The Truth Behind Pet Food Labels

I had a very eye opening experience last month after I had the great opportunity to visit the Hill’s pet food corporate headquarters in Topeka, Kansas.  I like many other veterinarians, promote Science Diet and Prescription Diets in my practice, but I do offer other foods too.

The pet food business is a continually growing market and I cannot keep up with all of the new brands on the market.  Foods are sold through grocery outlets, mass retailers, specialty pet stores, and veterinary hospitals.  You will not find two veterinarians who have the same opinion about foods, but at least we have been trained in nutrition and physiology.  Most the of the people that are offering advice to the public in stores have little training other than what a manufacturer might tell them about a food.

I have a friend that told me she was recently in a pet store, had her dog’s premium food in her cart, and a woman who was not wearing any kind of identification, took her to another aisle, showed her some other food, and told her she should not feed what she was planning to buy.  She changed the food based on this un-credentialed person’s recommendation. She took it home, her dog didn’t like it, and she went back and got what she had intended to begin with–a food recommended by many veterinarians.

When I go down the aisles in pet stores, I am attracted to the packaging and claims made on foods—just as a regular consumer would be.  The problem is that many of the attractive claims made on labels and by non veterinary professionals are very misleading and barely supported by any research or science.  Who wouldn’t want to feed more natural or holistic food?  But do you even know what that means?  You will be very surprised to find out how minimally the pet food industry is regulated and how much leeway companies have with the labeling of their foods.

AAFCO which stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials has no jurisdiction over websites or manufacturer representatives.  They only have set the standards about what can be included on a pet food label.

Most of the small, niche pet food manufacturers do not have their food continually analyzed for nutrient content.  They have variable monitoring of ingredients and this is one of the reasons there have been numerous recalls.  One popular “premium” niche cat food had 22 erroneous nutrient claims when 9 different packages of the food were analyzed.  That is pretty scary. There are now only two pet food companies that actually perform feeding trials to guarantee their products.  Feeding trials are very expensive, so if companies don’t have to do them, they don’t.  Most pet food companies only state that their food has been formulated to meet AAFCO standards.  The real gold standard is performing a feeding trial using AAFCO protocols to document how the animal performs when fed a specific food.

Is a holistic food good?  There is no legal definition for this term under laws devoted to pet foods.  Any manufacturer can make claims of “holistic” in literature and brochures regardless of the ingredients they use.

Are human grade foods good?  “Human grade” means nothing as a legal term in pet foods, so “human grade” doesn’t mean a thing.  There is a legal term called “human edible” but you won’t see this on any labels. Under the rules established by the FDA and the USDA, no food can be termed human edible if it leaves the “chain of inspection” governed by the USDA.  At the moment a pet food ingredient departs a human food supply chain to go to a pet food manufacturing facility, it is out of this chain.

What about “Natural” pet foods?  According to AAFCO this term requires a pet food to consist of only natural ingredients without chemical alterations.  A big problem with “natural” foods is that they cannot include ingredients such as vitamin E and minerals.  Essential vitamins and minerals require synthesis to be active nutrients.  Natural foods then must state “with added vitamins and minerals.”

Finally, what are organic pet foods?  To use the term “organic” pet foods must follow USDA rules, contain at least 95% organic ingredients and have a special seal on the packaging.  Most pet foods actually state that they are made with organic ingredients and are not eligible for the USDA seal because they contain less than the required organic content.  If only a portion of the ingredients are organic, is that really better for your pet?

Some people like to look at labels to see what order ingredients such as chicken are listed, because the listing ranking shows the relative amount of the ingredient.  Don’t be fooled. Even if chicken is the first listed ingredient it doesn’t differentiate between high and low grade quality chicken.  The best way to determine the quality of the chicken is to also assess the calcium and phosphorus levels in the food.  The higher these minerals, the more likely the chicken used is mostly ground chicken bones and this is lower quality.  Many manufacturers will hide these minerals on the labels because it reveals the truth.

There are also other terms some pet food manufacturers use to scare you about other foods such as they contain “by-products”.  Did you know that by-products are great sources of nutrition such as organ meat, beet pulp, and chicken fat?  By-products are not beaks and feathers.

Another popular myth about pet foods is that they should be grain free.  While there are a few animals that may be allergic to grains, when you look at food allergy data in pets, corn is one of the least allergenic products used in pet food.  When manufacturers don’t use corn, they use other sources of carbohydrate which may sound great such as sweet potatoes and barley, but in reality corn contains many fabulous nutrients such as Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and lutein. Corn has antioxidants, high levels of essential fatty acids, and protein.  Corn is actually more digestible than most other grains and vegetables.  Dogs and cats are not eating uncrushed, whole kernels of corn—that is when corn is not as digestible.

Be an informed consumer when it comes to pet foods and go past the pretty packaging and the buzz words on the bags and cans.  Many manufacturers are getting you to buy their foods because the ingredients and packing are attractive to your human eyes, brain, and taste buds.  Do pets eat berries and yams any more than they would corn in the wild? Read the labels, talk to your veterinarian, and ask manufacturers for the scientific results or feeding trials that back their claims. You might be in for a big surprise.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic

About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA

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