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AAFCO: A Guide to Pet Food Standards


By Wag! Staff

Published: 07/20/2023, edited: 06/14/2024

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Whether you’re a cat owner or a dog parent, you’ll know that choosing the right food for your pet is crucial. From looking up the ‘best wet puppy food’ for your new addition to researching the ‘best fresh dog food brands’ for a fussy eater, delving into the complex pet food market is unavoidable. 

But did you know that AAFCO is on hand to ensure your pets get the best nutrition possible? Read on for AAFCO guidelines, the importance of AAFCO labeling and what AAFCO-approved dog food really means.

What is AAFCO?

Chances are you’ve already spotted AAFCO on the back of pet food, or stated on the label of your dog food. But what is AAFCO? And why should you take note? 

AAFCO is an acronym for the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a non-profit-organization that sets standards for pet food labeling practices, nutritional content, ingredient definitions, feeding trials, laboratory analysis and more.

AAFCO supports the health, safety and well-being of animals, creating nutrient profiles that establish exactly what animals such as dogs and cats should be eating based on laboratory tests and the latest scientific research. AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles, for example, are backed by nutrient content analysis and AAFCO-compliant feeding trials.

medium-sized brown dog standing on a wood floor in front of a green couch eating out of a white steel dog food bowl

Does AAFCO approve or regulate pet foods?

AAFCO does not ‘approve’ brands or recipes as it doesn’t have regulatory authority. This is done by the Food and Drug Association (FDA). Terms like ‘AAFCO-approved cat food’ and AAFCO recommended dog foods therefore mean that the food holds an AAFCO ‘nutritional adequacy statement.’ This confirms that the pet food meets AAFCO guidelines. 

While AAFCO doesn’t directly test, regulate or certify pet foods, it works closely with FDA partners and state agencies to ensure all pet food is safely manufactured and labeled properly. FDA employees serve on several AAFCO committees, including the Pet Food Committee and Board of Directors.

Many states also enforce their own regulations on pet food. Some states, like New York, choose to use all or some of AAFCO’s ‘model’ feed bill updates and regulation changes as a basis for their own laws. But this isn’t mandatory and each state is different. 

black magnifying glass against a bright orange background

AAFCO — Key Responsibilities

AAFCO guidelines revolve around pet health and nutrition. AAFCO also has an extensive list of key roles and responsibilities.

These include:

  • Providing pet owners with practical, real-world information and answering questions about pet food. AAFCO members are not practicing veterinarians and therefore the organization doesn’t provide veterinary medical advice or recommendations of any type.
  • Establishing regulation models to ensure manufacturers provide clear and accurate information about animal feed, including pet food.
  • Creating and maintaining AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles detailing the minimum required amounts of essential nutrients. Profiles are also created for cats.
  • Setting standardized protocols for feeding trials. Pet food manufacturers can either formulate a product that fits an AAFCO nutrient profile. Or they can conduct a feeding trial following the AAFCO Feeding Protocols listed in the AAFCO Official Publication. This is an annual compilation of up-to-date AAFCO documents.
  • Drafting ‘model’ feed bill updates and regulation that guides state regulators.
  • Providing guidance on label definitions and standards to pet food regulators around the world.
  • Facilitating training seminars, workshops and outreach events for regulators and manufacturers.
  • Overseeing the AAFCO Ingredient Definition Request process that approves new feed ingredients for use in commercial feed products in the US under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the FDA.

1 green bag of cat food and 1 green bag of dog food behind an overfilled food bowl against a pink background

AAFCO’s Influence on Pet Food Standards

AAFCO’s influence on the pet food industry is clear to see. Dog food, for instance, can only make claims such as ‘complete and balanced’ if it meets or exceeds AAFCO’s minimum requirements as outlined in the nutrient profiles.

Products of this kind are clearly labeled with a ‘nutritional adequacy statement’ to inform customers that the product is complete and nutritionally balanced and no other supplementary forms of nutrition are needed.

As different quantities and ratios of nutrients vary depending on the dog breed and ‘recognized life stage,’ the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement helps match a pet’s nutritional needs with a product and is important for pet owners. You can also read reviews of dog food brands to influence your overall purchasing decision. 

For reference, life stages include:

  • Growth: puppies and kittens
  • Gestation/Lactation: pregnant and nursing dogs and cats
  • Maintenance: adult dogs and cats
  • All Life Stages: dogs and cats of all ages

AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement in Detail

AAFCO guidelines are clear and reassuring for pet owners. Extensive research goes into finding foods that ticks all the right boxes when it comes to nutrition. And while choosing the best food for your dog or cat can be difficult, the AAFCO ‘nutritional adequacy statement’ can make your life easier. 

This is a small label on pet food packaging that confirms the food meets the nutrient guidelines set by AAFCO. You’ll typically find it on the back, side or bottom of the package.

Here are some of the AAFCO labels you might see on the pet food you buy.

"[Pet Food Recipe] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO [Dog/Cat] Food Nutrient Profiles for [Life Stage]."

The above statement means the food has been analyzed at a lab to confirm it meets the nutrient guidelines for the relevant life stage. (AAFCO and federal regulators do not endorse any laboratories — manufacturers are responsible for finding a lab to complete the test.)

"Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Pet Food Recipe] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Life Stage]."

The above statement means the food has undergone feeding trials according to AAFCO's guidelines.

"[Pet Food Recipe] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [Life Stage] and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests."

The statement above is the least common and applies to foods that are similar to recipes that have passed a feeding test. 

This statement might be used for products in the same line that have the same nutritional makeup but are made with different ingredients or flavors.

"This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only."

Foods that do not meet AAFCO nutritional profiles and have not undergone feeding tests may have this statement. You may also see this statement on your pet's treats, meal toppers, and mixers.

How do AAFCO Feeding Trials Work?

Feeding trials help substantiate ‘complete and balanced’ pet food claims and offer an intensive study into how animals respond to a certain type of food. Each animal trials food according to their life stage and matching nutritional needs. Their health, weight and overall condition are then closely monitored for a period of around six months. 

Data is recorded carefully. If an animal thrives during the feeding trial and shows no signs of nutritional deficiencies, the pet food passes the feeding trial and can contain the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. Vets work with AAFCO during feeding trials to ensure the health and wellbeing of all animals.

While the basic concept of a feeding trial can be explained relatively easily, the process is a lot more intense. The section confirming nutritional adequacy in the AAFCO Official Publication is 60 pages long. 

Speaking of the AAFCO feeding trials, Executive Director Austin Therrell explains, “It’s a little difficult to pare this down into a small paragraph, but generally speaking, AAFCO sets the parameters that outline what an adequate feeding trial should consist of and what factors need to the considered to appropriately substantiate that the product will solely meet a pet’s nutritional needs.”

Examples of these parameters include:

  • The number of dogs/cats required for the feeding trial
  • The duration of the test
  • Clinical observations and measurements that must be taken throughout the trial

Therrell explains: “Pet food manufacturers can choose to either formulate a product to make sure it contains the minimum concentrations of all nutrients listed in the appropriate AAFCO dog or cat nutrient profile, or they can conduct a feeding trial following the AAFCO Feeding Protocols listed in the AAFCO Official Publication.”

As AAFCO does not specify who can conduct trials, any independent business can perform a feeding trial, so long as they follow the protocols outlined in the Official Publication put together by AAFCO.

Dog Food Brands that Conduct AAFCO Feeding Trials

When asked which popular pet food brands have completed AAFCO feeding trials, Mr. Therrell replied, "AAFCO does not maintain a list of products that substantiate nutritional adequacy one way over the other since both are considered appropriate."

While the feeding trials are a great way for brands to show their commitment to going the extra mile, these tests aren't "better" or more superior to other versions of the nutritional adequacy statement, which still requires a lab analysis.

"The good thing about clear, transparent regulations is that any consumer can look at the nutritional adequacy statement on a pet food label and know whether the product was formulated or substantiated through the AAFCO feeding protocols or not," says Mr. Therrell. "This should give the consumer confidence in the process."

That said, we were curious to know which brands have performed these trials. So, our editorial team personally reached out to over a dozen pet food companies to ask.

While most of the brands we spoke to assured us that they perform digestibility and palatability tests, only these companies responded that they perform feeding trials according to AAFCO guidelines:

a calico cat eating out of a steel food bowl next to a brown and white jack russell terrier dog also eating out of a steel bowl

New changes to AAFCO labeling guidelines

In July 2023, AAFCO officially approved new labeling guidelines that have been in the works since 2018. While you might start to see these changes in pet food packaging as early as 2024, AAFCO recommends a six-year transition period to give manufacturers plenty of time to adjust.

Let's take a closer look at how AAFCO guidelines have changed for labeling.

Redesigning the front of pet food packaging to include nutritional adequacy

The front of pet food packaging will now clearly state which life stage the pet food is suitable for. This will be a nice update for pet parents since these statements are typically in fine print on the back of the bag. Until now, there hasn't been a mandated spot for the nutritional adequacy statement.

This change also applies to treats, prescription diets, specialty diets, food supplements, toppers, and mixers.

Revamping the guaranteed analysis to include more details

Pet parents, canine nutritionists, and vets have been asking for an easier-to-understand nutrition label for years, and this change could be the answer.

The guaranteed analysis will look more like the nutrition facts box you see on your own food, clearly stating the amount of calories, vitamins, and minerals per serving.

Replacing crude fiber content with total dietary fiber content 

The crude fiber section is another pet peeve among nutritionists since, as it stands, pet food labels don't reflect the total fiber content. Total dietary fiber is a more accurate measurement of fiber content in pet food.

Updating the feeding trial protocols for large-breed puppy food

Currently, there are no calcium requirements for large-breed puppy food — this will be a much-anticipated addition since calcium is essential to strengthening puppies' bones (especially for large and giant breeds).

The proposed changes would give brands the option to do feeding trials with large breeds. It would also offer brands the option to do these tests with smaller dogs, just with the additional calcium that larger dogs require.

Adding handling and storage instructions and icons

This new design will make it easy to tell whether the food needs to be refrigerated, where it should be stored, and if it could be harmful to children or contaminate human foods.

Renaming some ingredients

The Ingredient Definitions Committee received the green light to change the names of some ingredients: 

  • Corn gluten meal will now be called corn protein meal.
  • Grain sorghum gluten meal will now be called grain sorghum protein meal. 

The committee approved the name change since these products don't actually contain gluten.

Enforcing new standards for 'human-grade' recipes and ingredients

In January 2023, AAFCO released new standards for ingredients that claim to be human-grade. Until now, there were no official standards on the production, handling, or packaging of human-grade foods.

person wearing blue gloves and white lab coat holding a syringe above a test tube containing a piece of dog food and green liquid

Food for thought: What experts have to say about AAFCO

AAFCO is undoubtedly an important organization — but there are a few things you should keep in mind on your pet food research journey, says Dr. Georgia Jeremiah, pet nutrition expert and one of Wag!'s veterinary consultants. Let's take a look.

The AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement is the bare minimum standard for pet food

Every pet food should have a nutritional adequacy statement to confirm it contains all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. Fortunately, almost all pet foods sold in the US have some sort of AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, except for certain specialty diets.

"As for the adequacy statement being the bare minimum for pet food, I stand by that," says Dr. Jeremiah. "I don't think AAFCO adequacy statements hold any real merit other than serving as a safety statement that the levels of trace minerals and additive substances in foods do not reach toxic levels."

She adds that these statements can also be beneficial for dogs on specialty diets, like grain-free diets, to make sure they have enough synthetic additives to offset deficiencies caused by eating these foods for extended periods.

Not all pets need 'complete and balanced' food

Some specialty diets contain less than optimal levels of certain nutrients for dogs who can't tolerate the recommended amount (usually due to a medical condition). 

Low-phosphorus diets, for instance, are formulated with lower-than-recommended levels of phosphorus for pets with poor kidney function. Weruva Wx Phos Focused Cat Food is one such food that doesn't have a traditional nutritional adequacy statement.

"Feeding trials have value, but AAFCO feeding trials are not the most rigid or most complete test of a diet."
— Dr. Wakshlag DVM and Dr. Shmalberg DVM

Feeding trials are conducted in special environments and conditions

A 2019 paper by Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag DVM and Dr. Justin Shmalberg DVM echoes some of Dr. Jeremiah's concerns about the merits of an AAFCO adequacy statement:

"Feeding trials are not trials of foods under normal conditions, but rather are strictly controlled endeavors that may be expensive and difficult on pet dogs." 

The paper goes on to say, "These guidelines are likely to detect major deficiencies that result in low blood proteins or perhaps toxicities leading to significant organ damage. It may be insufficient to detect inadequate mineral or vitamin intake because it can take longer than the study period to deplete reserves and/or to cause measurable changes."

AAFCO's role in pet food: Key takeaways

  • AAFCO is a non-profit organization that sets AAFCO guidelines for nutritional content in pet food and provides resources and training to feed regulators.
  • AAFCO doesn't 'approve' or regulate pet food, but it does work with the FDA to ensure pet food is properly labeled and safely manufactured. Its model regulations help shape federal and state law.
  • Almost all pet foods sold in the US have an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, which experts believe is the bare minimum standard for pet food.
  • Feeding trials are one way pet food manufacturers can substantiate nutritional adequacy claims, but these tests aren't 'better' than other versions of the nutritional adequacy statement, which still require a lab analysis.
  • Newly approved changes to AAFCO labeling guidelines will go into effect as early as 2024. These changes include an updated nutrition facts box and a clear AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement on the front of all pet food packaging.
gray cat sitting on top of an open book behind a pair of spherical glasses

Additional resources

If you’re fascinated by pet nutrition and want to learn more after reading our AAFCO Guide to Pet Food Standards, here are some of our favorite resources on canine and feline nutrition. 

Dog Nutrition Resources:

Cat Nutrition Resources 

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