Home » Pet Food Safety Part 2: How to Read Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analyses

Pet Food Safety Part 2: How to Read Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analyses

AAFCO Rules and Regulations

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization of individuals involved in state, federal and provincial agencies as well as employees of pet food companies. Its is not a government agency and is not regulated as such. The rules and regulations that AAFCO has set as standards are therefor not law, and every US state has their own statements on animal feed and pet food – most states, however, tend to just adopt AAFCO rules to make things easier for themselves. AAFCO has stricter rules regarding pet foods than the FDA has, though they are still among the most lax in all of the world.

AAFCO defines two dog and two cat nutrient profiles. In both species, they are Adult Maintenance (intended to maintain health and weight on an adult animal) and Growth, Lactation and Reproduction (intended to maintain health and weight on juveniles [puppies and kittens] as well as for lactating bitches and queens.) There are no AAFCO definitions for any other life stages, breed-specific formulas, or senior and weight management formulas. In fact, AAFCO does not dictate a food needs to even label calorie content at all – though most of the better quality foods and companies tend to label calories per cup on the bag. If you are careful and industrious, you might even notice many of the foods marketed as “weight management” or “senior” have the same calorie content as “adult” formulas.

To qualify for the “complete/balanced” label, a food needs to meet one of the two nutrient profiles either by laboratory testing of the product, or through laboratory testing in conjunction with a feeding trial. Feeding trials need only 8 dogs (or cats) for 26 weeks (half a year.) 2 of the 8 animals are allowed to die or otherwise not complete the trial, and the food can still pass the trial. At the end of the 26 weeks, a veterinarian examines the animals to determine if they appear healthy, have not lost more than 15% of their body weight, and their blood work results for homoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin are within normal ranges.

Products can still be manufactured and sold that do not fall between the minimum and maximums for required nutrients (as defined by Adult Maintenance or Growth, Lactation, Reproduction.) These products can not include labels claiming to be “complete”, “balanced” or “100% nutritious” and must be labeled as for “intermittent” or “supplemental” feeding only. These products are usually treats, canned foods, and some commercial raw products.

AAFCO dictates that a food label must have the ingredients listed by weight prior to processing, so the first ingredient was the largest amount before the food was cooked and extruded. Remember, though, that if fresh meat is high on the ingredient list, that much of  the meat’s weight is made up of water, and therefor after processing, the volume of the meat included is much different.

Beyond the ingredient panel, a food label must include the percentages for Protein, Fat, Fiber and Moisture, as fed (as opposed to with human labels which are percentages of a suggested daily value). This means that basically the food is “x% protein” rather than “x% protein of your pet’s daily need. Confused yet?

Percentages are generally labeled as “not more than x%” or “not more than y%” which still leaves for a fair amount of variation as to what the actual percent may be. This can be confusing for people, and not surprisingly. If an Adult Maintenance Dog food says it is “not less than 5% Fat” it can be much higher in fat content. The room for variation allowed there can be disconcerting for many pet parents.

Lastly, the laboratory testing for Protein, Fat, Fiber and Moisture tests for any protein, fat, fiver, and moisture available, and does not calculate the quality of the nutrient. Leather is mostly protein but that doesn’t mean it is nutritious for a dog or cat to eat. This is where reading the label is important, and why looking for various protein sources is important. Protein can be found in both animal-derived ingredients and plant-derived ingredients. Grains have fairly high levels of protein, but plant proteins are not complete protein chains made up of all the essential amino acids, which makes it difficult to gauge how good a food is when it contains multiple protein sources. To understand where most of the guaranteed analyses come from, you must look at the ingredient panel, and determine which items on the list would have their weight decreased after processing (such as fresh meats as discussed.) If a meat ingredient is listed as “meal” or “dehydrated,” this means that less of the product’s weight is decreased or burned off during processing, making it truer to the ingredient label.

Meat meal is a rendered product obtained through the boiling of and draining/grinding into a meal of any meat, flesh, organ, or bone.  Meal, by definition, is never “human-grade,” as meat meals are never made for human consumption and never processed in a human food facility. Meat meal is not necessarily a bad product, though. It has its pros and cons, just as fresh meats do. Fresh meats are less processed, more specific as to what the product is, but during processing the amount of the meat present is reduced greatly. It is usually recommended to look for foods with a variety of fresh meats and meals in the first several ingredients listed, to make sure that there is enough quality, viable protein.

The term “human-grade” is misleading and “romantic” and has no weight when it comes to pet food. Neither AAFCO nor the FDA have any regulations on what the terms mean, so they are kind of bandied about to gain consumer’s attention. Since any food sold as pet food is therefor not for human consumption, it never actually goes through the testing human foods might be subjected to. That said, if a product has the label “USDA-inspected facility,” or “passed USDA inspection for human consumption” that does mean something important, as that means the facility itself has to meet the USDA’s guidelines for cleanliness and procedures, and that the ingredients involved therefor have to be USDA inspected. However, be careful what the label actually says – if it says “inspected for human consumption” that doesn’t mean it passed inspection – it probably didn’t. Most ingredients used in pet foods are the ingredients that did not pass inspection for human use, and were otherwise discarded.

So, how’s that for confusing? How is a pet owner even supposed to make any sense out of any of this?

My suggestion is to look for dry foods containing a combination of fresh and meal meats, high up on the label. It’s also highly suggested that you supplement your pet’s dry diet with some amount of fresh foods (raw or lightly cooked) or 95% meat canned foods. Dogs, cats and ferrets are carnivores by design and thrive with fresh protein in their diets. Some pets tolerate and even need some levels or carbohydrates and fibers in their diets, but again, the quality of the product is what makes a difference. Many dogs enjoy lightly steamed veggies, canned pumpkin, sweet potato, or other veggie added to their food every so often. Cats and ferrets are less dependent on these things, but they can still be helpful in time of bowel distress.

Still have questions? Comment here or email me at mustelamania@gmail.com and I will be more than happy to help break down a diet for your loved pet.


2 Responses to “Pet Food Safety Part 2: How to Read Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analyses”

  1. […] This is part three on a series on Pet Food Safety and Awareness. For my previous posts, please check out Part 1: EU Certification and Part 2: How To Read Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analyses. […]

  2. […] on pet food, the pet food industry, and pet food safety. Check out my previous articles: here, here and […]

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