however, end up in landfills (or in your garden, as fertilizer) because they simply shouldn’t be used as a food ingredient, no matter how ‘cost effective’ they are. Feather Meal is primarily composed of insoluble keratin with high cystine content. Dogs suffering from a genetic condition called Cystinuria lack the ability to process cystine via the kidneys. Over time, cystine becomes concentrated in the urine, which leads to the formation of crystals – commonly referred to as kidney stones.
Owners of dogs afflicted with cystinuria, or of breeds prone to this condition or any other kidney related diseases, are advised to avoid foods containing feather meal. This means you’ll need to watch the labels for ingredients such as feather meal, poultry or chicken digest, and perhaps even poultry or chicken by products (I’m still awaiting confirmation from AAFCO on whether or not FM is now an allowable component in these last two ingredients).
This article originally appeared on the FrogDog Blog, June 14 2013