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Confused By Pet Food Labels? Why Not...It's Fuzzy Math

Updated on September 3, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

Dog food ad from 1953
Dog food ad from 1953 | Source

Or How 95% + 5% = 70%

There are three entities that can influence pet food labeling, which on the one hand can reassure pet owners that labeling is being thoroughly scrutinized, while on the other hand can lead to confusion.

The honcho in this triumvirate is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which establishes standards that apply to all animal feeds. Specifically these standards include proper identification of product, net quantity statement, manufacturer's name and address, and proper listing of ingredients.

Individual states comprise the next level of regulation as they are free to enforce their own, additional labeling standards. This could lead to some confusion if neighboring states set different standards or regulations.

Theoretically, if you lived in a border community, you could buy some pet food at a local store that would contain different label information than the exact same product bought in a store in your neighboring community across the border.

The third regulator is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which covers product name, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions, and calorie statements.


If Not a Government Agency, Then What Is AAFCO?

It could mistakenly be perceived as a paper tiger since the Association has no regulatory authority of its own. But being a voluntary membership group of regulators from each state, plus Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Canada, the FDA and the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA), it has very impressive credentials. And it has clout, too.

How seriously AAFCO is taken is evidenced by the fact that manufacturers who comply are in voluntary compliance with their standards, and it would be a challenge to find a manufacturer that declines to do so.

There is also a Memorandum of Understanding between FDA and AAFCO that, through September 1, 2015, allows FDA to formally recognize the Association's list of feed ingredients.

It also defines the role FDA can play in deciding on the suitability of feed ingredients offered for addition to the list.

Most states that establish their own regulations follow AAFCO standards.


So What About the Fuzzy Math?

They call it the 95% rule. In the early 2000s you may have noticed the introduction of canned dog food prominently labeled 95% Lamb or 95% Chicken, etc.

Several manufacturers put out such products in response to pet owners’ demands for higher quality products.

The 95% refers to the named meat. If it says 95% Lamb, then the total weight has to be 95% lamb, exclusive of “condiments” and any vitamin/mineral package.

Sounds pretty good so far, right? But wait! There’s more!


Manufacturers are allowed to weigh the meat before the water necessary for processing is added.

When you factor in the water, the regulation says that the actual volume of meat must be at least 70%.

So, that 12 ounce can of dog food that boasts 95% Whatever Meat, could be, in reality, only 70% meat. Still a pretty good product compared to the other cans on the shelf, but certainly misleading.

If there are two named meat sources, say 95% Turkey & Giblets, the first named must also be the most by volume.

In this example, if the giblets outweighed the turkey, the manufacturer would be in violation.

Then There's the "25%" or "dinner" Rule

Under this rule, if the named ingredients total at least 25% of the product, minus water sufficient for processing, but less than 95%, the name must include a “qualifying descriptive term.”

Commonly used qualifying descriptive terms might be words such as: dinner, platter, entrée, and formula, for example.

So, if you see a can of Beef & Salmon Dinner, its meat content is somewhere between 25% and 94%. Makes it sort of hard to compare brands, doesn’t it?

And What Are Regs Without the "3%" or "with" Rule

You’ll often see a pet food label sporting a colorful burst exclaiming “With Lamb” or some other ingredient. While the design is to impress you, and maybe it does, what it really means is that the named ingredient comprises less than 3% of the weight. It was unclear to me where water sufficient for processing comes into play.

And Last, but Not Least, the "flavor" Rule

I’ll let FDA say it because they say it best: Under the "flavor" rule, a specific percentage is not required, but a product must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.

There are specific test methods, using animals trained to prefer specific flavors, which can be used to confirm this claim.

In the example of "Beef Flavor Dog Food," the word "flavor" must appear on the label in the same size, style and color as the word "beef."

The corresponding ingredient may be beef, but more often it is another substance that will give the characterizing flavor, such as beef meal or beef by-products.

With respect to flavors, pet foods often contain "digests," which are materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors.

Only a small amount of a "chicken digest" is needed to produce a "Chicken Flavored Cat Food," even though no actual chicken is added to the food.

The World of Kibble Can Be Similarly Confusing

Dry dog and cat foods can become complicated when choosing what you think is best. For example, some dog foods exclaim “Real Chicken Is The #1 Ingredient.” Chicken, as defined by AAFCO, is the meat with the moisture still in it. Chicken is about 70% water.

I wonder what they mean by "real" chicken, anyway. If it says "chicken" that ingredient has an AAFCO definition. There's no such thing as fake chicken in pet foods. Pet owners don't realize that what pet food manufacturers tout as real chicken is actually about 70% water. Chicken meal, which doesn't sound like real chicken (but is) contains less than 10% water and can contain up to three times the protein as " real chicken."

Think of a one-pound boneless, skinless chicken breast. That’s basically a pound of slop. If you squeezed most of the water out of it, you’d end up with about a third of a pound of meat.

Because chicken is so watered down, manufacturers have to add another protein source to get the protein level up to the value stated in the guaranteed analysis.

So, on a bag of dog food that says chicken is the first ingredient, look a few ingredients down the panel and you’ll see chicken by-product meal or poultry by-product meal.

Some folks are under the impression that meal is an inferior ingredient. The fact is, chicken meal is that same meat, but with the moisture extracted; down to about 8%. Meat meals have up to 300% more protein than the raw meat of the same named species.

If your dog food has chicken meal as the first ingredient, you won’t see the by-product meals because the first ingredient is a stand alone protein source and is sufficiently rich in protein to meet the claim on the guaranteed analysis.

There’s nothing wrong with chicken and chicken by-product meal, except that it’s akin to buying chuck, but paying sirloin prices.

By-products, by the way, isn’t the beaks, feet and feathers as some would have you believe. It's mostly organ meat, albeit the organs we wouldn't eat, such as reproductive organs and digestive organs, for example. While they sound most unappealing, they are nutritious and would be consumed by the dog or cat in the wild.

So, there’s a glimpse into our triple-barreled regulatory regimen. It’s probably the best there is; and pet foods have never been under such regulatory scrutiny as they are now.

But from what I've read, and from talking with pet owners, that doesn’t seem to bolster public confidence in the safety of pet food and treats.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for stopping by, rebeccamealey. It would be helpful to learn the definition of ingredients and not just make assumptions about what they are. Without that knowledge, reading the ingredient panel can be an effort in futility. You can Google them, or go to the AAFCO website, although some of the AAFCO definitions create additional questions by most pet owners. It's worth the effort, though. Thank you for commenting.

      Earthborn is my ultimate recommendation, but I also rep for the company so I'm not quite impartial, VVanNess. There are a number of similar quality brands, but they are more expensive. These would include: Wellness, Blue Buffalo, Merrick, Nature's Variety, Solid Gold, Precise and others of that genre. If there was such a thing as reincarnation, I wouldn't mind coming back as your dog, if you were feeding any of them.

      I haven't got anything good to say about the brand you just bought, or any of the foods of that genre. And they're actually more expensive to feed because you have to feed so much more of those. For every cup of one of those you feed, you'd feed 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of what I recommended. You'd notice a significant difference in your dog's skin, coat, and digestion, plus there would be benefits you wouldn't see, such as a better supported immune system and musculo-skeleton system, for example. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • VVanNess profile image

      Victoria Van Ness 4 years ago from Fountain, CO

      So id Earthborn the food you ultimately recommend? We've had a really hard time finding food that our pets will love, that will be quality, and that won't cost us an arm and a leg. We currently pay about $1 a pound or less.

      In fact, we just found a 50 pound bag of Purina Dog Chow on sale at Wal-Mart for $17.99. We totally took advantage of it!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very enlightening, and this motivates me to pay more attention to my pets' food. Thanks! Shared!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks, Lizzy, nice to see you again. I'm doing more on Bubblews now, so it's nice to re-connect with my HP friends. Thanks for stopping by and sharing and pinning.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Stopping by again to share and Pin! This is important information.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for stopping by, TonyBooth. There's so much bad information out there regarding pet food. Pet owners often don't know where to look for objective, scientific information and rely on sources that lack any credentials. It's not rocket science, but it is science...and most pet owners make decisions based on emotion. Thanks for commenting.

    • TonyBooth profile image

      TonyBooth 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      A great hub highlighting the problems of trying to identify what we are feeding our best friends. The same problem exists in the UK too, as I have found while researching the Chinese jerky food and treat scare and potential glycerine content of treats and foods on our supermarket shelves.

    • profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago

      Oh, so that's how it works! Thanks for the explanation. In spite of HP, the Google bots are invited to my hubs anytime and I hope they realize that!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      LOL--no, the "pending" status only "hides" the hubs from the Google bots; if they happen by, they'll see a "no index" instruction, and so not include it in their search engine. Then, it may take a while before the hub is crawled again, and finally gets put out available to searchers, but it is immediately visible to both other Hubbers, and anyone outside to whom you give the link. ;-)

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Lizzy, what took you so long :-) I only published it about 15 minutes prior to your comment.

      I thought hubs were "Pending" for about 24 hours so that HP could scrutinize them, and that no one could see them until they were taken off Pending. Oh well, nice to have you drop by.

      You're correct, though, that advertising is clearly aimed at the human, since it's the human that's the decision maker. The advertising is usually on an emotional, rather than scientific, level and sometimes comes close to being emotional blackmail. But, people fall for it.

      Thanks for the comment and votes. I hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas. Regards, Bob

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting, indeed. I have cats, so I am aware of the confusing labeling, further muddied by the advertising designed to appeal more to a human palate than a dog's or cat's.

      Voted up, interesting and useful.