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What The Pet Food Label Doesn't Tell You | Part One

The Pet Food Label

Over the years, media attention has been drawn to the possible health implications of processed foods for humans. The same can also be said about our pets’ food, and it is believed that processed pet food can also have serious health implications.

As a result, more and more pet owners are looking to provide their pets with diets that are healthy, free from artificial preservatives and colourings, and contain identifiable sources of protein. Some pet owners also look for brands that are appropriate for pets with existing allergies and intolerances. In response to this, the pet food industry now provides pet foods labelled with words such as “natural”, “hypoallergenic”, and “sensitive”.

The problem, however, is that some of these claims mean very little. Providing the pet food manufacturer isn’t making any medical claims, they can still state that their food provides a range of benefits as long as there is some form of evidence to back it up. To add further uncertainty to these sort of claims, the evidence provided can come from studies commissioned by the manufacturer and not necessarily independent studies. This can sometimes result in biased studies.

The European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) represents the national pet food industry associations in the EU, including the Pet Food Manufacturers Association in the UK (PFMA). FEDIAF has produced a Code of Good Labelling Practice For Pet Food. The Code considers the claims that pet food manufacturers can make and what is required before they can make these claims. The Code is published on the PFMA’s website and is largely based on the legislative requirements of the Pet Food Industry.

Natural Pet Food – What Does It Mean?

The FEDIAFs’ Code for pet food labelling includes the term “natural”. A pet food claiming to contain “natural ingredients” may imply that the pet food is healthy for your pet and could be seen as a sign of quality pet food. However, when you look at the guidance contained in the Code on the use of the word “natural” you realise that calling a pet food is no guarantee of quality. The Code states the following:

“The term “natural” should be used to describe pet food components (derived from plant, animal, micro-organism or minerals) to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for pet food production and maintaining the natural composition”. Section of the FEDIAF’s Code of Good Labelling Practice for Pet Food, Published October 2019.

The Code goes onto list which processes and materials are considered unacceptable for natural foods. These include bleaching, chemical treatments, and the addition of any genetically modified additives of feed materials.

So breaking this down, the guidance tells us the following:

The use of the term “natural” should only be used to describe pet food components derived from “plant, animal, micro-organism or mineral”.

All cereals, meats and cellular organisms including bacteria and fungi would come within this part of the definition. This means that a food high in cereal content (a known cause of allergies in dogs and diabetes in cats) may still permit a manufacturer to call the pet food “natural”.

Does a pet food label containing the word “natural” help you identify a high quality and healthy pet food? No, not really. It is important to note, however, that some pet foods that use the word “natural” are excellent pet foods! It is always preferable that you read the ingredients on the back of the pet food label before you decide whether something is the right food for your pet.

Hypoallergenic & Sensitive Pet Foods – What Do They Mean?

Another claim frequently made on pet food labels is that the food is “hypoallergenic”, or, “sensitive”. The problem is that these words can be placed on a pet food label and still contain many components capable of triggering allergies or intolerances in your pet.

In January 2010, the PFMA circulated a document for its members.The document concerned EU Regulation 767/2009, which sets out certain legal requirements concerning the labelling of pet foods. The PFMA confirms in this document that:

“There is no definition of the term “hypoallergenic” as such. Companies need to carry out an internal risk assessment if the use of the term is justified. (Need to substantiate if challenged by Authorities).”

In essence, it is a matter for the manufacturer and its own internal risk assessment to decides if it claims a pet food is “hypoallergenic”. The PFMA does remind its members that the FEDIAF Code “includes a checklist and tables that can help members to collect information to substantiate their claims” and that manufacturers can be required to substantiate their claims. If disputed, the manufacturer can point to evidence to support its claims, which may be in the form of its own funded research.

Many pet owners purchase these products unaware that words such as “hypoallergenic” and “sensitive” are not legally defined and that the use of these words is not subject to strict regulation. The simple fact is there is no definitive list of what is and what isn’t “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive”, it is simply a matter for the manufacturer of the food.

Just like with “natural” foods, there is no guarantee that because something states it is “hypoallergenic”, or, “sensitive” that it is a good quality or will be beneficial for your pet. Whether a particular food will be beneficial for a pet with allergies or intolerances will ultimately depend upon the ingredients contained in the pet food and the type of allergy or intolerance an individual pet has.

A classic example is hypoallergenic pet food that contains grains or cereals. Whilst some grains such as brown rice may be very beneficial for some pets with allergies or intolerances, if your pet scratches and has itchy skin because it has an allergy to storage mites, then feeding your pet any food which contains grain or cereal is unlikely to help with their symptoms.

Again, the point should be stressed that some pet foods which contain the term “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive” are excellent pet foods, and they may be beneficial for your pet. Be sure to read the ingredients list on the pet food and make your own mind up as to whether it is a food which is likely to benefit your pet.

Our Thoughts

If you do have a pet with allergies or intolerances, here are our thoughts on what to consider when looking for a suitable food for:

  • If your pet suffers from allergies or intolerances that are being treated by your vet, always speak with them before changing your pet’s diet.

  • Try a grain and cereal free pet food. This will help with storage mite allergies or allergies to cereals. If you can feed wet food that is grain and cereal free, even better!

  • Try feeding single source identifiable proteins and avoid having more than one meat type in your pet’s food, at least whilst you’re trying to works out what meats your pet can tolerate. Pets with digestive issues can find pet food with a mix of proteins more difficult to digest. This will also help you identify if your pet is intolerant to certain types of meat.

  • You may want to try feeding your pet a form of protein they have not eaten before. Pets with food intolerances usually build up intolerances to the common forms of protein such as chicken and beef. So, try something different such as turkey, rabbit or venison.

  • Ensure that your pet food does not contain meat and animal derivatives, meat meal, or, animal by-product. You simply can’t be sure what you are feeding your pet if these ingredients are present in your pet’s food. It could be a meat source your pet is intolerant to, or, it could be the parts of an animal that are not particularly digestible and will inflame an existing intolerance or allergy.

  • Always introduce new food slowly over three to four days. Changing your pet’s food overnight is likely to cause an upset tummy, so give them time to adjust.

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