Updated: Nov 19, 2021
We wholeheartedly believe in incorporating as much fresh food, especially raw meat and vegetables in your pet’s diet as much as possible for health and longevity. However, as the pet food industry remains unregulated in Canada, it falls on you as the consumer and pet parent to do some basic quality verifications to ensure you are feeding your pet food that is safe and meets your quality expectations. To help you with this, we wanted to provide you with some basic techniques from our Quality Assurance program that you can easily use at home to assess the quality and safety of any raw food.
5 Simple Ways to Check That Your Raw Meals are Fresh and Safe to Feed Your Dog or Cat:
1) Understanding Normal & Abnormal Colour Changes in Raw Food
When it comes to fresh foods, it is important to be able to distinguish a normal colour change that is natural from one that you should be concerned about.
Normal Colour Changes
Since raw diets are made predominantly from fresh whole foods, slight colour variations between batches are completely normal. If you are observe a colour change in your raw food, here are some things to check:
Meat Colour: It is a myth that if meat turns brown, it is spoiled. There may be slight variations in the colour of meat and poultry from batch to batch depending on the food the animals are eating, breed and other environmental conditions. There will be variability between different suppliers and the farming conditions.
Fat content: The amount of fat content in your pet’s food will vary slightly, which impacts the overall look as well. For instance, the fat content of our proteins varies slightly from season to season due to the age and activity level of the animal. This means that fat content can normally fluctuate by 1-2% from between batches, with some meals appearing marginally paler in colour as the percentage of fat increases.
Minor Oxidation: Oxidation in meat is a reaction whereby the polyunsaturated fatty acids in meat react with oxygen, leading to degradation and rancidity of those fats. Visually, you will notice browning or darkening of the meat products in areas where it comes in contact with oxygen. Oxidation will typically start during the manufacturing process, products packaged earlier in the manufacturing process may appear more red as they have been exposed to the least amount of oxygen. Oxidation continues in the freezer, if the meat surface is exposed to oxygen, resulting in serious deterioration in quality of the food over time. Vacuum sealing the meat (which removes oxygen) in special barrier bags is the only reliable way to minimize oxidation and extend the life of the food product in the freezer or fridge.
Minor Freezer Burn: Freezer burn is the discolouration and other damage caused by dehydration of the food during freezing. Tell-tale visual signs are light yellow or whitish spots and ice crystals on the food itself. This happens due air exposure during freezing and storage in the freezer due to inadequate packaging. Freezer burn can be minimized by vacuum sealing (which reduces air contact) and blast freezing (which decreases the amount of large crystal formations)
Various Suppliers: Every farm raises animals a bit differently, including the combination of feed, farming routines, choice of breeds (yes, even chicken has different breeds), access to outdoors (depends on geography) and much more. For example, we sometimes source chicken from more than one farm in British Columbia, and even in the same region, there are variations in the colour of meat between the different farms. .
Vegetables: The colour of most vegetables, kale and lettuce for example, can vary depending on the season, the farm it comes from, or even the type of soil it’s grown in. Furthermore, the amount of vegetable content in each meal can make a difference. For example, the image below of kale highlights the diversity possible in kale.
Example of vegetable inclusion affecting colour: Turkey Complete for Cats (3% inclusion) vs Turkey Complete for Dogs (25% inclusion)
Want to learn more … In this video, Purdue University professor Brad Kim explains the science of meat colour and why a colour change doesn't mean meat has spoiled.
Abnormal Colour Changes to Monitor
While some colour changes are normal, others are an indication of a serious quality issue that can lead to health problems for your pet. Here is some factors that could create colour changes that can impact health:
Major Oxidation: We know oxidation is a reaction that leads to degradation and rancidity of fatty acids. Minor oxidation can begin to occur when meat is exposed to air for a little as 5 minutes, resulting in meat getting a bit darker in patches, and is not a cause for alarm. However, when significant colour changes occur, for instance serious browning due to excessive oxidation, this is a cause for concern. This hints the meat has been left exposed to air for a longer period of time, often indicating that the food has begun to spoil. Red meat for example should appear red when fresh, with little browning or green hues. Poultry should appear light pink with no yellow or browning. As mentioned above, oxidation continues even in the freeze. So a good rule of thumb to use is, if you see a product that is fully discoloured and covered with a lot of ice, then the amount of oxidation that has occured is probably significant enough to start causing rancidity in the fat.
Changes to Ingredients
Any changes to the ingredients or proportions of key ingredients in raw food like protein, fat, bone and organ can result in a colour change. If you start to notice significant changes in the colour of your raw meals, for example meats becoming very light in colour or very grainy in texture, you should ask the manufacturer if there has been a change in formulation or what could be causing this change. In Canada, pet food manufacturers are allowed up to six months to update their labels to reflect changes in the product ingredients or formulation for economic reasons – it allows manufacturers to use up older packaging instead of throwing it out! At RDBK, we make our food labels in-house so we update our labels with changes in formulations without delays.
It is important to know how to identify spoiled meat once it is thawed. Meat that has begun to spoil or rot will undergo a noticeable colour change. If any of your meat turns yellow, green or a greenish-brown colour, this is a sign of spoilage and you should discard the meat. Fresh, safe-to-eat raw meat should be the following colours:
Poultry - a light or pale pink
Pork - a pinkish gray
Ground beef - a variation in colour from cherry red to purplish-red to a brownish-red.
Lamb - a dark, cherry red
Buffalo - a dark red or brown
2) Watch Out for High Fat Content
Fat in a raw form is an essential nutrient for a healthy balanced diet. Raw fats are the most natural source of energy for our pets. Fats are also essential for brain and other cellular functions. But even with raw fat “too much of a good thing” can cause harm. Fat does not contain any vitamins or minerals and is very calorie dense. It’s ok to give your pet some meals higher in fat occasionally but if you are feeding food that’s too fatty on a daily basis, there is a good chance your pet is missing out on some essential nutrients and proteins, and may gain weight . Excessive fat over a period of time can also cause pancreatitis.
Fat is inexpensive compared to other meat ingredients and sometimes can be used in excess in raw diets to keep the costs down and meet customer expectations. So it is important to be mindful of the fat content in your raw food and any variability to ensure you are not regularly overdoing it.
So How Can You Tell If There Is Too Much Fat?
Check the Nutritional Label: Our rule of thumb for raw diets is that the fat content should always be lower than the protein content.
Do a Visual Inspection: A meal with a lot of fat will be paler or lighter in colour and have a greasier texture, leaving a fatty layer or residue behind on the packaging or your pets bowl.
Check Ingredients: Fat can come from many sources, including meat, oils and nuts. In raw diets, animal fat is the key.
Good Rule of Thumb for Both DIY and Commercial Diets to Avoid Having too Much Fat:
Red Meat: Red meat is available in different levels of leanness – from 90% lean all the way down to 50% lean (yes, that means 50% is fat)
Beef: Use 85% lean or higher (e.g. extra lean ground beef)
Lamb (and Boar): These meats are naturally fattier than beef so examine these carefully as it's easy for these to get fatty. Use 75% lean or higher (lamb shoulder or similar).
Buffalo, Venison and Kangaroo: Use 90% lean or higher. These meats are naturally lean and meals using these proteins should be lower in fat compared to beef or lamb.
Kangaroo: Kangaroo meat is naturally lean – approximately 95% lean or higher. Kangaroo meals should be leaner than any other meals.
Chicken and Turkey: Chicken is naturally fattier and will be comparable to lamb in fat content. For best balance, use whole birds. Most of the fat is in the skin so if meals are made using whole frames / necks (with skin on) or legs (with skin on), the fat content will be unnaturally high. Chicken is very high in Omega-6 fatty acids (especially farmed) that can cause inflammation. Turkey should be leaner than chicken, but can have excessive fat if a lot of skin is used.
Fish: Some fish, like salmon, sardines, and herring are naturally fatty but are well balanced with protein. Fish is higher in Omega-3 fats which are healthy fats so they are essential to the diet. However, if parts of the fish are used instead of whole, that can increase fat content ratio so checking the nutritional analysis is important.
Fat Content In RDBK Meals
For example, in our meals we use the rules above for selecting our meat ingredients, and use visual inspection to ensure that the ingredients we get from our suppliers and every batch is consistent in fat content. We then use a formulation tool to thoughtfully balance the fats for each formula. Because meats and fish vary in the quantity and fat balance, the best way to balance fats and avoid excess is by combining or rotating. We also use ethically and naturally raised animals. Animals raised more naturally tend to have a more natural fat balance than factory-farmed animals. For reference, the following are fat content of some of our meals:
3) Make Sure to Smell the Food
A smell test is one of the quickest ways to determine if raw meat is still safe to consume. Spoiled meat will have a pungent smell that can be described as any of the following:
4) Check Its Texture
Slime or a mucous-like coating on meat is a sure sign of bacterial growth and spoilage. To the touch, the texture of spoiling meat will feel sticky, tacky or slimy. Sometimes you may even see white spots on meat, which are moist colonies of bacteria forming.
5) Check The Manufacturing Date
While frozen meat can last in the freezer for 6 - 24 months depending on its packaging, the nutrients of the food will begin to degrade over time and will become more susceptible to oxidation if stored longer than 12 months. As mentioned earlier, oxidation can have a significant impact on the quality of the food. How your raw pet food has been packaged impacts the safe freezer life of your pet’s raw food. Here is a quick point of reference:
Keep in mind that this timeframe should include the food storage time at the manufacturer facility (minimum 2 weeks but usually several months), in-transit time to store and storage at the pet store (could be several months).
We all want the best for our pets and as pet parents we have the honor and awesome responsibility to help them live longer and healthier lives. The pet industry is changing and we have more options today to help us with this today. However, our most important tool is information: like with our own health, we need to educate ourselves on nutrition, exercise, and signs of health for our pets, so we can truly be their advocates! Doctors have an important role in being highly trained at curing diseases. However, preventing diseases and supporting health is up to every one of us! Health is a journey, and at Red Dog Blue Kat, we are all pet lovers and our goal is to support you and be your partner in this journey!
Red Dog Blue Kat's Quality Promise
We assess the receiving temperature, colour, smell and texture of all our raw materials to determine if the ingredients meet our quality standards. We dispose of meat or bones that smell off, have an off colour or slime, or any sign of deterioration. Our team is trained to identify the signs of rotting and does a great job ensuring only top quality, fresh ingredients go into our pet food. Every batch of finished product is also subjected to rigorous microbial testing, visual and smell tests as outlined in our Quality Management Program.