By Jerry Gleeson
THE JOURNAL NEWS
Pet food manufacturer and animal lover Scott Pollak sympathizes with dog and cat owners who are worried by the recent recall of tens of millions of containers of potentially contaminated victuals.
But the larger question, as Pollak sees it, is why were they feeding that stuff to their pets in the first place?
"Dog food in general is a very unnatural product for that animal to eat," said Pollak, president of PHD Products in Greenburgh. It's loaded with grains, something that dogs in nature don't eat, unless the grain happens to be in the stomach of some other animal on whose carcass the dogs themselves are feasting.
Fresh meat is what dogs and cats crave. Processed pet food, in Pollak's view, represents a devil's bargain that pet owners have made in order to enjoy their animals on their own terms.
"The pet food industry has allowed many more people to have pets, which is wonderful," he said. But, he added, "If the commercial pet food industry stopped making pet food for a year, then only those who are committed to having pets would still have them. If you really had to make an effort to feed your animal and take care of your animal ..."
Pollak let the thought hang for a moment.
"There are dogs and cats that just sit in houses all day long," he said. "That's no life for any living creature."
A former shoe salesman, Pollak started his "holistic" pet food company 12 years ago. In many ways it's a labor of love. During an hourlong interview he shared his office with his pet Corgi, Buster; an animated Boston terrier named Rufus; and a gray cat named Lucy that dozed on a chair and ignored everyone.
A bumper sticker on his door reads, "My Pembroke Welsh Corgi is smarter than your honor student!" A pillow in his car has the inscription, "My dream in life is to be the person my dog thinks I am."
His modest business generated $1.3 million in sales last year, he said, a mere blip in a market of $23 billion. His sales have declined in recent years, as more competitors crowd into the niche market of natural health food for pets.
Pollak, 52, said he markets his products across 30 states, but does so exclusively over the Internet through his Web site, www.phdproducts.com.
The Internet keeps him in close contact with his market, and Pollak said he had the pleasure of receiving e-mails recently from grateful customers who extolled his products in the wake of the recall that his competitors were experiencing.
His Web site describes a holistic program that stresses nutritional quality, and even offers a "detox" regimen for pets that have been eating too much of the wrong thing.
There's no gluten in his products, a protein ingredient he dismisses as having little nutritional value. A Chinese exporter has been accused of selling chemically contaminated wheat gluten that has been linked to recent pet deaths in the United States.
PHD doesn't sell canned meat products ("How much canned meat do you eat a year?" Pollak asked.) He describes his kibble as "the best dead food you can buy," long on lamb and chicken ingredients, but he still sells it with the recommendation that you throw in some raw hamburger or other uncooked meat.
The product is made at a plant upstate to Pollak's specifications. He sells only one kind of kibble, dismissing the multiple food platforms of his competitors as mere marketing.
"I don't believe in puppy food, old dog food, large dog food, small dog food, indoor dog food, short dog food, because I don't know of another creature on this planet that uses different foods in different stages in life," he said.
Consumers who want to be savvy about what they're feeding their animals are frustrated by the ambiguities on the labels of the boxes and cans, Pollak said.
Meat may be the first ingredient listed, leading buyers to believe it constitutes most of what's in the container. But Pollak said that ranking reflects its precooked weight before processing. Grains and less nutritious materials, as a whole, may make up a bigger share of what's in the can or box.
The latest pet food recall is providing "a great opportunity for people to start looking and questioning and getting the industry to really wake up," he said.