Pet food packages contain lots of information, not all of which is useful or easy to interpret. Labels can look surprisingly similar, even though the products’ nutritional quality may vary greatly. Consumers need some way to compare pet foods and their nutritional content. This overview should help owners understand the information included on dog food labels and get the most out of it.
Rules and Regulations
Several U.S. agencies are involved in regulating the production, labeling, distribution and sale of food for animals, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). State governments are responsible for enforcing approved regulations. Canada’s guidelines for pet food manufacturers in most respects mirror or surpass the U.S. requirements.
How to Read Dog Food Labels
The first step in evaluating a pet food is to read and understand its label. Pet food labels have 8 required items. If the label is only on the front of the package, all 8 items must appear there. If front and back labeling are used, the front must contain the first 3 required items, and the rest can be placed elsewhere. Here is the information that must be contained on pet food labels:
1) The brand and product name. Acceptable product names are determined by what AAFCO calls “percentage rules". For example, the term "beef" used on its own generally indicates that at least 70% of the food is actually beef. "Beef” with a modifier (“beef dinner,” “beef stew”) means that beef makes up at least 10% (canned food) or 25% (dry food) of the product. “With beef” indicates that only 3% of the total product is beef, and “beef flavor” just means that the pet may be able to recognize beef flavor. The percentage rules set a maximum of 78% moisture content in canned food, unless it is described as being "in gravy" or “in sauce.” Many package fronts also contain a short description of the food, a nutrition statement (“complete and nutritious,” “100% balanced,” etc.), a few pictures and a brand name.
2) The species the food is intended for. Food for dogs must be labeled as “dog food.” Many manufactures include this information in the product’s name (ie, “Beef and Rice Kibble for Dogs”).
3) The net weight, net content or net volume in the package.
4) A guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat and the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture in the food. Protein and fat are costly ingredients; fiber and moisture are not. Other nutritional guarantees may be required if the manufacturer makes specific promotional content statements, such as “high in calcium”. They also can be provided voluntarily. All guarantees must be given in specific percentages, not a range of numbers, and must indicate whether the percentage is a maximum or minimum.
5) An ingredient list. All ingredients must be listed on the label, using common or usual names, in descending order of weight. In other words, the ingredient that weighs the most must be listed first. All ingredients must be generally recognized as safe for use in animal feeds.
6) A statement of nutritional adequacy. A nutritional adequacy statement is required if the label represents that the food is “complete and balanced” for a particular life state or combination of stages, such as growth/puppyhood, adulthood, pregnancy or old age. Products that are not promoted as stand-alone diets, like most treats and supplements, don’t need to have this statement.
7) Feeding directions. All pet foods labeled as being complete and balanced for any or all life stages must include feeding directions describing the amount and frequency of food to be fed per weight of the animal to meet the pet’s daily nutritional requirements.
8) The name and address of manufacturers or distributors.
How to Compare Dog Food Labels
Despite attempts at standardization, dog food labels are still tricky to interpret, for a number of reasons:
- Only minimum and maximum guaranteed analysis values are required. Crude fiber is a poor measure of usable fiber. A minimum crude protein percentage only reflects quantity, not quality.
- Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight regardless of relative moisture content, which can be extremely misleading. For example, fresh meat (about 60% water) at the top of the ingredient list may contain fewer nutrients than meat meal (about 10% water) located much lower on the list, because fresh meat weighs more than dried meat. Some ingredients show up far down the list if separated into their different components, such as cereal grain, cereal middlings and cereal hulls.
- Dog food testing. Whether and when to test dog foods is not well-standardized. Canadian pet foods may be tested for quality and consistency as often as every 2 months, while American foods may only be tested once in the life of the product.
For these and other reasons, consumers should be wary of comparing labels as the only way to evaluate the quality of a dog food. Veterinarians, breeders and specialized pet food suppliers can all be good resources.