I’ve been on more than one “health kick” in my life. I’ve tried fad diets, I’ve tried living non–dairy and low carb, and I even did the keto diet for a year. In each endeavor I would learn the ins and outs of my new and improved way of eating and I would do a lot of reading. During all my failed efforts to be healthier (I’m a bacon and carb junkie by the way), one thing I did learn and never forgot is that food labels are deceptive. There are legal ways to word things to imply that something is one way when in fact it’s another.
Pet food labels are no different. On the labels and in the description there are clues as to what your pet food actually contains, and it’s all in the wording.
But why is it not what it may seem?
To answer this question, we need to go over some common misconceptions and what the words on pet food labels really mean. In a perfect world, we’d be able to read the packaging and know that if it says the food is “beef,” then that is what the food is made of…but that’s not necessarily the case. There are marketing hacks that have been approved and are actually legal where the wording can lead you to believe the food you’re buying is made mainly from the meat which you’re choosing, but with a little more research, you’ll find that this is just not the case.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary joint association of local, state and federal feed control officials, including officials from the FDA, working to safeguard the health of animals and people, ensure consumer protection and provide a level playing field of orderly commerce for the animal feed industry. They have determined that pet food labels and packaging must abide by four rules.
The first rule is the “95 Percent Rule.” This rule states that at least 95 percent of the product must be the named ingredient listed on the package. So, in simple terms, if the label says “Beef Dog Food” or “Lamb for Dogs,” then the product must contain at least 95 percent of that meat, and it must contain at least 70 percent of the product when counting the added water. The remaining five percent of the product must be the required ingredients to make the product nutritionally sound, such as vitamins, minerals and any small amounts of other ingredients such as preservatives. This is the most transparent rule; if you name a meat or other ingredient on the package, then it must contain 95 percent of that ingredient.
The second rule is the “25 Percent Rule.” This is where it starts to get a bit more complicated. For the 25 Percent Rule, a product only has to contain 25 percent of the product advertised on the package—but the trick is in the wording. If you see a pet food called “Beef Entrée” or “Chicken Dinner” or “Salmon Platter” rather than straight forward “Beef for Dogs,” this is the 25 Percent Rule being applied. The food you are looking at only has 25 percent of the ingredient listed on the package, not including water, and at least 10 percent when including the water. So, if they have at least 25 percent of the ingredient but less than 95 percent, they have to use the qualifying terms “entrée,” “platter” or “dinner.” Tricky, yes, but completely legal, and a consumer who never learned this would be none the wiser.
The third rule is the “’With’ Rule.” This rule states that a pet food label must contain the word “with” when the product contains only three percent of the product on the label. For example, if you see a bag of dog food that is labeled “Dog Dinner Platter with Chicken,” there is only three percent chicken in that food. The same goes with multiple ingredients on a package label such as “Beef Dinner with Peas,” which would indicate that the food you are looking at has 25 percent beef (because it is called “Beef Dinner” rather than just “Beef”) and only three percent peas because the single word “with” was added.
This is why understanding food labeling is so important in order to identify what you’re actually buying. The addition of one single word changes the percentage by a huge amount and the rest can be fillers such as corn, grains and other ingredients that don’t provide the best nutrition for your pet.
The last rule is the “’Flavor’ Rule,” and this rule is the most deceptive of them all, in my opinion. For this rule, the word “flavor” is key to understanding what’s really in the bag. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if the label says “Chicken Flavor Dog Food,” a specific percentage of the named ingredient (chicken) is not required, but the product must contain enough of the product to be detected. Let that sink in…the label can call it Chicken, Beef, Pork, Salmon, etc., but if they add the word “flavor” to it, then it really doesn’t have to contain any specific amount except enough to be detected. The only catch is that the word “flavor” must be in the same font, size and color as the advertised ingredient such as Chicken, Beef or Pork.
Another marketing term that leads a consumer to believe they’re buying a quality product are the words “complete and balanced” added to the packaging. This statement simply means that the ingredients meet the government standards for all life stages of adult dogs. Often you’ll see labeling stating the food is a “Performance Diet” or “Senior Diet,” but AAFCO only recognizes four stages: gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance and all life stages. So, a “Senior” or “Performance” formula, in reality, only has to meet the requirements of adult maintenance and doesn’t have to meet any higher standards. In some cases the formula may contain higher levels of proteins, carbs or fats for energy, but it doesn’t actually have to.
And all you organic food lovers out there, be aware that there are currently no specific regulations about organic ingredients and labeling when it comes to pet foods, but they are being developed. In the meantime, the term “organic” on pet food labels must meet these few requirements: no artificial preservatives, colors or flavoring, no antibiotics or growth hormones in the meat and meat by products, and little to no fillers. This isn’t quite the definition of “organic,” but at least it offers some insight to what’s in that particular food.
The long and short of it is that to offer your pet the best or the most beneficial diet, you must understand that labels aren’t always what they seem. Be an informed consumer, do a little research, and read between the lines of the labels to ensure that you and your pet are living your best life. ✂️