As pet parents, we understand the importance of good nutrition and try our best to choose a healthy balanced diet for our loved ones. We know that proper nutrition can have a positive impact throughout the life of our pets. Not only can we help prevent disease as our pet ages, but just like people, we can manage certain disease conditions, and in some instances, eliminate the need for medication, simply by changing our pets’ diet.
But do we know what to look for and how to make the best choice for our pets? I’d like to focus on pet food labels and introduce some of the laws and standards of pet food packaging. My goal is to help you understand what information is on the label, and thereby better prepare you to make an educated choice to meet your pets’ nutritional needs.
A legal Document
Pet food labels are considered a legal document because they provide a regulated source of information. Pet foods sold in the U.S. must conform to Food and Drug Administration and the commercial feed laws established by the States. The model bill and regulations are “Guidelines” established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. However, these are guidelines and AAFCO does not have any regulatory authority.
Let’s look at some popular definitions
In an effort to protect pet owners from false advertising, the FDA, AAFCO and States have adopted the “Organic” definition as established by the USDA. Other popular marketing “terms” being used on pet food labels have drawn the attention of these groups as well. AAFCO has defined the term “Natural” in an effort to establish a standard for this claim. By providing a definition, a manufacturer is required to meet these guidelines. Be careful, some companies will use the word “Natural” in their name and allow the consumer to assume that their pet food is a natural product.
Only foods that are “100% organic” or “95% organic” may carry the USDA Organic seal on the package. A product stating “Made with Organic”, may NOT display the USDA Organic seal. So if you wish to feed your dog an organic food, be sure to look for the USDA Organic Seal. Any other seal on the packaging does NOT mean that the food has met USDA standards.
The Terms That Influence Your Choice
What about some of the other popular terms being used on pet food labels? Did you know that there is no legal definition of a “Holistic” food? Why is it being used on pet food labels? Because “Holistic” implies the same quality as a “Natural” or “Organic” product. Unfortunately, with no definition there are no requirements or quality standards for a manufacturer to meet.
We know what a Holistic lifestyle is, and it may very well include “natural” and “organic” foods in the diet. But what does it mean when you see the word “Holistic” on a pet food label? Again, it may imply quality, but it does NOT guarantee it. Does that bag of “Holistic” food also have “Natural” or “Organic” claims on its label? If not, ask yourself why …. If a manufacturer had met “natural” or “organic” guidelines, why would they choose not to make the claim on their packaging? The most obvious answer is that they probably haven’t met those requirements and are hoping that you, (the consumer) are not aware of that.
Would you be surprised to know that there is no legal definition of a “Premium” food? The term certainly implies quality and justifies a higher price tag, but there are no legal requirements for a pet food manufacturer to meet in order to use these claims on their packaging.
What about “Human Grade”? Pet food manufacturers realized that pet owners were more likely to purchase a food when “Human Grade” was used in the marketing of that product. Did you know that “Human Grade” was determined by AAFCO to be misleading in terms of quality of ingredients? Unless the food has been manufactured in a human food approved plant, “Human Grade” is NOT allowed to be used on the label of a pet food. If you are feeding a “Human Grade” product to your dog, take a look at your bag of food, you most likely won’t find a claim on the label. So how are they able to imply that their food is “Human Grade”? Here is how it works; a manufacturer can make claims on any material that is NOT regulated by the FDA and the States. This would include printed literature, the Internet and even the cardboard packaging of the product. As long as it is not on the food label, it does not fall under FDA or State regulations.
Bringing It All Together…
Using an example in human nutrition … how many of you have seen the jars of peanut butter claiming “no cholesterol.” This claim allows that jar of peanut butter to stand out from the rest. The intention is that we (the consumer) will choose this jar of peanut butter over the next because; it is “cholesterol free.” The reality is that there is no cholesterol in peanut butter … period. This is simply a marketing tool to entice a consumer to purchase that particular brand of peanut butter.
As an educated consumer, we need to know what to look for when reading a pet food label and what it means. Unfortunately, this information is not provided on that bag of pet food. My hope, in the next few blogs, is that I will be able to provide you with the knowledge to differentiate between choosing a food based on Science and Nutrition rather than marketing and fads. For now, take a look at your own bag of pet food and ask yourself, “What made me choose this food?”