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Pet Food Package- Understand What It´s REALLY Telling You

March 12, 2021

By Brooke Sloate


Many pet parents find pet food packaging difficult to understand. And it is. However, if you don't know what the package is saying, you don't really know what you are feeding your pet. So, let's take a look at pet food labeling with the health of your pet uppermost in mind


How Pet Food Packaging Is Regulated

Pet food labeling is regulated at the federal level by the Food and DrugAssociation (FDA) and by a private non-profit corporation, Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).


What's in a Name?

Let's begin with the significance of a pet food product's name. The FDA has four rules regarding how a product is named. After understanding these rules, you may start looking at your pet food labels differently!  


1. The 95% Rule

This guideline applies to products consisting of very few ingredients. This means that if a pet food is named "Tuna Fish Cat Food" or "Beef Dog Food," at least 95% of the food must contain the named ingredient (in this case, tuna fish or beef). 

Also, the ingredients must be listed in order of inclusion weight. For instance, the product cannot be named "Chicken and Salmon for Cats" if it contains more salmon than chicken.


2. The 25% (Dinner) Rule

This rule applies to many dry and canned pet foods where the named ingredients make up a minimum of 25% of the product but not 95%. In this case, the name must incorporate a descriptive term like dinner, entrée, formula, recipe, etc. Also, each ingredient named must constitute a minimum of 3% of the total pet food. 


·         Example: pawTree Real Turkey& Sweet Potato Recipe for dogs. In this case, the food must contain Turkey and sweet potato making up at least 25% of the total ingredients AND sweet potato making up at least 3% of the formula. If this product were named "Sweet Potato & Turkey Recipe," it would have more sweet potato than turkey, but at least 3% turkey.


3. The 3% (With or Contains) Rule

This guideline enables pet food makers to list any minor ingredients that add up to at least 3% of the product. So, the term "With Cranberries" means there is at least 3% cranberries in that pet food. However, when it comes to feeding a dog, it's easy to get confused: 

 "Chicken Dog Food" contains at least 95% chicken.

 "Dog Food with Chicken" contains only 3% chicken.  


4. The Flavor Rule

When using the word "flavor," no specific percentage of flavoring is required, but there must be enough to be detected. So "Chicken Flavor Dog Food" means that usually there's 1% or less of that named ingredient in the product.


Pet Food Claims

A claim is a statement made on pet food packaging that tells the customer what's special or different about the product. A claim can describe an ingredient or the nutrition it provides.


·          Examples: "Real turkey is the first ingredient" and "No poultry by-products."

·           Examples: "Balanced Calcium and Phosphorus for bone and tooth health" and "Contains Taurine to support heart and eye health."


Guaranteed Analysis

A guaranteed analysis is required on pet food packaging. This includes a guarantee of crude protein and crude fat protein showing minimum levels, and crude fiber and moisture showing maximum levels. Note that the "crude" term refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself. Some manufacturers also include guarantees for other nutrients. Examples are the minimum amount of taurine or the maximum percentage of ash in cat foods. 


Ingredient Panel

It's important to understand how to read the ingredient panel on pet food packaging. When comparing two different products, even if they both say "turkey" or "salmon," that doesn't mean they are the same. There could be a difference in the quality of the ingredients. Generally speaking, a pet food with higher quality ingredients will cost more.


Turkey Meal or Meat Meal?

A good pet food should have a named meat meal on its label, e.g., "Chicken Meal" or "Turkey Meal." But if the label says something like "Meat Meal" or "Animal Meal," there is no way to know what that "meat" could actually be. 


The Nutritional Adequacy Statement

This is one of the most important parts of a dog or cat food label. A "Complete and Balanced" pet food must be shown to be nutritionally adequate using one of two methods:


1.       The pet food must contain ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile. Currently, the AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrition Profiles are used.


2.       The pet food must meet a) an Established Nutrient Profile or b) a Feeding Trial Protocol.


Example of a): "pawTree Real Turkey & Sweet Potato Recipe adheres to the nutritional standards specified by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutritional Profiles for proper growth and maintenance." This means that the product includes the correct amount of all essential nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy animal's good condition.


Example of b): "Animal feeding tests following AAFCO procedures have substantiated that (name of the product) provides complete and balanced nutrition."


The nutritional adequacy statement should also state for which life stages the product is suitable for.


Life stages include:  


·          Growth (means for puppies and kittens).

·          Maintenance (means for adult dogs and cats, including seniors).


Any product labeled: "This product is meant for supplemental or intermittent feeding only" does not meet the requirements for being “Complete and Balanced” and is not intended for the sole nourishment of an animal. An example of this would be treats.


A lot of people feed both canned and dry food – especially cat parents. When comparing pet food labeling, the crude protein levels, and other listed nutrients are shown as much lower for canned products. This can be explained by looking at the moisture content. 


Canned foods are likely to contain 78% - 82% moisture, compared to only 10% - 12% for dry foods. So, in order to compare the Guaranteed Analysis of dry food and wet food, you need to compare them on the same moisture basis.


A quick way to do this is to multiply the guarantees for the canned food times four. You will see that canned food generally has more protein than dry food.


Feeding Guidelines

Pet owners are often confused about how much to feed their pets. Take note that the feeding guidelines on pet food packaging are just that – Guidelines - a place to start. Lots of factors can influence food intake - breed, metabolism, daily activity, age, genetics, environment, outdoor temperature, and more. So generally speaking, the guidelines on the packaging are trying to cover all contingencies and, therefore, are often more than a pet needs.


The key things you need to know about pet food labeling to make sure you understand what you are feeding your pet.