It happens a lot. You’re trying to find a healthy, nutritious dog food. At the pet store, you compare brands, reading lists of ingredients that mean little to you. You search reviews on Amazon but are unsure if you can trust them. You Google “best dog food” and are bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of dog food brands. For us dog parents, it can be difficult to tell the difference between one dog food and the next. But understanding what your dog is eating is imperative to your pup’s health.
While the name on the can or the bag can tell you immediately what the balance of ingredients should be, you need to be able to understand how to read the labels on dog food and what the product names mean. It can be extremely confusing.
Pet food labeling is enforced by the FDA at the federal level, with the agency leaning on the third-party non-government agency Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to enforce local state laws and regulations. The rules include product names, which are usually a major factor in a customer’s decision to buy one product over another. Often for dog food, people buy a product based on a specific ingredient that they know their dog likes, such as beef or chicken. But what does it really mean when a brand lists a certain protein in its ingredients? Can you tell the difference between “chicken and rice” dog food, dog food with chicken and dog food called chicken dinner? Well, there is a huge difference, and the amount of protein in the dog food dictates what brands can say on the label.
According to the AAFCO, “These rules are referred to as the 100%, 95%, 25%, ‘with’ and ‘flavor’ rules.”
Let’s take a closer look at these rules.
The 100% Rule
The product must be, for the most part, just one ingredient. For instance, to be labelled 100% Chicken Jerky Treats, the jerky must be made with 100% chicken. The only other products allowed are water for processing, trace amounts of preservatives and condiments, and what’s known as “decharacterizing agents,” which are substances added for color. The only products on the market that meet the 100% rule will most likely be treats since a dog’s diet must contain more than meat to be nutritionally balanced.
The 95% Rule
The 95% rule applies to food containing few ingredients. At least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient, not counting water added for processing and condiments. When you count the water, the named ingredient must comprise 70% of the product. For example, in a product called Spot’s Beef Dog Food, beef must make up 95% of the product weight not counting water and condiments. The remaining 5% will be ingredients added for nutritional purposes (like vitamin and minerals) and small amounts of other ingredients needed to formulate the product. Since ingredients are listed in the order of predominance by weight, “beef” should be the first ingredient listed on the label, followed usually by water, vitamins, and minerals. But keep in mind, the ingredients are listed by weight before being cooked, meaning beef is going to weigh a lot more pre-cooked.
In the case of a mixed recipe like chicken and rice, 95% should be comprised of chicken and rice not counting water; when you factor in water, chicken and rice should make up at least 70%. Also, with chicken listed first in the name, there must be more chicken than rice. The product might break down like this: for a 100-pound batch, 40 pounds chicken, 30 pounds rice, 25 pounds water for processing, and 5 pounds of other ingredients like vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, when you use two ingredients, both ingredients must make up 95% (or 70% with water), but if you had rice and chicken, theoretically, rice could make up a huge chunk of the food, with chicken just making up a tiny amount.
The rule states that for names that are invented for sales or contracted names, like Buster’s Chik’n Lik’n Dog Food, the product still has to meet the 95% rule, with chicken making up 95% without counting water.
The 25% Rule
This applies to products often labeled as “dinner,” “entrée,” “platter” or “chow,” such as “Purina Dog Chow” or “Pedigree Chopped Ground Dinner with Beef.” To meet the 25% rule, the named ingredient must make up at least 10% of the total weight and at least 25% of the product weight not including water. With food that lists more than one ingredient in the name, like “Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Beef Dinner with Garden Vegetables & Sweet Potatoes” none of those named ingredients can be less than 3% of the total weight (which means beef could just be 4%).
AAFCO compares this to ordering the salmon dinner entrée in a restaurant that includes vegetables, potatoes, salad and grilled salmon.
The ‘With’ Rule
This rule applies to food labels like “Honest Jack’s Dog Food With Chicken”; the 3% or “With” Rule states that this food must contain at least 3% of chicken to the total weight. Any named ingredient must equal at least 3%. For example, “Rover’s Dog Food with Beef and Rice” must contain at least 3% beef and 3% rice. Consumers must be very careful with this rule as there is a major difference between “Beef Dog Food” (which has 95% beef not counting water) and Dog Food with Beef (which only has 3% beef).
The Flavor Rule
A product that names “Flavor” as a description only requires that the listed ingredient provides the specific flavor. Both also must be printed in the same font and size. For example, “Chicken-flavored Dog Food” might have chicken fat providing the flavor; in the ingredient list, both “chicken” and “flavored” must appear in the same font and size in the food’s name. According to the FDA, “Under the ‘flavor’ rule, a specific percentage is not required, but a product must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.”
It’s definitely complicated! And despite this information and oversight, some experts still don’t believe the FDA and AAFCO are doing enough.
“Even though we have regulations regarding the names of pet food, to my knowledge rarely are the requirements ever validated by regulatory authorities,” says Susan Thixton, the founder of TruthAboutPetFood.com, one of the leading pet food advocacy resources. “How can consumers trust a name if validation has never been done by authorities?”
Thixton goes on to tell us that the FDA’s rules are very loose, with the agency allowing “inferior quality ingredients,” including those in canned dog food. She points out that on the FDA’s own site, its policy is the following:
“Pet food consisting of material from diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, which is in violation of 402(a)(5) will not ordinarily be actionable, if it is not otherwise in violation of the law. It will be considered fit for animal consumption.”
This means that the FDA allows pet food to source meat from a diseased animal, a direct violation of the agency. Thixton calls this “selective enforcement” by the FDA.
And for those who want to get a deeper dive on ingredients and how they are defined, dog parents can find some information on the AAFCO website, but for in-depth details, we must purchase the organization’s Pet Food and Specialty Pet Food Labeling Guide for $200.
“It is very difficult for consumers to be smarter about choosing a pet food,” says Thixton. “Laws and definitions are private and laws that should be enforced to provide consumers honest label information are not enforced.”
To keep your dog safe, consumers need to do their research. First, check the ingredient list very carefully. Then, reach out to the pet manufacturers, build relationships and ask questions. “If questions are not answered or skirted, find another pet food,” says Thixton.
You can also consider cooking for your dog, but this, too, is tricky, as you need to make sure it is a balanced meal.
In the end, it our job to keep our four-legged friend healthy. Do your homework, speak out and ask questions.