feature By: Tom Carney | March, 20
Federal laws seem to thwart dog food manufacturers to such a degree that they are hamstrung in any efforts to help consumers to determine the quality of the food we choose. Additionally, there seems to be no agreement among manufacturers even about the value of ingredients as simple as chicken or corn, for example.
Depending on which dog food brand is doing the selling, any one of these ingredients is better than the others: real chicken, chicken meal or chicken byproduct meal. Industry standards define each one, but each company’s take on the ingredients might be different. For example, Dr. Jill Cline, Site Director at the Eukanuba pet foods Pet Health and Nutrition Center (PHNC) says, “Chicken byproduct meal includes the heads, feet, intestines, livers and hearts of the birds.”
Just when you’re convinced that chicken meal is the best and chicken byproduct meal is icky, she adds that the liver and hearts are rich in nutrients dogs need, so byproduct meal isn’t so bad after all.
Here’s another one. Numerous dog foods advertise themselves as “grain free.” But Eukanuba proudly proclaims, “A grain, such as corn, is one of the most important ingredients in high-quality dog food. … While there are no stated biological needs for carbohydrates in dogs, there are studies that show the benefits of a diet containing carbohydrates/grains.”
Whether corn is touted as an important ingredient will depend on the manufacturer and how it chooses to market its products.
Further, one concept of the “nutritional philosophy” at Eukanuba is “superior palatability, digestibility and a better nutritional experience based on the RSS value of food (Relative Super Saturation).”
This sounds great. But how useful is that information to the common, everyday consumer?
Eukanuba isn’t the only dog food company to lay difficult-to-digest ideas on consumers. Check out the following from a recent Pheasants Forever post:
“When choosing a food, it’s best to determine your dog’s energy needs, the most critical part of his or her diet other than water,” says Purina Research Nutritionist Christina Petzinger Germain, Ph.D.
“The higher the VO2 max, the more intense a dog can exercise. This is due to the supply of energy from fat to the muscles, sparing the liver and muscle glycogen stores, and the body’s use of amino acids. …”
So how many of us can calculate our dog foods’ RSS, right levels of energy nutrients and VO2 max as well as gauge the levels of liver and muscle glycogen stores and the body’s use of amino acids?
To help their clients make the best choices, veterinarians usually advise their clients to make sure the dog foods they purchase have the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement on their packaging. What the statement means, however, as Cline explained, is that the food meets the minimum standards.
“It means the food is sufficient, not optimal.”
Eukanuba claims its tests are more stringent than those performed by AAFCO. However, the law forbids a dog food company from putting “Exceeds AAFCO standards” on a bag of dog food. “And the ingredient list offers little guarantee on how the dog food performs,” says Cline.
Another way the food quality remains a mystery to the consumer lies in how much detail pet food manufacturers are allowed to give.
For example, “Joint health,” says Russ Kelley, Science Lead/Service & Working Dog Research Manager at the PHNC, “is a vague term. But that’s as far as the FDA will let you go” on packaging and marketing claims.
For Eukanuba foods, “joint health” means joint support gets a boost. The “support” doesn’t exist at the “therapeutic level” in the food, says Kelley, but rather it works to repair joints from a day’s work and to prevent long-term injury. But that information is not allowed on packaging.
The law also forbids companies from adding the digestibility rating of foods to the packaging.
“Doesn’t it sound as if the FDA is protecting the small manufacturer who might be producing less than healthy food rather than the consumer who needs the information to make educated choices?” I asked.
Neither Cline nor Kelley disagreed.
In fact, Kelley added, “There’s no way anyone can look at a label and tell anything about the quality of the dog food.”
In effect, therefore, the AAFCO label doesn’t help the consumer make any decisions at all about the quality of dog food. And that raises the additional question, “What’s up with that?”
Here’s how the labeling group identifies itself on its website: “The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.” See that? It’s focused on the “sale and distribution” of animal food. Couple that with the final word in its philosophy regarding feed regulations: the “most important aspect of feed regulation is to provide protection for the consumer as well as the regulated industry. … Another important function of feed regulation is to provide a structure for orderly commerce.”
Its self-defined role as an agency meant to grease the wheels for pet food commerce seems to indicate it’s not a consumer protection group. Moreover, since the regulations only allow the labels to indicate that the foods meet minimum standards, any hope that it might accidentally protect the consumer ends at the doorstep of “adequate” and does not extend into the realm of “excellent.”
Pet food is directly regulated by the states and by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And AAFCO’s website even offers an informational section entitled, “The Relationship Between FDA and AAFCO.” It says, “The FDA is a voting member of AAFCO and participates in AAFCO meetings, seminars and training sessions to assist state feed regulators and consider shared feed issues. The FDA plays a vital role in many of AAFCO’s standardization activities.”
While it says, “Most states have adopted (its Model Bill) as law,” AAFCO is not an agency that sets regulations; it’s not an agency that enforces regulations. It merely advises state agencies on the federal regulations. Also, through its labeling program, it insures consistency in package labeling so each state knows the food it allows on its shelves meets the minimum requirements. Not that there’s anything wrong with that task. Suffice it to say, though, AAFCO does not function as the friend, watchdog and educator that consumers might have been led to — or have allowed themselves to — believe it is.
This is not meant to suggest, however, that AAFCO is the enemy out to “get” us. The purpose here is to shed some light on the fact that AAFCO is not the consumer protection group we might have thought it is. Indeed, its website states in no uncertain terms, “AAFCO doesn’t help consumers directly.”
It doesn’t approve any feed products. It doesn’t issue warnings or recommendations about foods labeled “organic” or “Natural, All-Natural or 100% Natural.” And any manufacturer can claim its pet food to be a “premium” brand, for that “is a totally unregulated term in feed law.”
The group goes on to say, “The consumer should refer to the nutritional adequacy statement located on the pet food label to see if a product conforms to one of the AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles or to an AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Feeding Protocol. … Having said that, individual states may have lists of pet food products legal for distribution available through their state feed program websites or by request.” (An emailed request for information from my state’s Feed and Control Official for this article went unanswered.) Nevertheless, “legal” pet food products aren’t necessarily “high quality.”
Looking for help in gauging which is the best dog food you should purchase? Here’s the best AAFCO offers:
“Pet owners should: read a label correctly, select a food labeled for the pet’s species, life stage and condition and follow feeding directions on the label.”
In the end, people seeking guidance on their pet food purchases will find just two pieces of objective information from the AAFCO label: knowledge that the food is “adequate” and that the first ingredient listed is the main one, by weight.
In other words, Russ Kelley got it right. The labels on dog food bags tell us nothing about the quality of the foods.
But that doesn’t mean we should just step into darkened rooms and grab the first bag of food we stumble over. While consumers cannot easily learn about the quality of the pet foods they might select, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) might be able to help a little in the decisions they make.
WSAVA is a global community comprised of more than 200,000 veterinarian members. Like AAFCO, it is not a consumer-focused group; however, it shows in its mission statement a concern different from AAFCO’s, one that consumers might better appreciate: “To advance the health and welfare of companion animals worldwide through an educated, committed and collaborative global community of veterinary peers.”
One of WSAVA’s 17 standing committees is the Global Nutrition Committee. Dr. Marge Chandler, committee co-chair, says it tries “to give owners and vets credible information about nutrition because there’s a lot of information that has no scientific basis. So, all of the information we provide is evidence-based and has science and research behind it.”
Some dog food manufacturers also emphasize the science behind their products. For example, Purina mentions its “unrivaled scientific experience,” and Hill’s, its “industry leading research.” Two of the values that lead to the production of “the best nutritional solution” at Eukanuba, says Cline, are “science and observation.” One needs to keep in mind, however, that these concepts also appear as marketing tools.
The WSAVA Nutritional Assessment Guidelines Task Force has offered some guidelines for evaluating commercial foods:
• “Even though it’s mostly useless to the consumer, the AAFCO adequacy statement provides several important facts: Whether the diet is complete and balanced, and if so, for what life stages. All foods should be complete and balanced. If it says ‘intermittent or supplemental use only,’ it is not complete and balanced. That may be acceptable if it is a veterinary therapeutic diet and is being used for a specific purpose — e.g., severe kidney disease.
• “Labels may include one of two statements regarding nutritional adequacy: 1. ‘[Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage(s)]’ (Chemical analysis of food.), 2. ‘Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate [Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage(s)];’ (Feeding trial analysis of food).
• “The other information provided on the label is of little practical value in assisting nutritional assessment.
• “Formulated foods are manufactured so the ingredients meet specified levels, without testing via feeding trials; interpret with caution. However, the use of feeding trials does not guarantee the food provides adequate nutrition under all conditions.
• “Since pet owners sometimes base their purchasing decisions on the initial ingredients or on unregulated terms, veterinary technicians must help them make informed decisions.
• “Contact the food manufacturer with any questions or concerns.”
In January 2018, WSAVA’s Global Nutrition Committee added this note: “Overall, the ingredient name does not detail its nutritional quality, its digestibility or the bioavailability of its nutrients. The most important thing is that the final product (formulated by experts) is tested to ensure that the nutritional requirements of your pet are met.”
I can assure you from numerous personal field trips to pet food stores, you will be hard pressed to find any products other than those that have been “formulated” rather than “tested.”
So that means you should have a default basis of your purchasing decision in place before you go shopping.
WSAVA suggests you consider the manufacturer’s reputation as a food maker, whether you have had had positive experiences with their products, and what objective (not testimonial) information does it provide about its foods to assist you in your evaluation.
Finally, that group reminds consumers, “Factual information must be provided on pet food labels, but it is important to be aware that the label is also a promotional tool to attract pet owners. This means that much of the information provided — including the ingredient list and use of unregulated terms such as ‘holistic,’ ‘premium’ or ‘human grade’ — is of little practical value in assisting nutritional assessment.”
To wrap up this discussion on consumers’ choices and dog foods, here are some conclusions for your consideration.
The easiest route to making a dog food decision is to just use what your vet or breeder recommends.
If you want to put in more time on the decision, then here’s about as much logic as I can muster from the above sources on the topic.
• AAFCO labels indicate only that a food meets the regulated minimums for nutrition.
• Manufacturers may not make claims that their food exceeds AAFCO standards.
• It is illegal for manufacturers to make claims about the digestibility of their food.
• Different manufacturers might value protein sources differently.
• “The ingredient list offers little guarantee of how the food performs.” — Russ Kelley
• The above five points make it impossible for a consumer to discern the quality of a dog food based on packaging statements.
• It’s a safe bet to say that most consumers’ veterinarians, while somewhat knowledgeable, are not experts in nutrition.
• Most consumers do not have the time to go online to check out the product selling points made by the various manufacturers, and if they do take the time, they must realize they are reading marketing claims that cannot be easily validated by a disinterested third party.
• While more mainstream companies like Hill’s, Purina and Eukanuba emphasize the science behind the development of their food, a check of some generally less expensive brands showed they do not use terms like “science,” “research” or “evidence-based” in reference to their foods.
• Whatever food the consumer buys, if it has the AAFCO label, it is “good enough” for his/her dog’s basic nutritional needs; and for many people, “good enough” is fine.
• Since food labels now must also include the calories per cup of food, consumers can base part of their feeding decisions on that statistic.
• It is likely that the manufacturers of the more expensive foods have a.) Gone beyond the “basics” to develop foods based on science and with attention paid to things like palatability, digestibility, increased nutrition — but that’s the type of information that the FDA forbids on packaging; and b.) Obtained food ingredients from “reputable” sources.
The most analytical things consumers can do on their own to decide on a dog food brand are to:
• Determine the price point of the dog food at which they are comfortable and shop within that price.
• Make sure they are comfortable with the source of the ingredients.
• Once the decision is narrowed down to two or three brands, go to the manufacturers’ websites and see what kinds of claims they make that aren’t allowed on packaging; explore how they substantiate those claims.
• Test feed a brand and check for easily observable data: does the dog chow down enthusiastically; any changes in coat or feces; increased or decreased energy, gas, thirst, begging for more food; anything else?
• Consult with their vets but be realistic in expectations of the depth of their knowledge.
• At press time, WSAVA was preparing to offer new resources on nutrition. Keep yourself in the loop by visiting www.wsava.org. Search for “nutrition.”
Nothing will guarantee you will be able to figure out the absolute highest quality food for your dog. But when you put the bowl before him, rest assured when you tell him, “It’s the best I can do.”