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

How Much Meat Is Really In Our Pets' Food & Where Does It Come From?

Pet food manufacturers are always aware of growing trends in their industry, and in recent years there has been a rise in pet owners wanting to feed their dogs and cats a high meat content diet. As a result, it is now not unusual to see pet food brands claim that there product has a high protein content.

While a pet food manufacturer cannot claim that a product has a greater meat content that it actually has, with some intelligent marketing and presentation they can make a fairly low-quality food sound like an ideal dinner for your pet.

The main question that needs to be considered is “what does your pet’s food ACTUALLY contain?

It needs to be remembered that five multi-national companies own 80% of the pet food brands on the market. Brands owned by these companies are commonly referred to as “Commercial Pet Foods”. The multi-national companies behind these commercial pet food brands have major marketing budgets, and understandably, employ many talented people to present their products in the best light. In theory, there is nothing wrong with that. All businesses want their products to be seen in the best light possible, but one question that needs to be asked is, has the marketing got ahead of the science?

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”). 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.

Do We Understand All Of The Ingredients On The Pet Food Label?

We should be able to assess the quality of a pet food by reading the ingredients list on the pet food label. This exercise is not, however, always as simple as it should be.

By law, the pet food industry has to provide the consumer with certain information. Further, FEDIAF in its Code confirms that:

“The prime purpose of a label is to facilitate the buying act of the purchaser by delivering clear, concise, accurate, true and honest information on the composition, characteristics and use of the product.”

The problem is, this is only a code of practice and is not law and cannot be enforced. All that can be enforced is the legal requirements surrounding the labelling of pet foods. Currently, the legal requirements are not strict enough to guarantee that we are receiving clear information on the composition and characteristics of our pets’ food. Further, special provisions have been made for pet food, which in some regards relaxes the laws around labelling of pet food.

On many commercial pet food labels, words such as meat and animal derivatives and animal by-products are contained within the ingredients list. This tells the consumer nothing about which animal species are used for meat in the pet food, or which parts of the animal have been added.

The law defines “meat and animal derivative” as:

“All the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcase or parts of the carcase of warm-blooded land animals”.

The first part of this definition isn’t too bad, apart from the fact that it doesn’t require the manufacturer to identify the species of the animal slaughtered. The second part of the definition is, however, more problematic. This could be connective tissue, feathers, hooves, beaks, wool, hides and tails.

The use of the term “meat and animal derivatives”, to describe the meat-based protein source in our pets’ food, was sanctioned by the EU to relieve manufacturers from the requirement to specify every ingredient contained in the pet food they produce. The EU only sanctioned this relaxation of the labelling requirements of feedstuffs for pet food, and not for animals which may enter the human food chain.

If we are purchasing a budget pet food and it lists the main meat ingredient as “meat and animal derivatives” rather than (for example) “fresh deboned chicken and chicken liver”, it is worth considering whether the food contains lean muscle meat and offal, or is perhaps more likely to contain connective tissue, and/or a high percentages of bone, feathers, wool or hooves?

When looking at pet food, we may also want to consider the legal definition of “animal by-product”. This is defined as:

“entire bodies or parts of animals, products of animal origin or other products obtained from animals, which are not intended for human consumption, including oocytes, embryos and semen.”

Hooves, beaks, hair feather and connective tissue are all high in protein, and cats and dogs need protein. So, we can ask ourselves if meat and animal derivatives and animal by-products are high in protein then what’s the problem with these ingredients? Well, the problem comes with the quality and digestibility of the protein source contained in our pets’ food.

The Importance Of Protein

Dogs and cats need 22 amino acids to be healthy. Dogs can synthesize 12 of these amino acids and cats can synthesize 11 of them. The remaining 10 amino acids for dogs and 11 amino acids for cats must come from the food they eat if they are to remain healthy, and this is why they are referred to as essential amino acids. Amino acids are found in the protein and therefore, the quality of that protein and its quantity is extremely important to our pets’ health. The less digestible the protein, the less amino acids our pets will gain from their food.

Beaks, feathers, wool, hooves and connective tissue may be 100% protein, but they are indigestible for dogs and cats and are extremely low in essential amino acids. The more indigestible a protein, the more stress it places on kidney and liver function in a cat or dog. Accordingly, if you are feeding your pet a food which contains meat and animal derivatives you have no way of knowing how much digestible protein the pet food truly contains.

In the documentary The Truth About Your Dog’s Food , the Chief Executive of the PFMA observed that there is no legislation that focuses purely on pet food. At present, the laws surrounding pet food are contained in the same legislation that provides for farm animals and feedstuffs. Whilst a piece of legislation focused purely on pet food would be welcome, it is not the need for separate legislation that is the biggest problem, it is the fact that the legislation is not stringent enough to ensure that pet owners are being given all the necessary information to make an informed choice on what we should feed our pets.

Separate legislation for pet food may be in the distant future, but what is needed now is at least a tightening of the existing laws so that labelling requirements for pet food is less difficult and confusing to navigate.

Our Thoughts

Here’s what we think we should remember when reading the ingredients list on a pet food label:

  • Look for pet foods that contain whole ingredients, with identifiable meat sources.

  • Look at what comes first in the composition description. This will usually be the biggest component of the food. If it’s not meat, this is likely to indicate a low level of meat content in the food. If it’s been replaced with cereals and other fillers you may wish to look for an alternative pet food with a higher meat content, from identifiable meat sources.

  • If you want to be sure what you are feeding your pet, avoid foods that contain generic terms such as: “meat and animal derivatives”, “meat meal”, and “animal by-products”. These terms don’t give you sufficient information about what is in the food.

  • It is suggested by FEDIAF that where an ingredient has been incorporated in a dehydrated form, that terms such as “dried”, “powdered” or “meal” should be used to indicate the process and or state of the dehydrated material. Dried deboned chicken breast, for instance, may be more preferable to chicken meal. With chicken meal, you have no way of knowing which parts of the chicken the meal comes from unless the manufacturer tells you.

We always encourage pet owners to have a look at the label and familiarise yourself with the ingredients. This will help you make informed decisions about your pet’s diet!

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