Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cat Food Labels Decoded

You know that proper nutrition is an important factor in helping to keep your cat healthy. But what does that mean? How do you know what is good and what is just clever marketing? Here are some facts, tips and labeling definitions that can help you navigate the shelves of cat food options.

First of all, did you know that pet food products are among the most highly regul
ated items in a typical grocery store? Pet food ingredients, the manufacturing processes and package labeling are all governed both at the state and federal levels. Almost all of the state laws and regulations are based on the work of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organization of state officials who regulate animal feed, which includes pet food. AAFCO has established a standardization of ingredient definitions, nutritional requirements, labeling and other guidelines. This has helped to create uniformity between states so you know you are getting the same quality regardless of where you are buying the food, or where it was manufactured.

At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) all have regulatory authority over pet food. In addition to specific state requirements, the FDA also has specific requirements for all food products, human and pet. These include ensuring that the products are "pure and wholesome", "free of harmful or deleterious substances", and "truthfully labeled". In a
ddition, canned pet food has to meet the same conditions as human food canning requirements.

To read more about labeling requirements at both the state and federal levels, visit The Pet Food Institute.

So in keeping with the "truthfully labeled" requirement, what do all those different words mean?

Holistic - This sounds as though it would be a great option, doesn't it? However, under the AAFCO labeling requirements, there is no legal definition of the term "holistic". This means that any company can put the word holistic on their cat food labels without having to defin
e just what makes their food holistic.

Natural - This is also a great sounding option, and it actually does have specific AAFCO requirements to be
included on a label. However, "natural" simply means the food consists of ingredients that have not been subjected to chemical synthesis. Plus, natural does not mean organic.

Organic - Just as with human foods, in order for a cat food to be allowed to carry the USDA organic seal at least 95 percent of the content by weight must be organic. And organic is defined as a product that is grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers.

By-Products - Many of us think that by-product is a dirty word. Not the case at all, and in fact, by-products actually can provide a great deal of nutritional benefit for your cat. A by-product is simply the parts of the animal that are not used for human food production, such as fat, internal organs, etc. If you think about how your cat's wild cousins hunt and eat, they don't waste those parts of the animal and focus only on the whole meat. Many wild animals actually start with the so-called by-products, saving the whole meat for last because the internal organs contain essential vitamins and minerals not found in the whole meat. For example, the liver provides vitamin A and iron, and bone marrow and bones provide calcium, fatty acids and antioxidants. Poultry by-product meal, or chicken meal, can actually be quite beneficial for cats as it contains taurine in much higher levels than in whole meats. Taurine is essential for cats' cardiace and ocular (eye) health.

AAFCO does regulate what is considered a by-product fit for inclusion in pet food. They do not include feathers, hair, hide, hooves, manure or stomach content. As an added green benefit, the use of by-products helps to reduce waste since these are products that would otherwise be trashed.

And now for some of the trickier labeling definitions:

Formulated to meeting nutritional levels established by AAFCO: If your pet food h
as wording similar to this on it, it has not gone through any feeding and/or digestibility trials. While the formulation method is still highly regulated, there is no documentation on how this particular formula will affect your cat. A much better label wording is animal feeding test using AAFCO procedures substantiate that this food provides complete and balanced nutrition.

. Just as
in human food labels, ingredients in cat food are listed by weight in descending order. For example, a cat food label that begins "chicken, corn meal, poultry by-products...." has a greater weight of whole meat chicken than corn meal. But be careful. Although ordered by weight, there is nothing that indicates how much more chicken than corn meal may be in there. The weight difference could be as little as less than a tenth of a percent or it could be 20 percent more.

"Beef Dinner" "Chicken Platter" "Seafood Entree" "Liver Formula" You pick up a can that's labeled "seafood entree". That means it's going to be full of yummy seafood for you cat, right? Not necessarily. Diets with these examples of labeling are only required to contain 25 percent of the main labeled ingredient.

"with Chicken!" Any label that has this type of wording, whatever it might be with, is only required to contain 3 percent of that ingredient.

And the silliest labeling requirement of all: "Flavor". As long as the "flavor" is "recognized by the pet", a product can be so labeled. No word on how a flavor is "recognized", though...

It is a good habit to read the labels of your cat's food. Just keep in mind that manufacturers will obey the letter of the labeling laws as far as the content of their products. We hope that this blog has helped you to become a little savvier in reading between the lines.


For more information on all things pet food related, visit these websites:
AAFCO - Association of American Feed Control Officials
AAHA - American Animal Hospital Association
ACVN - American College of Veterinary Nutrition
The FDA Pet Food Site
NRC - National Research Council for nutrient requirements of dogs and cats
Pet Food Institute