As pet owners we want the very best for our pets and when it comes to buying pet food, there are claims made by manufacturers that often influence our decisions. Foods that claim to be ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, and ‘human grade’ tend to have greater appeal for pet owners and often command a higher price. What exactly do these claims mean? Are they just clever marketing terms, or do these foods have to meet specific requirements in order to make these claims?
Oversight of the pet food industry is a bit confusing to say the least. There are several agencies and organizations involved, from the FDA and USDA, to state departments of agriculture and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Thankfully, most states have adopted the policies and recommendations set forth by the AAFCO and regulate pet food manufacturing accordingly.
‘Natural’ is a term that certainly sounds positive and pet food marketers have increasingly used the term to appeal to consumers. Until recently there was no official regulations with regard to the use of the word on pet food labelling and there are many instances where the term is used in a misleading way.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) ‘natural’ is defined as :
“a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject 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 in good manufacturing practices.”
What a mouthful! It might be easier if we consider what the AAFCO deems not natural where pet foods are concerned. According to the AAFCO ingredients that are not considered natural are:
“Ingredients that are chemically synthesized, such as vitamin ingredients, mineral ingredients, preservatives and special-purpose food additives.
Some examples include chelated minerals, mineral amino acid complexes, vitamin supplements, propylene glycol, calcium ascorbate and other preservatives, such as BHA and BHT, as well as artificial flavors and colors.”
Most states consider the use of the phrase ‘all natural’ or ‘100% natural’ to be misleading if the product contains any of the aforementioned ingredients, additives, or preservatives. This means that pet foods claiming to be ‘all natural’ or ‘100% natural’ do not contain any synthetic ingredients or preservatives.
‘Organic’ is another hot marketing term that has taken the pet food industry by storm. In the case of organic pet foods the AAFCO defers to the USDA, stating on their website that “organic animal feed meets production and handling requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP)”.
So how does the USDA’s National Organic Program define the term ‘organic’? According to the NOP website, “organic” products are:
“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.”
While regulations with regard to organic pet foods are still being developed, the National Organic Program states that in the meantime “pet foods claiming to be organic must meet its human food regulations“. Certified organic foods will display a USDA organic seal and must be made of at least 95% organic ingredients. For more information, read this fact sheet.
It must be noted that while many consumers consider organic foods to be a healthier option, the USDA does not consider organic foods safer, healthier or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods.
Just how ‘human grade’ is human grade pet food?
It is important to note that the phrase ‘human grade’ is really only used in reference to pet foods. Foods processed for human consumption are defined as ‘edible’ and must meet specific guidelines set forth by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
‘Edible’ is a standard, ‘human grade’ is not. For a product to be edible every ingredient and finished food must be stored, handled, processed and transported in a manner that is in accordance with Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. If these conditions are met for a pet food, human-grade claims may be made. If these conditions are not met, then human-grade claims are misleading and inaccurate.
To meet these standards pet food manufacturers would need to produce, package, transport, and store the food and all its ingredients in a manner that meets the requirements of human edible food production set forth by the FDA. In addition, they need to meet state requirements for licencing as a producer of human edible foods, not pet foods. These requirements are stringent and the cost of meeting them would be cost prohibitive for most pet food manufacturers.
Regardless whether a pet food manufacturer meets the standards of human edible food, it is important to remember that many foods that are considered edible for humans are not necessarily more nutritious for our pets, and many are toxic.
The reality is that when it comes to choosing an appropriate food for our pets, the best resources are a trusted veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist and the ingredients listed on the package.