What's in a Name? Understanding Pet Food Labels

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Ever wonder about your pet's food? What's in it and how much? Of course, you expect the name to tell you something about what is in it - but does it tell the whole story?

Here is the equivalent to your secret decoder ring for pet food labels:

Pet food labels are regulated on two levels. There are federal regulations and some states have their own regulations as well, usually matching those of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Federal regulations (enforced by the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine), establish standards for all animal feeds, including proper identification (logo, brand, name), net quantity listing, manufacturer's address and proper ingredient listing. State regulations are more specific in covering the product's name, the guaranteed analysis and nutrition information as well as feeding directions.

Did you know that the name of a pet food is far more important than just a brand identifier or cute marketing technique? The way a product is named, including the order of ingredient words is strictly regulated. For example, "Chicken and Rice Dog Food" is very different from "Rice and Chicken Dog Food".

It's In There...

In order to say "Chicken Dog Food", the product has to contain 95% chicken (not including added water - 70% if you count the added water). If the product name is "Chicken Dinner for Dogs" or "Chicken Formula for Dogs", it must contain at least 25% chicken (but less than 95%). If the name uses "with", such as "Cat Food with Tuna", it has to be at least 3% tuna (but less than 25%).

If the word "flavor" is used (such as Beef Flavor Dog Food), there is no required percentage as long as the ingredient is detectable. Beef flavor may be from beef or beef by-products or beef meal. Stocks and broths may be used, as well. Whey is often used to give a milk flavor.

If more than one ingredient is included in the name (Chicken & Rice or Bacon & Cheese, etc), all of the same rules apply to the combined ingredients. In other words, the two ingredients must together equal the minimums set for each naming convention discussed. In a "Dinner" each named ingredient must be at least 3% and must total 25% together. It is also important which comes first in the name. If there is more rice than chicken it must be named Rice & Chicken, not Chicken & Rice.  In addition to the product name, the ingredient listing also has to be by order of content, that is, the ingredient that comprises the largest percentage must be listed first and the smallest percentage last.

Here's my question:

If the government is spending time, money and energy regulating the naming of dog foods, then why don't they make it more widely known what exactly those naming conventions mean? Why not let the average pet owner know how to determine what or how much of an ingredient is in their pets' food?

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