Pet food labels are a rich source of information for those who know how to read them. While they don’t tell you everything about the food, they do provide guidelines for comparison shopping.
Packaged pet food is a great convenience, but how do you know you’re getting a good quality product? The best way is to learn how to read the labels, but if you’re like most people, you probably find the terminology more than a little confusing, if not downright indecipherable. For example, how does “meat” differ from “meat meal”? And what the heck is “animal digest?” Which ingredients are healthy choices, and which should you avoid?
Ingredient names are defined by law in most regions, based on definitions accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Association of American Food Control Officials (AAFCO). While not all areas have legally adopted these definitions, all national pet food companies follow them. Here’s a look at some of the most common terms on pet food labels, and what they actually mean.
Meat is “the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals, and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus…”
Meat is a fresh product, and the term is limited to cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Choose a food that specifies the meat, like “beef” or “lamb.” If the label just says “meat,” it may contain a mixture of species.
Poultry is “the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.”
Unlike meat, poultry may include bone. The chicken used in pet foods is typically “backs and frames” left over from processing broiler chickens into breasts, legs, and wings for human consumption. “Backs and frames” include the spine and ribs with whatever meat is attached. It may also include the bone and skin left over from processing “boneless skinless” chicken parts.
This is “the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably…”
Look out for “number one”
Some poor quality dry food labels proclaim that a meat, such as fresh chicken, is “the #1 ingredient.” This is just a clever bit of marketing. Ingredients are listed by weight; chicken is 70% water and thus quite heavy, so a very small amount of chicken will put it at the top of the list. In actuality, the food usually is based on cheaper, more concentrated ingredients, such as by-product meal or corn gluten meal.
Meat meal, like all animal meal products, is rendered – cooked to remove the fat and moisture – leaving a dry powder that is nearly 100% protein. Note that “added” blood, hair, horn, hoof, etc., is not permitted, but there is no requirement for the removal of such contaminants as may naturally be present. Bone may comprise a considerable proportion of this product.
Poultry meal is “the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.” This definition is consistent with the definitions of poultry and meat meal.
Meat by-products “is the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves.”
Basically, by-products are “parts that aren’t meat.” They are fresh, not rendered. Some pet food companies specify the by-products they will accept, such as kidneys, liver, and lungs. Either way, by-products are best avoided.
Poultry by-products consists of “non-rendered, clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter…” This recently revised definition states that fecal content must be removed. The old definition did not have this requirement.
Poultry by-product meal
Poultry by-product meal is “the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers…”
Poultry by-product meals are very common in poor quality dry foods. Most poultry in the U.S. is processed at “captive” renderers, meaning that the slaughterhouse and rendering facility are privately owned and located together. “Mega” chicken growers and processors, such as Tyson and Foster Farms, are the primary sources of chicken meat, meal, by-products, and by-product meal for big pet food makers.
Meat and bone meal (MBM)
MBM is “the rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents…”
MBM is a convenient catch-all term for whatever offal and refuse happens to be rendered that day. This is where the worst stories about pet food come from. Many renderers accept for processing such items as road kill, euthanized pets from shelters and veterinary clinics, downers and animals who died on the farm, during transport, or at the slaughterhouse, cut-away cancerous tissue, fetuses, out-of-date supermarket meats, restaurant waste, and other unappetizing ingredients. Needless to say, the presence of MBM on a label is a signal that the food is of inferior quality.
Animal digest is “material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue. The animal tissues used shall be exclusive of hair, horns, teeth, hooves and feathers, except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably…” Animal digest comes in a liquid or powder form that is typically sprayed onto finished kibbles to add flavor. It is found primarily in low quality foods.
Corn meal and corn gluten meal
Corn meal and corn gluten meal are high-protein residues of processed corn, and are used as high-calorie fillers and substitutes for animal protein sources in cheap pet foods; they should be avoided.
Is it really “complete and balanced”?
A food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by AAFCO in one of two ways:
1. Nutrient profiles set the required amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and so forth. A manufacturer can formulate a food based on the amount of each nutrient in each ingredient, or chemically test the finished food. However, keep in mind that poorly formulated foods can meet these standards, yet not provide adequate nutrition to support an animal’s long-term health.
2. Feeding tests are the “gold standard” because they require the food to be fed to live animals over a period of time. However, the “family” rule allows products that are “similar” to a lead product (one that actually was fed to live animals) to carry the identical label designation. There is no way of knowing if a particular food is one that was actually tested, or a “distant relative” that wasn’t.
Know the rules – they may surprise you!
Every pet food has a name, whether it’s “Lamb and Rice Dinner,” “Beef for Dogs,” or “Tuna Flavor Dinner.” But what do these labels actually mean? Believe it or not, there are specific regulations for naming pet foods, so it’s helpful to know the “rules.”
95% Rule: “Chicken for Dogs” must contain at least 95% chicken (excluding water). “Fish and Giblets for Cats,” meanwhile, will be 95% fish and giblets combined, but there must be more fish than giblets, since fish appears first on the label.
25% Rule: “Fish Dinner” or “Beef Dinner” must contain 25% fish or beef. If more than one ingredient is named, the two together must comprise 25% of the total, although the second ingredient may be as low as 3%. This means that “Lamb and Rice Dinner” may actually contain a greater quantity of other ingredients, such as chicken and corn.
“With” Rule: If the word “with” appears on labels (e.g. “Fish Dinner with Giblets”), the second ingredient must comprise 3% of the food. An ingredient labeled as a “flavor,” such as “Beef Flavor Dinner,” doesn’t have to contain any beef at all, just something that gives the food a beef flavor.
Check out the guaranteed analysis
The Guaranteed Analysis on labels tells you how much water and “crude” protein, fat and fiber are in the food. These amounts are arrived at by chemical testing, and are useful for comparing different foods. If you’re comparing canned to dry, however, you have to subtract the moisture percentage on the label from 100% to get the total “dry matter.” Then divide the ingredient in question by the dry matter to get the actual ingredient content. For example, a dry food with 10% moisture and 30% protein contains 33% protein (30/100-10), while a canned food containing 78% moisture and 10% protein actually contains 45% protein (10/100-78), on a dry matter basis.