Who Regulates Pet Food Labeling, And Why Does It Matter?

You feed your dog two (okay, maybe three and some treats) times a day, but how did you decide what food to buy for them?

Oftentimes we give our dogs the food we received in our starter kit from the shelter. Maybe we choose the same food our childhood dog grew up with, because we’re familiar with it. I remember sneaking a sandwich-cookie shaped treat from my dog’s stash as a child because I thought, “Hey, it looks good!”

That might be getting a bit too familiar with your dog’s food, but can you blame a kid for trying? In all seriousness, shouldn’t we feel as comfortable with the food we’re giving our pets as the food that we eat ourselves?

There are many store-bought options for feeding your dog, and if you’re looking to switch foods, you’ve likely been reading your fair share of dog food labels.

However, just as with human food labeling, what we see isn’t always what we get. Let’s look at the process behind pet food labeling in the US, what’s ended up in dog food recently (that shouldn’t have), and how to make an informed decision when buying food for your best furry friend.

 

Pet Food Recalls in 2018

Performance Dog Pet Food Recall (9/13/2018)
Steve’s Real Food Recalls Dog and Cat Foods (9/9/2018)
G and C Raw Dog and Cat Food Recall (8/6/2018)
Dave’s Dog Food Recall (6/13/2018)
Merrick Recalls Multiple Dog Treats (5/23/2018)
OC Raw Dog Recalls Dog Food Due to Risk of Listeria (4/21/2018)
OC Raw Dog Recalls Dog Treats (4/21/2018)
TruDog Withdraws Dog Food Due to Salmonella (4/18/2018)
Vital Essentials Dog Food Recall (4/16/2018)
K9 Natural Dog Food Recall (4/13/2018)
Blue Ridge Beef Dog Food Recall (3/27/2018)
Darwin’s Dog Food Recall (3/27/2018)
Smucker Recalls Milo’s Kitchen Dog Treats (3/23/2018)
Redbarn Expands Recall to Include Multiple Brands of Dog Chews (3/8/2018)
Tucker’s Raw Frozen Dog Food Recall (3/6/2018)
Steve’s Real Food Recalls Raw Frozen Dog Food (3/3/2018)
Northwest Naturals Dog Food Recall (2/24/2018)
TruDog Pet Treats Recall (2/24/2018)
Vital Essentials Dog Food Recall (2/24/2018)
FDA Expands Nationwide Beefy Munchies Dog Treats Recall (2/19/2018)
Smucker Recalls Multiple Dog Food Brands (2/15/2018)
Darwin’s Dog Food Recall of February 2018 (2/12/2018)
Redbarn Bully Stick Dog Chews Recall (2/10/2018)
Raws for Paws Dog Food Recall (2/9/2018)
Smokehouse Pet Products Dog Treat Recall (2/9/2018)
Just Food For Dogs Dog Food Recall (1/15/2018)

 

Let's talk about the big question: Who’s responsible for overseeing pet food labeling?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the main entity responsible for overseeing pet food labeling in the U.S.

If you check out the FDA’s guidelines, you’ll see that they currently require the following on pet food labels:

  • Proper identification of the product
  • Net quantity statement
  • Name and place of business of the manufacturer/distributor
  • Proper listing of all ingredients in the product in order from most to least, based on weight

The FDA is supported in its quest for proper labeling by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). They help create state-specific regulations that are then enforced by the state’s feed control officials. As stated on their website, “AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company's responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.”

To our surprise, the FDA also doesn’t require that pet food products have pre-market approval. However, they do ensure that ingredients used in pet food are “safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food.”

 

So, the FDA and the AAFCO exist, but are they doing their best for our pets?

According to Brian Barth at Modern Farmer, “A private organization with no regulatory authority, the AAFCO can’t enforce its voluntary guidelines, which emphasize nutritional requirements over sourcing.”

In addition, advisors to the AAFCO’s Pet Food Committee include representatives from meat-industry interest groups like the National Renderers Association and the American Feed Industry Association. While we weren’t totally shocked to see these organization on the list, it wasn’t making us feel any better about the AAFCO.

While some oversight does apply to pet food manufacturers, much due diligence is left up to pet parents to understand what’s in their pet’s food. When it comes to the worst offenders, it’s up to the FDA to issue recalls, and both the FDA and the manufacturer to communicate with consumers.

 

The worst offenders - you won’t believe what’s made an appearance in your dog’s dinner

Questionable meat meal, mislabeled meats, and rendered meat including flesh from animals that may be diseased all make it into pet food. Occasionally, other unsavory items make it from factory to feed as well.

In 2017, according to FDA records for recalls and withdrawals, pet food recalls occured due to the presence of pentobarbital, beef thyroid hormone, salmonella, quaternary ammonium compound mixture, and metal piece contamination. Below, we walk through an overview of each case, and the frequency of each.

 

Pentobarbital

A chemical used for the purposes of anesthesia or euthanization of animals, the FDA conducted two studies (1998 and 2000) to determine the “safe” level of pentobarbital for pet food. Their study concluded that based on available samples, the maximum pentobarbital a dog would consume is 4 micrograms/kilogram body weight/day. How does it get into pet food in the first place? “Presently, it is assumed that the pentobarbital residues are entering pet foods from euthanized, rendered cattle or even horses,” says the FDA report.

According to board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Cailin R. Heinze, “Pentobarbital has been a known potential issue in pet food manufacturer for over a decade and it can be avoided by careful attention to ingredient sourcing, auditing suppliers, and testing at the pet food plant during or after the food is made. So, this type of recall should be considered more negatively when choosing a pet food.”

 

Beef thyroid hormone

The FDA states that animal food presenting elevated thyroid levels is likely to contain animal gullets with improperly removed thyroid glands. This particular recall stemmed from an FDA investigation of three dogs that were presenting with symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

 

Salmonella

Salmonella is one of the leadings causes of food poisoning in the United States according to Foodsafety.gov. Pets that have ingested food contaminated with Salmonella can pass on the bacteria to other pets and humans.

 

Quaternary ammonium compound mixture

An antimicrobial chemical that while approved for cleaning food processing equipment, has not been approved to be used in the aid of producing rawhide chews for dogs

 

Metal piece contamination

According to the press release on the FDA website, this product was voluntarily recalled as a precaution due to metal contamination that could present a choking hazard to pets.

 

It’s up to you - Choosing the right pet food

While the recalls above are few in number compared to the relatively large amount of pet food products available on the market, they demonstrate the complexity of monitoring what makes its way into pet food.

For conscious consumers, finding a trusted brand is a top priority. Beyond reading labels, you can always contact the manufacturer of your pet’s food with any concerns. A company that stands by its product will have nothing to hide, and the should be happy to tell you where they source ingredients and answer any questions.

And hey, if you accidentally (or purposefully) take a bite of you pet’s food, you can digest easier knowing exactly what’s in it.