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Understanding Pet Food Labels


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Pet Food Industry Labeling

There are severe problems with the pet food industry's labeling practices. The labels follow a secret code, and consumers do not have the key to decipher it. In fact, most consumers do not even realize that there is a hidden meaning in the label's wording.

The "Flavor" Rule states that a food may be labeled as "Beef Flavored Dog Food" even if it does not contain any beef, as long as the flavor is "sufficiently detectable." This is achieved by using meals, by-products, or various parts from the animal listed on the label.

When a label reads "With Real Turkey," a consumer may assume that he is purchasing quality turkey dog food for his pet. However, according to AAFCO's "Nutrient Profiles," a label may use "with" if it contains 3% of the meat, excluding water.

The 25% or "Dinner" Rule states that any label that has a qualifier such as "dinner," "entrée," or "nuggets" must contain at least 25% of that meat. If two ingredients are listed, such as "Chicken and Liver Dinner," then the total product weight must equal 25%. The first ingredient listed must contain more than the second, and the second ingredient must comprise at least 3% of the total product weight excluding water for processing.

Very few all-meat commercial foods are available, because they do not provide a balanced diet. Some companies offer canned meats with 95% and 100% of one ingredient as a supplement. To qualify for using "all" or "100%" on a label, a food must contain 95% of that ingredient or 70% of the total weight excluding water for processing. If the label reads "Beef and Liver for Dogs," the food must contain a combined amount of beef and liver to total 95%, and again there must be more beef since it is listed first.

Dog Food Ingredients

Meat Products

The protein in dog food comes from poultry, cattle, fish, lambs, swine, and other animals. Choice cuts are stripped away for human consumption. This leaves approximately 50% of the carcass including bones, blood, intestines, lungs, ligaments and any other portion not usually eaten by humans, according to the Animal Protection Institute.

Material received from the slaughterhouse is "denatured" to prevent it from being manufactured for human consumption. Denaturing involves covering the raw meat with any number of substances including the federally-approved substances of carbolic acid (phenol, a potentially corrosive disinfectant), fuel oil, kerosene, crude carbolic acid, citronella, or creosote (used to preserve wood or as a disinfectant). Dr. Wendell Belfield, DVM, former USDA Vet, stated that as a veterinary meat inspector, he used carbolic acid and creosote, both of which are extremely toxic. Creosote, with its distinct odor, "was used for many years as a preservative for wood power poles. Its effect on the environment proved to be so negative that it is no longer used for that purpose."

At the rendering plant, the meat is shredded and cooked at high temperatures until the fat separates from the meat. This process is seen on a small scale when you boil chicken on your stove. The fat floats to the top; and if allowed to cool, it will harden in a thick layer. The fat is removed to be used later. The water is squeezed from the remaining material to create meat and bone meal. Although rendering kills bacteria, it also removes nutrients and proteins needed for energy.

Meat and bone meal is made of more than just meat and bone. All kinds of things find their way into the rendering pot. In addition to slaughterhouse waste, animals that fit within the 4D Rule are also rendered - that includes animals that are disabled, diseased, dead or dying. Other rendered items include restaurant grease and leftovers, roadkill, euthanized companion pets complete with flea collars and the green bags in which they are transported, grocery store items such as meat and baked goods that are past their expiration date (Styrofoam tray and plastic wrap included) and much more.

AAFCO defines meat and bone meal as: "the rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach, and rumen contents, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices." David C. Cooke writes in his article "Animal Disposal: Fact and Fiction" that it seems hardly feasible that rendering plants would be able "to remove the hair and stomach contents from 600,000 tons of dogs and cats prior to cooking them."

Meat by-products are defined by AAFCO as: "the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hooves."

No recipe exists for the meat material produced by the slaughterhouses and rendering plants. Meat by-products and meat and bone meals vary from batch to batch creating an unstable source of nutrition for pets.

Although many sources are opposed to the use of by-products in dog foods, Laura Michaels, the owner of Woodhaven Labradors feels differently. She states that just because humans do not consume a particular part of an animal does not mean that part lacks nutrients. People do eat intestines; they're known as chitlins. Grocery stores sell the cow's stomach; it's called tripe. Some people even eat pork brains in milk gravy in their scrambled eggs. These parts are all by-products used in pet food. The owner of Woodhaven Labradors pointed out that in the wild, animals "don't go for the 'meaty haunch', they go for the gut and pull out all that gooey stuff and eat it."


The food that comes from the manufacturing plant is so rancid that no dog would touch it. So why does your dog come running when you open a new bag of commercial pet food? Because that overpowering odor wafting from the bag smells like dinner to him. Fat is sprayed directly on the morsels of food, and that is what you and your dog smell. The fat that entices him to eat is gathered from the rendering plant, restaurant grease, and other sources of fats and oils that are too rancid for human consumption. The restaurant grease is gathered from various establishments and stored in huge drums, sometimes outside for weeks at a time in extreme temperatures. Fat is also used as a sort of glue to stick other flavors to pet food morsels. These flavors and the sprayed fat trick pets into eating the food.

Grain Products

Many dog foods list corn, corn products, or other grains on the ingredient list - usually two of the top three ingredients. The amount of grain products has steadily increased since the first commercial pet foods. The biggest problem posed by the nutrients in grains is digestibility. As much as 20% of the nutritional value of grains can pass through the body unused, however, pet food companies still list this as viable nutrition on the label. Some grains are used as fiber and others to make dogs feel full. Peanut hulls, for instance, have no nutritional value but are a cheap form of fiber.

We all know that our pets enjoy meats - especially cats, who are true carnivores - so why are we feeding them corn? It all goes back to the pet food industry focusing on business first. Grains are a cheaper energy source, so grains are better for their bottom line.

Types of grains used in pet foods include wheat, soy, corn, white rice, potatoes, beans, oats, and peanut shells.

Additives & Preservatives

Additives are used in pet food for any number of reasons, but they have no nutritional value. Artificial colors and flavors are added to improve appearance and taste. Emulsifiers prevent the separation of water and fat. Antioxidants prevent the fat from turning rancid. T.J. Dunn, notes that the exceptional amount of additives in commercial dog foods "simply reveals the trickery needed to coax dogs and cats into consuming such material."

Semi-moist treats are especially full of additives, preservatives, and dyes. Ann Martin writes of a woman who "fed her cat some of these semi-moist tidbits. The cat became ill shortly after eating them, and even professional carpet cleaners could not remove the red dye from the carpet where her cat had been ill."

Pet foods are able to be stored for long periods of time - from manufacturing through shipping to the grocery store shelves and your home. More preservatives are used in dry foods than moist, since canning is a method of preservation in and of itself.

The fats used in pet foods are preserved with either synthetic or "natural" preservatives. Common synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin. Little research has been done on these potentially dangerous chemicals. They are used at low levels; however, our pets consume them every day of their lives. According to the Animal Protection Institute of America newsletter, "Investigative Report on Pet Food," ethoxyquin remains in dogs' bodies for months after it is removed from their diets. After the FDA received many complaints regarding pets that ate foods containing ethoxyquin, it required Monsanto, ethoyquin's manufacturer, to perform a detailed study. Monsanto found no major safety issues with its own product, but the FDA requested that manufacturers lower the amount of the antioxidant from 150 ppm to 75 ppm. This was not required of manufacturers, only requested until further studies can be made. API points out that even though ethoxyquin is approved for human use at 100 ppm in spices such as chili powder, it would be quite difficult for one to consume as much chili powder in a lifetime as a dog does dry dog food.

Some manufacturers are switching to natural preservatives, such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E, because of the publicity concerning ethoxyquin's safety. Natural preservatives are not as effective as synthetic ones, however, they are safe. Consumers should be wary of dog foods that are labeled as "all natural," "preservative free" and other such labeled products. Dr. Lisa Freeman, DVM, writes in her article, Nutrition, that there is no legal definition of "all natural," and that "manufacturers define products by what they believe these terms mean." Sometimes a manufacturer may not have added any preservatives, but the meat or other ingredients may have had preservatives added to them by suppliers.

Illness & Disease

Low quality ingredients, excessive chemical additives, and poor labeling standards all result in problems for your companion pet, from skin allergies to cancer.

The manufacturing processes of rendering and extruding may kill bacteria, but they do nothing to destroy the toxins produced by bacteria. Other toxins that are not necessarily removed during processing include:

  1. Hormones, such as those used to fatten livestock or increase milk production
  2. Insecticide from flea collars on euthanized companion pets and patches from livestock
  3. Condemned and contaminated material from slaughterhouses
  4. Sodium pentobarbital, the drug used to euthanize pets

Even the grains used in pet food can be contaminated and may cause sickness and disease. Improper drying techniques or storage methods and low quality grains often result in the growth of mold or fungi. The toxins produced can cause vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, liver damage, lameness, or death.

Nature's Recipe was forced to recall thousands of tons of dog food in 1995, and in 1999 Doane Pet Care recalled 54 brands of dry dog food including Wal-Mart's Ol' Roy because of fungal toxins. Twenty-five dogs died in the Doane Pet Care case, and 250 dogs became ill after eating the contaminated Nature's Recipe.

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