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Posted on 04-04-2014

How to Read Pet Food Labels

Pet food labels are legal documents subject to regulation. The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine establishes standards for all animal feeds, enforces regulations pertaining to contamination, and describes certain acceptable manufacturing processes. The USDA is responsible for inspecting the research facilities of pet food companies yearly and also regulates organic foods. Finally, the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officers) develops the regulations as to ingredient definitions, pet food labeling, and feeding trials.

So, what has to go on the label?
• Product Name and Net Weight
• Ingredients *
• Nutritional Adequacy Statement *
• Feeding Instructions *
• Guaranteed Analysis *
• Name and Address of manufacturer, packer, or distributor

 Ingredients are listed in decreasing order based on weight. Because water is heavy, wet ingredients like meat are listed top of the list in canned foods. Reference to the quality of ingredients on pet food labels is prohibited by the AAFCO because there are no official (legal) definitions of quality.

 Oftentimes, a pet food manufacturer will separate different forms of similar ingredients so those ingredients can be placed lower on the list – e.g., separating wheat into ground wheat and wheat fiber when the only difference between the two is how finely the wheat is ground. This allows wheat to fall lower in the ingredient list and something else (meat) to be listed number 1.

 There can also be differences between different batches of the same food. Such foods are called variable formula diets where the precise mixture of ingredients or even the ingredients themselves may change from batch to batch depending on the market price of those ingredients. The opposite is a fixed formula, where the recipe is set and no changes are made to that recipe regardless of the market price of ingredients. Unfortunately, companies are not required to disclose if they use a variable or fixed formula on the pet food label; directly contacting the company is the only way to find out.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement
 At its core, this statement means that the product meets or exceeds AAFCO requirements for one or more of the following life stages:
• Gestation/Lactation
• Growth
             o In theory, “growth” or “puppy” formulas should support gestation/lactation, but may not have been tested in feeding trials on lactating or gestating animals
• Maintenance
• All Life Stages

These claims are based either on AAFCO laboratory values for the varied nutrients or on feeding trials. Feeding trials help to account for differences in digestibility, bioavailability (chances for the nutrients to actually be absorbed by the animal), and dietary interactions. Also called the “AAFCO statement, this is arguably the most important part of the label. It will read either “This food has been formulated to meet AAFCO standards,” or “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO standards substantiate…” When in doubt, opt for the food that has been feeding tested.

Feeding Instructions
 The directions found on the side of the bag are a calculated average maintenance energy requirement and can vary as much as 50% from your animal’s true requirement. Remember too that a pet food company’s main goal is to sell pet food and the faster you run out of food, the more food you buy.

Guaranteed Analysis
 The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat present in the food and the maximum levels of moisture and fiber. It does not give information on the exact amounts of the components or the quality and digestibility of these components.
 Typically, the guaranteed analysis is listed in an “as fed” basis. In order to get a true comparison between products, this must be converted to metabolizable energy, or a dry matter basis. Doing so removes the moisture, fiber, and ash variables that are present in pet foods. Dry dog foods can contain 6-10% water and canned foods as much as 28% water. All that water dilutes out nutrients.

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