A couple of years ago our kids came to an agreement with Aunt Cindy. “They” were going to take care of her Bullmastiff, Brandy, as she had become too much to handle for their gracefully aging aunt. My wife and I readily agreed. After all, we always wanted a dog to accompany our cats. As usual, taking care of Brandy to the kids meant walk and feed her for two days, then leave it up to Mom and Dad.
I, on my part, believe in sharing responsibilities. I leave the walking up to Mom but for me feeding was the big issue and that would prove to haunt me for many months to come. After hearing about the pet food industry and massive recalls, I just wanted to make sure Brandy was safe and got “the right stuff”. I asked Aunt Cindy and other friend dog owners and received great advice, “just feed her a high quality pet diet.”
Right, how could I dare to ask such a simple question? Little did I know that “high quality” means different things to different people and leaves a lot open to debate. Then I learned that an accredited veterinary nutritionist at a recent pet nutrition conference defined it as “a high quality diet that is complete, balanced, palatable, digestible and safe.” Now I got it! And was right back to where I started. While this seems to cover all the bases for those knowledgeable on the subject, it hardly helps a pet owner standing in a dry food aisle of their local grocery or pet store studying and comparing pet food labels. And the label is where the confusion really starts.
Just like food for people, pet foods must be labeled correctly. Surprisingly pet food labeling rules are much stricter than those for human foods. Good, I thought, that’s going to help. As a minimum the front panel is to include the product name or brand, the “Cat” or “Dog” designation and the content net weight. The back panel label at a minimum must include an ingredient listing, a guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy claim, feeding instructions, indication as to who is manufacturing the food and a manufacturer’s customer service contact. Really simple, right?
The front panel is a no-brainer. Beef is beef. But did you know that a “Beef Dog Food” must be 95% beef, a “Beef Formula” only requires 25% beef, a “Beef & Potato Dinner” requires only 25% beef and 3% potato, a “Dog Food with Beef” gets by with 3% beef content and a “Dog Food with Beef Flavor” just needs to be beef flavored enough so that a dog thinks it contains beef.
Another requirement is that whatever is listed on the package MUST be included in the food. So if the bag proudly promises “contains Vitamin C”, then there’s Vitamin C in the food, even if it is only 0.000001% (which, by the way, wouldn’t matter either as a dog doesn’t need Vitamin C - they produce Vitamin C through their own internal system).
Thanks to the Association of American Feed Control officials there is a requirement of an “Ingredient Listing”. This clearly tells us the true story by listing all ingredients in descending order, by weight without showing the actual weight. But what is the importance of knowing the actual weight? Suppose, for example, that beef is listed as the first ingredient, causing you to think it is the primary ingredient. Look again. If it is followed by wheat flour, wheat germ, wheat middlings and so on, the combined wheat products may very well total much more than the beef. This is one tactic used by manufacturers to disguise less desirable ingredients. Breaking an ingredient into several different smaller ingredients and listing them individually is used to lower undesirable ingredients farther down the ingredient list.
But how about the “Guaranteed Analysis”? The famous regulatory requirement for pet food that refers to minimum or maximum values of key nutrients (such as minimum protein and fat) as well as the maximum fiber and water content. Note that it only has to list “crude” nutrients. "Crude" refers to the total protein content, not necessarily the amount of protein that is actually digestible. What this means is that this is only a crude protein percentage, and fat amounts are rough guides. The actual amounts depend upon the ingredients and their quality.
The amount of moisture in a food is important, especially when you are comparing foods. A food containing 24% protein and 10% moisture would have the same protein per serving as a food with 24% protein listed on the label but only 6% moisture. Keep in mind that you are buying more water instead of food.
While the guaranteed analysis is a start in understanding the quality of the food, be very careful about relying on it too much. This will make you think: A pet food manufacturer made a mock product that had a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber, and 68% moisture, similar to what you see on many canned pet food labels. The only problem was that the ingredients were old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water!
Let’s dedicate a couple thoughts to weight information. Maybe one day someone will explain to me why the net content weight is measured in pounds, but the amount to feed our dogs is in grams. Or why the cup size for measuring calorie content is different from the one used to measure for feeding. Or does the manufacturer who recommends feeding measured in cups really not want us to compare pricing with his competitor who feeds in ounces? And does the statement: “distributed by…” mean the food is “manufactured” in places still very easily crossing our mind when we think about the history’s largest pet food recall during Spring of 2007? It seems like the only thing easy to understand on pet food labels is the “Dog” or “Cat” food designation. Not much room for interpretation there.
The bottom line is you have to do your homework. This requires time and effort and certainly cannot be done in front of the food shelves in the market. Check out the internet or visit your local library. Researching pet food may take some time on your part, but I’m sure your healthy pet is worth it to you. Don’t be afraid of asking questions from the pet food stores and manufacturers. If they have nothing to hide they will provide you the information you need in order to make an educated decision. Tip: Ask for a “Dry Matter Analysis”, the only way to reliably compare dog food with dog food instead of comparing garbage with dog food.
Labeling standards for the pet food industry since the mid fifties have come a long way but they sure have a long way to go. I can’t help but think about some pet food manufacturers by recalling a statement once made by the great Leonardo Da Vinci: "Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful. The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood." This applied to pet food labels would be a great step in the right direction.