Dr. Mark Kinghorn – SNAP Bloor West/High Park, January 2011
Welcome back to our series on pet health and nutrition! This month, we'll look at the regulation and oversight of the pet food industry, as well as what certain terms on your pet's food bag mean.
A question I frequently get in the exam room is “How can I determine the quality of my pet's food?” Unfortunately this can be difficult, if not impossible by looking at the bag alone. The only absolute requirements for a pet food label in Canada are the identity of the product (eg. “dog food”), the quantity of the product, and the manufacturers address. That's it. Period. Everything else you see on a bag is voluntary and geared towards marketing the product towards you, the consumer.
Compliance with certain voluntary measures allows the manufacturer to make certain claims. One of the more common voluntary claims is for AAFCO certification. The American Association of Feed Control Officials sets standards that most pet food manufacturers choose to follow. Two statements can be made as they pertain to AAFCO standards. One is that a food has been “formulated to meet nutrient profiles” for a particular life stage. This means that calculations have been carried out to estimate the amount of nutrients in the food. A food doesn't even have to be fed to a single pet to be able to make this claim!
The second statement says that “feeding tests using AAFCO standards” show that a particular food meets nutrient profiles for a given life stage. To make this claim, a food must go through a 26 week feeding trial to ensure that pets remain healthy while eating a particular food. While this is better than nothing, and without going into too much detail, the requirements to pass a feeding trial are minimal.
Many words are used to describe the types of ingredients used in pet food production. However, the terms “holistic” and “human grade” are not defined by AAFCO and so their use on pet food labels is vague, can mean anything, and certainly does not guarantee quality. The term “organic” is also poorly defined. Only 1 ingredient in the food needs to actually be organic for it to be labelled as such and there are no penalties for false labelling. For a food to truly be organic, it must be “certified organic” meaning that it had been approved by the USDA.
The bottom line, is that although regulation exists in the pet food industry, it is minimal at best. That's why it is so important to purchase pet food from a company you trust – your pet's health and well being depends on it! And remember that your veterinarian is your number one source for information concerning pet food and nutrition. Don't hesitate to call them and ask them about the food you have chosen for your pet. Join us next month when we'll wrap up our series on pet health and nutrition.