Tom Ross: The hunger strike is finally over

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a dog food factory?

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As if there weren't already enough strife in the world, I came home from a short trip to Utah last week only to find that my dog, Buck, was on a hunger strike.

Two bowls of tasty kibbles lay untouched for 48 hours, and every time I walked out of a room, there was Buck, fixing me with a baleful eye. My first impulse was to ask him if he was holding out for better working conditions. But I realized, the ungrateful mutt has never held down a paying job in his entire life.

"Buck," I said. "Don't you realize that store-bought dog food wasn't widely found in the United States until after World War II? Most of your ancestors were lucky to get their teeth into table scraps, and a balanced doggy diet was virtually unheard of. Shame on you!"

He looked somewhat contrite, but still he wouldn't eat. I think the root of the problem can be traced to the holidays. For eight years, we resisted the temptation to feed Buck human food. Then, in a rare fit of generosity that would have inspired Scrooge, I poured a little beef blood over his bowl of Science Diet kibbles on Christmas day. That was the beginning of the end.

Now, I pay almost $24 for 20 pounds of the classy, and oh so nutritious Science Diet kibbles. I'm not good at math, but I think that works out to $1.20 a pound, and I can recall a time when ground beef for humans cost less than that.

Of course, Science Diet does more than offer my pooch a healthy diet. The makers say that it has ingredients that clean his teeth and freshen his breath. Every time Buck gives me a big wet kiss, I'm grateful for his fresh breath.

I was tempted to play hardball with my dog and wait out his hunger strike. But I'm not one to quibble over kibbles. And Buck reminded me that he cheerfully sprints down the driveway in the dark every morning and fetches my newspaper. He said he would continue fetching the sports section for me, even in blizzards, if I found a way to liven up his diet short of putting human food scraps in his bowl.

I set off for the dog food emporium planning to purchase some of that semi-moist food that resembles raw hamburger.

There, at the bottom of the grocery shelf, where it's harder to spot, I found the object of my dog's desire. I had to choose between a box of the store-brand faux burgers for about $4, or the name-brand stuff for $12. It seemed like an easy decision, so I hefted a carton of the store brand and checked out the ingredients. Much to my dismay, the third ingredient, behind beef byproducts and soybean meal was high fructose corn syrup!

Millions of American dogs are obese, and high fructose corn syrup is the devil, because our doggies' bodies process it differently than refined sugar. HFCS converts to fat in the body and produces a dangerous form of cholesterol.

Next, I picked up the expensive national brand of fake dog burgers and was equally shocked to find out HFCS was the second ingredient in that product. Defeated, I picked up a can of "chopped beef" dog food and took it home to the dog that fetches my paper every morning. I would swear he had a grin on his face when I unpacked the groceries. I spooned the slimy stuff into his kibbles and he wolfed the mixture down.

The Science Diet is better for him, of course, but I couldn't bring myself to eat a single kibble, so we've struck our truce. Sales of manufactured dog food exploded in this country after World War II. Americans suddenly could afford to eat more beef, and that resulted in a greater supply of the beef byproducts that go into dog food. One of the biggest domestic producers of dog food is the Mars candy company, which markets Kal Kan and Pedigree. They are also the biggest sellers in the booming Chinese market for dog food (Szechwan kibbles?). Have you ever contemplated what it would be like to work in a dog food factory? Kibbles are made by stewing the ingredients in a pressure cooker. Next, the paste is extruded through a die that gives the kibbles their shape. Finally, steam and pressurized air are used to transform them into porous nuggets, which are then coated with liquid fat. Yum. The other morning Buck brought me the paper, and I spied a story about bomb-sniffing dogs attached to American military units in Iraq that have no proper dog food.

Captain Gabriella Cook of the 313th Military Police Detachment told The Associated Press that her unit's 12 German shepherds and one black Labrador retriever have been reduced to eating garbage, because there ain't no kibbles in Baghdad.

I read this story aloud to Buck, thinking it might give him pangs of guilt.

His response was to lick his lips and walk out of the room.

Dogs these days -- they don't know how good they have it.

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