How Do Pet Food Labels Work? Everything You Need to Know
Updated: Mar 2
Pet food labels have a lot of information on them, and it can be hard to determine if the food is good for your pet. Does labeling matter? What does it mean? Are there regulations for ensuring pet food safety? Read on to learn more about AAFCO and other common pet food labels, what they mean, and how you can use them to pick the best food for your pet.
What Is AAFCO?
AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, is a U.S. group made up of animal control officials from each state and territory, along with federal agencies such as the FDA and some representation from Canada and Costa Rica.
This organization does not inspect or regulate food products, which is under FDA control; instead, AAFCO sets standards and guidelines for testing and manufacturing pet foods and supplements to ensure their safety and efficacy. AAFCO standards are met in three ways: Formulation (what is in the food), feeding trial (testing of the food’s efficacy), and product family (how it compares to similar products).
Not every pet food on store shelves has an AAFCO statement, and while that does not mean the food itself is unsafe, it may mean it hasn’t undergone rigorous testing for nutritional standards compared to AAFCO certified foods. It’s important to look for AAFCO and other nutritional statements when shopping for commercial foods.
What Is the PFAC?
Similar to AAFCO in the U.S., the PFAC, or Pet Food Association of Canada, is a group of companies committed to ensuring the health of family pets. Members of the PFAC select specific, high-quality ingredients for pet foods. They provide their own internal regulation similar to AAFCO, but also follow AAFCO standards of making sure products include product name, weight, manufacture location, ingredient list by weight, and common ingredient names.
Why Is This Important?
Why is it important to have standardized labeling on pet foods outside of being tested by the FDA? It’s important because it gives customers easy access to knowing what is in the food they feed their pets along with a guarantee that the ingredients included are suitable for their pet’s age, size, and lifestyle needs. It takes the guesswork out of what ingredients may or may not be beneficial, and provides a product that provides the same quality from bag to bag. It also makes it easier for companies to track products in the event there is a problem with a certain ingredient or batch of items.
What Is on a Pet Food Label?
AAFCO compliant pet food labels have eight required items: brand and product name, name of species the food is for, quantity statement, guaranteed analysis, ingredient statement, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions, and name and address of manufacturer/distributor.
Brand and Product Name: This is the company that makes the product, as well as the name of the product provided. An example would include Purina’s “Purina One” line of products.
Name of Species the Food Is For: This indicates who the food is for, for example a dog or cat. This is an important statement since nutritional needs vary depending on species, and some ingredients, such as taurine in cat foods, are required to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Quantity Statement: This is a list of how big the food is, for example, 5 pounds, 20 pounds, etc.
Guaranteed Analysis: The Guaranteed Analysis is a statement that gives the breakdown of macronutrients in the product such as minimum fat, moisture content, and protein. These are important when feeding specific life stages or lifestyles, such as puppies or active pets that may require a higher nutrient density. Moisture content is also important for determining the exact nutrient contents, as moisture can dilute or decrease ingredient density. Certain food types, such as kibble or wet food, are also required to have a certain moisture content to meet those designations.
Ingredient Statement: This is a list of all the ingredients in order of volume — or how much of each ingredient is in the item by decreasing weight. This allows you to see what exactly is in the pet food, however, producers are allowed to break ingredients into smaller sizes by listing them differently. For example, an ingredient statement may have corn gluten meal, cornmeal, and whole corn as three separate ingredients, but all three items are corn — just in different forms of processing, which can affect ingredient quality and digestibility.
Nutritional Adequacy Statement: This is the statement you see such as “For Adult Maintenance” or “For All Life Stages”. Foods must undergo specific testing in that group in order to be able to use the specific label on the packaging. AAFCO recognizes the following statements: Adult Maintenance (pets over 1 year of age), Growth (pets 0-12 months of age), Gestation/Lactation (pregnant and lactating pets), and All Life Stages (all stages of life).
Feeding Directions: This is usually a chart of how much to feed and how often depending on your pet’s weight and nutritional needs. Feeding directions are a general guideline, and may be adjusted depending on your pet’s individual needs.
Name and Address of Manufacturer/Distributor: This information is provided in case there is an issue with the product or you need to get into contact with the manufacturer regarding the product.
What About Nutritional Supplements?
Nutritional and dietary supplements, such as joint health complex supplements, are under different regulatory guidelines than food products. AAFCO only requires statements from products that are fed as full-time meals for complete nutrition, whereas supplements are often given as intermittent foods. That said, many nutritional and dietary supplement companies undergo their own individual testing and feeding trials to ensure the products they are providing are safe and effective.
The FDA does regulate dietary supplements under a different set of rules than “conventional” food and drug products. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education (DSHEA) act of 1994, dietary supplement manufacturers must ensure their products are safe. However, this does not apply to animal feeds, which is why it is important to look for supplement products that provide outside testing and sourcing information.
With any change in pet food, make sure to get the OK from your veterinarian, especially if your pet has specific allergies, nutritional needs, or other underlying health issues. A slow change over a period of 7-9 days, gradually adding in more new food and decreasing the old, will minimize any digestive upset when transitioning to a new food.
Navigating pet food aisles can be daunting with the sheer number of products available. Now that you know a bit more about AAFCO standardization, you can quickly take a look at the various labels on pet food to see which one best fits the needs of your dog or cat. Knowing what information is provided, and how to better utilize that information can ensure your pet eats a safe, healthy, and good-for-them food that will keep them happy and strong.
Have a question about your pet's health or behavior? Sign up for a basic behavior email consultation or video consultation to discuss your pet's needs today.