A Holistic Vet’s Guide to Pet Food, Part I – Who’s in Charge?

In 2007, when thousands of pets were sickened or killed by pet food contamination, and the recalls went on for months, the pet food industry claimed that it was highly regulated and therefore trustworthy. Clearly, that was then and still is not true. There are regulations that apply to pet food, but nearly all of them apply only to the post-production period-that is, labels, marketing, and advertising. What goes into pet food and how it is made is virtually unregulated. And yet, the labels can provide a great deal of information about that very process, tell you about the quality of the food, and help you decide which ones to avoid and which are the best and healthiest food for your pets.

Despite all the “small print” and vague terms on the average pet food label, the rules governing pet food labels are actually quite simple. Once you know these few basic rules, you’ll be scanning the label like a pro and actually understanding what it says, what it means, and whether it’s good for your pet.

First, let’s take a look at who makes the rules. There are two primary groups involved: state governments and the federal government. At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are involved. At the state level, the state agriculture department in most states (a different department in a few states) designates one or more of its feed control officials–the folks that inspect all animal feed, including pet food–to participate. The body to which these representatives belong is called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO is not itself a regulatory body and does not do any tests or enforce any laws.

Every year, AAFCO has meetings to discuss potentially needed changes, and publishes a book containing everything an animal feed or pet food maker needs to know: what nutrient levels are needed in a food, the rules governing labels, and how to conduct tests. These are “model” regulations that can then be adopted by the states, where they then become law. Only about half the states have actually adopted the AAFCO rules; and several others have something similar on the books. However, in order to ship nationally, all major pet food companies follow the AAFCO guidelines in order to avoid problems when the inspectors check out their foods.

There is a lot of confusion about AAFCO, and many writers have accused the organization of being “the fox guarding the henhouse” because their book lists not only the government officials, but also a long list of “advisors” from the industry, including many pet food companies. However, these advisors are basically just lobbyists; they do have some influence with the officials, just like any government lobbyist, but they don’t make the rules. The state and federal representatives are the only voting members with power to change the rules. AAFCO takes its consumer protection role seriously and has rejected many attempts by the pet food industry to change ingredient names, label requirements, and other items that would make it harder for the consumer to make informed choices.

So what does this all mean for your pet? First, this knowledge helps you understand how laws and rules do and do not protect your pet. And second–and perhaps more importantly–as a result of this understanding, you’ll be better equipped to evaluate other information you might find in books or on the internet. After all, those who have a false concept of how pet food regulation actually works are likely to be wrong about other things as well–so you probably shouldn’t take their advice!