If you’re anything like me, you may be starting to worry that there isn’t a healthy pet food that you can trust. It seems like each week there’s a new “pet food recall” notice. And with brands bragging that their food is “made with real beef or chicken,” it makes me wonder what the other food is made of?!
Dog food has a “3% With Rule” which states that any food that claims to be made “with chicken” only needs to consist of 3% chicken to make that claim true. For example, “Honest Jack’s Dog Food With Chicken” only needs to consist of 3% chicken in order to meet guidelines. Crazy, right?!
I’ve been working on my own research to clear up some of the controversy that’s on peoples’ minds about pet food, but it’s incredibly difficult to find concrete answers to my questions and concerns. It’s proved to be close to impossible to get a straight answer about pet food truths and lies. The confusion about which pet foods are healthy and which ones are fooling us can’t be clarified as easily as I’d hoped. It’s going to take more than one post to get some of this confusion sorted out, so stay tuned!
Why It’s So Important To Research Your Dog’s Food
We have the responsibility to research dog food brands ourselves and learn as much as we can beyond what the companies are telling us on the surface. Almost every aspect of our dogs’ health starts with their diet. A healthy diet can make all of the difference in the world for your dog throughout her entire life.
So what should you look for when reading pet food labels? Should we buy labels that say “gourmet, premium, natural, or organic?” Or do companies know that these words are going to trigger us to purchase and they’re using them as marketing techniques?
The government’s rules and regulations on pet food have nothing to do with the advertising and marketing claims that these companies use. That means they can say anything they want regardless if it’s true. Has the Blue Buffalo controversy come to your mind yet?
The FDA’s Regulations: Do They Protect Our Pets?
The FDA “establishes standards applicable for all animal feeds: proper identification of product, net quantity, manufacturer’s name and address, and proper listing of all ingredients.” Seems pretty bare minimum to me… so what about the company’s claims to us that they are a superior brand? No regulations on that?
The FDA states on its website: “Pet owners and veterinary professionals have a right to know what they are feeding their animals. The pet food label contains a wealth of information, if one knows how to read it. Do not be swayed by the many marketing gimmicks or eye-catching claims. If there is a question about the product, contact the manufacturer or ask an appropriate regulatory agency.”
So what I get from that explanation is that we’re pretty much on our own to learn how to read labels in order to understand what we are purchasing. Now that’s a hefty task…
AAFCO Regulations: Do They Protect Our Pets?
Not all states require the FDA to enforce their labeling regulations. Many of the states have adopted the pet food regulations established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). These regulations are more specific and “cover aspects of labeling such as product name, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding instructions, and calorie statements.
The AAFCO website provides a lot of contact information from state to state, but it says little about what the committee does. It does state that, “AAFCO’s Pet Food Committee has created a great tool for small pet food businesses to learn what is required when they wish to make pet foods and treats. Though this information is very beneficial in explaining what is necessary for a company to start up their business, it is just a tool. For further information regarding what is required by the state where you live, contact your State Feed Control Official.”
The words “it is just a tool” was a red flag for me. They also state that, “While AAFCO doesn’t help consumers directly, AAFCO has clearly stated in its philosophy regarding feed regulations in the Official Publication that “The most important aspect of feed regulation is to provide protection for the consumer as well as the regulated industry. A major function of feed regulations is to safeguard the health of man and animals. Another important function of feed regulation is to provide a structure for orderly commerce.” We also use expert nutrition opinions to establish nutrient standards (profiles) for dogs and cats.”
Look For The AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement On The Pet Food Bags
The AFCCO states that the nutritional adequacy statement is quite possibly the most important thing to look for on the pet food bag. It will state that the food meets AFCCO standards.
Nutritional adequacy statements may look like any of the following examples:
- “___________ is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ___________.”
- “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ______________ provides complete and balanced nutrition for _____________.”
- “_____________ provides complete and balanced nutrition for ___________ and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests”
Nutritional adequacy statements that do not meet AFCCO standards that you should beware of will look like these:
- ““A nutritional or dietary claim for purposes other than those listed above provided the claim is scientifically substantiated”
- “This product is intended for intermittent or supplementary feeding only”
Don’t Trust “Gourmet” or “Premium” Food Claims
You may be surprised to know that the FDA has no regulations or guidelines to protect consumers from misleading claims like “gourmet” or “premium.”
FDA labeling guidelines state, “products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.”
That bothers me, what about you?!
Beware of “Human Grade” Pet Food Claims
The AAFCO states that although many food companies have claimed to provide human grade ingredients, this term has no legal definition in animal feed regulations.
“Extremely few pet food products could be considered officially human edible or human grade.” The AAFCO also states that a dog food that truly met human standards would be extremely expensive.
There are official standards that must be met in order for food to be deemed “edible” by definition for human consumption. If these qualifications are met then “human grade” claims can legally be made even though there is no official definition for the term. However, a product created for a pet is very unlikely to be nutritionally adequate for human consumption. There are foods that humans can eat, such as chocolate, that are toxic to dogs. Therefore, “human grade” does not by any means indicate that a food is nutritionally safe for dogs.
“Natural” Pet Food: While It’s Better, It’s Still Unclear
The word “natural” is being used on tons of food labels both in the dog and human food industries. It makes us feel good when we think we’re getting an honest product, and we hope that the label is telling us the truth. Some people confuse the terms “natural” and “organic” as being interchangeable, but they are absolutely not the same.
PetMD veterinarian Dr. Hughes tells us that the word “natural” means that the FDA deems the product to contain no chemical changes to the ingredients. Of course we don’t want our dogs to ingest chemicals day after day. This can greatly deteriorate their health. Purchasing a dog food that can provide FDA certified “natural” ingredients should be part of your dog’s daily diet.
The AAFCO says that the word “natural” is a descriptive term that sounds positive, but there are misperceptions about the word. The term was undefined in the past by state and federal agencies, but in an effort to appeal to consumers, marketers have used the term for their food.
The AAFCO Definition for “Natural” Pet Food:
“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
However, the FDA labeling guidelines states, “the term ‘natural’ is often used on pet food labels, although that term does not have an official definition.” The FDA does recognize the AAFCO definition for natural. Unfortunately, it’s up to us to do the remaining research for us to be sure that the company’s claims to be natural are in fact truthful. Furthermore, not all states have adopted the AAFCO definition for “natural.” The FDA admits that ingredients can still contain trace amounts of chemically synthetic compounds and still be considered natural.
Are you even more confused than before? Don’t feel bad, I am too! It feels like there still isn’t a concrete, defined, trustworthy answer to the natural vs unnatural debate.
Don’t Believe “Holistic” Pet Food Claims
There is no legal definition of the word “holistic” for pet food. Any manufacturer can claim their food is “holistic” regardless of the ingredients. To me, this word would be a red flag for ‘marketing scam!’
“Organic” Pet Food: Look For The Seal
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic ingredients must be grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers such as manure, bone meal, compost, etc. When a product has the USDA Organic Seal, it is certified to meet these standards. If the product does not have the official USDA Organic Seal, it’s claim to be organic has not been proven true by any official agency.
According to the AAFCO, Organic pet food is “produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Now that was a lot to take in! The pet food controversy is one that I believe is far from over. More consumers than ever are demanding answers from manufacturers, and I hope that in only a few more years we will be able to grab a bag of dog food off the shelves without all of these worries and concerns. Stay tuned for more information on reading pet food labels and understanding what all of the chemically-named ingredients truly are.
Do you have a rule you abide by when picking out your pet’s food? Or is there a tried and true method you believe works when choosing a reputable manufacturer?