There are 9 ingredient terms for meat in pet food. Learn what each one means, where it comes from, and why it matters.
On average there are 38 ingredients in dog food and 34 ingredients in cat food, according to data from Petnet. For anyone who has read ingredients on processed food in general, that number probably isn’t too shocking. Pet food labels (like most food labels) list ingredients in order of weight, so that generally “whole” ingredients start off the list, then you get into the tongue-twisters like enterococcus faecium - yum!
Even if you can decipher all of the ingredients on a pet food label, it’s still often a mystery where each ingredient comes from. In a previous article we talked about how the FDA and the AAFCO provide guidelines for pet food ingredients, but don’t have regulatory oversight. They also don’t require ingredient sources to be listed on pet food labels (just the location of the manufacturer or distributor).
This means that if you’re feeding your dog conventional pet food, the ingredients within it can come from a wide array of sources. That main conventional ingredient - meat - certainly comes from many different places. We scoured the websites of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO) to bring you the information you should know about meat in pet food.
Rendered meat (meat meal)
As an ingredient, rendered meat or meat meal, is a widely encompassing term. According to the AAFCO, meat meal 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 in good processing practices.” They go on to explain that this ingredient may be from any number of animals other than cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats, without further description on a pet food label.
It’s this wide-ranging definition of meat meal that prompted Slate to investigate the question, “Does your pet’s food contain dead pets?” The answer was, “Maybe.” Since euthanized dogs and other animals can be sent to rendering plants and pet food manufacturers don’t need to specify the type of animal in their “meat meal” it’s a possibility.
The presence of euthanasia drug pentobarbital in pet food also raises a red flag for what meat makes its way into the mix. Pentobarbital was the number one cause of pet food recalls in 2017 (and the first large-scale recall of 2018). While in all cases the FDA stated the amount of pentobarbital present was not lethal, they reinforce that it should never be present at any level. An investigation is ongoing into the current recall, and you can see details (including which brands are affected) on the FDA’s website.
How often are meats mislabeled?
If “meat meal” includes meat from many different species, you’re likely wondering what other terms are used by pet food companies to clarify the type of meat used in their product.
There are a total of nine terms used as ingredient classifications for meat in pet food according to the AAFCO. We were surprised to find that out of these nine, three do not require the species to be identified.
However, even the blanket term, “meat” can include the flesh of four different animals - cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. The research team at Chapman University in 2015 set out to learn just how accurate meat identification in pet food was. They analyzed 52 commercial pet food products to identify meat species present as well as any instances of mislabeling.
Out of the tested products, 31 were labeled correctly, 20 were potentially mislabeled, and 1 contained a non-specific meat ingredient that could not be verified. Their results suggest the occurrence of pet food mislabeling in the market, and they recommend further studies to determine the extent of the issue.
What about human-grade pet food?
Because of the potential for mystery meat to make its way into pet food, some pet parents are looking for “human-grade” pet food. Currently, “human-grade” is not an officially recognized term by the AAFCO. However, it is something on their mind.
According to the 2017 annual meeting notes from the AAFCO Pet Food Committee, substantiating human-grade claims in pet food was a topic of discussion.They asked, “Do we need more ingredients to talk about the source of the meat ingredients?” One suggestion, from David Meeker of the National Renderers Association, was to add ingredient definitions in the animal protein products section to clarify some “premium” or “pet food grade” ingredients.
No conclusion has been reached yet, so consumer (and FDA) investigations continue to determine what’s really making its way into pet food. You can always call or write to your pet food manufacturer to ask where they’re sourcing meat ingredients from, and check the label to know which “meat” ingredients require the type of animal to be specified.