Holistic, super superb and better than that, organic, natural, the cure for everything and anything, you name it, the pet food market is going extremely strong in these and similar categories for foods and treats. This comment is meant to be a crash course and a quick overview of what you need to know when deciphering pet food labels of products falling into any of these categories.
“Premium” and superlatives thereof: Many pet foods are labeled as "premium," and some now are "super premium" and even "ultra premium" and whatever else marketing gurus will come up with to out-do these aforementioned classifications trying to imply that the newest super food just has arrived on earth. Other products are touted as "gourmet" items. Don’t be fooled, products labeled as premium or gourmet are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products, i.e. this is a meaningless claim.
“Natural, All Natural, 100% Natural”: While being extremely well received by pet owners or consumers, this claim again is nothing more but meaningless. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) “All fresh meat qualifies as natural”. Food labeled this way should not contain any artificial flavors, coloring, chemical preservatives or synthetic ingredients and only can be minimally processed (example: Ground). Minimally processed? Right there goes your dream of buying “Natural” kibble, the manufacturing process of making dry food in my opinion is everything but minimal processing. One requirement the USDA makes is that food labeled as “natural” is that it also must include a statement that explains the use the term, like for example: “No artificial flavors added”. The label does not prohibit the use of any animal by-products in cattle feed. Jo Robinson, author of “Pasture Perfect” and a leading expert on the benefits of grass feeding, in an interview with Whole Dog Journal back in September 2008 claimed: “Virtually all the beef in your supermarket comes from animals that were treated with growth promoting antibiotics. You can’t tell by reading the label, however, because the FDA doesn’t require antibiotic use to be listed. It’s agribusiness as usual.” Here is the FDA’s exact wording about the meaning of the “Natural” claim on a pet food label:
“The term "natural" is often used on pet food labels, although that term does not have an official definition either. For the most part, "natural" can be construed as equivalent to a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product. As mentioned above, artificial flavors are rarely employed anyway. Artificial colors are not really necessary, except to please the pet owner's eye. If used, they must be from approved sources, the same as for human foods. Especially for high-fat dry products, some form of preservative must be used to prevent rancidity. Natural-source preservatives, such as mixed tocopherols (a source of vitamin E), can be used in place of artificial preservatives. However, they may not be as effective.“
"Natural" is not the same as "organic." The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. I just for the purpose of doing research for this comment, visitied the FDA’s website and learned that “There are no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods (for humans or pets) at this time, but the United States Department of Agriculture is developing regulations dictating what types of pesticides, fertilizers and other substances can be used in organic farming.”
According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), “stringent standards put in place a system to certify that specific practices are used to produce and process organic agricultural ingredients used for food and non-food purposes.
National organic standards set out the methods, practices and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock and processed agricultural products. The standards include a national list of approved synthetic and prohibited non-synthetic substances for organic production. See http://www.ota.com/listbackground05.html for more details.
Organic production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Cloning animals or using their products would be considered inconsistent with organic practices. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.
National organic standards require that organic growers and handlers be certified by third-party state or private agencies or other organizations that are accredited by USDA. Although farmers and handlers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products and retailers that do not process these products are exempt from certification, they must meet all certified organic grower and handler requirements to maintain the organic integrity of the organic products they sell. Anyone who knowingly sells or mislabels as organic a product that was not produced and handled in accordance with the regulations can be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.” Note: Now here is a solution that seems workable, maybe the same should be applied to pet food labeling in general. I am sure imposing penalties would clear up a lot of the existing confusion in no time.
The OTA continues: “Consumers can look for the “USDA Organic” seal or other approved labeling, and for the name of the certifier on the label of the products they consider for purchase. Products labeled “100% Organic” and carrying the “USDA Organic” seal are just that, they contain all organically produced ingredients. Products that are made from at least 95% organic ingredients, and have remaining ingredients that are approved for use in organic products may also carry the “USDA Organic” seal. In addition, products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may label those on the ingredient listing. Producers and processors voluntarily use these labels, and may use organic ingredients without being required to label them. “
For pet food, the organic label, which applies to meats, poultry and dairy products has the backing of a strict legal standard and certification system. This means that the consumer can rest assured that animals being used for organic food certified have not undergone genetic modification, they were fed grass or grain free from chemical pesticides, fertilizers, animal by-products and other adulterants, were not genetically modified and not treated with any antibiotics, growth hormones or chemical pesticides. While the animals must have access to the outdoors, they are not necessarily raised on pasture and their access to the outdoors may be limited. Additionally, despite the fact that their feed has to be produced organically, it does not need to be fresh or of high quality.
There for sure may be many loop holes in this entire system of organics, however in my opinion, compared to any other pet food labeling standards, I rate the organic statement due to the certification process required probably the safest bet to get a pretty close idea about the food one is buying.
“Grass or pasture fed” animal ingredients in pet food according to the USDA are defined as “animals living on pasture and eating only grass and forage after weaning for their entire lives.” The term implies, though not required by the USDA organic farming methods.
Let’s take a look at the term “Pasture raised”: Sustainable Table, an organization dedicated to educating consumers on food related issues and working to build community through food, defines the term as follows: “ Today’s dominant form of agriculture relies on synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, large amounts of water, major transportation systems and factory-style practices for raising livestock and crops. Artificial hormones in milk, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, mad cow disease, and large-scale outbreaks of potentially deadly e.coli are all associated with this industrial form of food production. Pasture-raised animals spend most of their time outdoors, where they're able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants as they would in nature. In addition to dramatically improving the welfare of farm animals, pasturing helps reduce environmental damage, and yields meats, eggs, and dairy products which are tastier and more nutritious than foods produced on industrial farms. Animals raised on pasture enjoy a much higher quality of life than those confined within factory farms. When raised on open pasture, animals are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This lifestyle is impossible to achieve on industrial farms, where thousands of animals are crowded into confined facilities, often without access to fresh air or sunlight. These stressful conditions are a breeding ground for bacteria and the animals frequently become ill, so factory farms must routinely treat them with antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease. Grazing on pasture is especially beneficial for cattle and other ruminants, whose bodies are developed to eat grass. The roughage provided by grasses and other plants allows ruminants to produce saliva, which helps neutralize acids that exist naturally in their digestive systems. When taken off pasture and put on a diet of grain, a ruminant will produce less saliva, causing an increase in acidity within its digestive tract. As a result, grain fed cattle often suffer from a number of health problems including intestinal damage, dehydration, liver abscesses and even death. Despite the fact that grain diets can sicken cattle and other ruminants, factory farms feed these animals grain (usually corn or soybeans) because it's a cheap way to fatten animals and force them to grow to market weight as quickly as possible.”
Poultry is often classified as “Free range or free roaming”. This classification implies that the animals have been grass fed and had unlimited access to open pasture. Because the term is not specifically defined in the US it can be another misleading claim. All it takes is an open door in the chicken cage and the chicken may or may not use that open door. Maybe they won’t because by doing so they end up standing and walking on concrete or gravel. When having the privilege of standing and walking on grass, the chicken normally and preferably gets classified as being “pastured”.
With “No antibiotics” classified ingredients like meat, poultry, eggs or dairy are coming from animals that have been raised without the use of just such.
“No hormones” has to be used in combination with pork or chicken based ingredients. Legally hormones cannot be given to these animals, therefore again we are looking at another claim without any meaning.
Simple is “No animal by-products”, it is supposed to be just what it says.
And finally, a term yet rarely to be found is “Biodynamic”. Ingredients certified as such are sourced from animals raised organically according to strict standards developed in the 1920’s by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. It is a classification which is way beyond the “organic” certification. According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the term refers to “…a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth organism to that of the entire cosmos. … If the results of the Biodynamic approach may be found in the quality of produce, the health of land and livestock, and the freedom from environmental problems increasingly generated by many modern farming methods, what of the approach itself? What distinguishes it from other agricultural attitudes and techniques? Essentially, biodynamic farming and gardening looks upon the soil and the farm as living organisms. It regards maintenance and furtherance of soil life as a basic necessity if the soil is to be preserved for generations, and it regards the farm as being true to its essential nature if it can be conceived of as a kind of individual entity in itself, a self-contained individuality. It begins with the ideal concept of the necessary self containedness of the farm and works with furthering the life of the soil as a primary means by which a farm can become a kind of individuality that progresses and evolves. … Biodynamic farming and gardening combines common sense agriculture, an understanding of ecology, and the specific environment of a given place with a new spiritual scientific approach to the concepts, principles, and practices of agriculture.”
In summary, pet owners and veterinary professionals have a right to know what they are feeding or recommending to feed their animals. The pet food label contains a wealth of information, that is, if one knows how to read it. However, today more true than ever before, don’t be swayed by the creativity of the industry’s marketing departments with their marketing gimmicks and eye catching claims. If in doubt, if you have questions about a product, ask your retailer, if he can’t help as he is supposed to, contact the manufacturer or ask an appropriate regulatory agency. As C.J.Puotinen, a frequent Whole Dog Journal contributor and freelance writer and author of “The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care” and other books on holistic health care and herbal remedies says in a comment for the Journal back in September 2008: “Because so many label claims are unregulated and because so many firms and ranches operate outside the certification process, the best way to find out how your meat, dairy products, eggs and poultry are raised and processed, is talk to the growers. Pasture farmers are usually passionate about what they grow. They will explain everything in detail and invite you to visit.” Doreen Eldred a pasture farmer in Chester, NY in that same comment adds to Poutinen: “A label is only as accurate as the person placing it on the package. If you want to know the quality of the meat you are getting, you need to know the farmer and how the animals are being raised. It is all a matter of trust.”