[Updated December 18, 2018]
There are three ways that a pet food can earn the right to be labeled with an “AAFCO” statement that says the product is “complete and balanced.” AAFCO – the Association of American Feed Control Officials – does not test or regulate pet foods; it creates model regulations that may be adopted by states and acted on by state feed control officials. Nevertheless, the organization lends its name to the standards that are applied nationally. The three methods of substantiation are:
– Passing an AAFCO feeding trial
– Meeting the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles
– Resembling a product that passed an AAFCO feeding trial, also known as the “family rule”
Each of these methods has some merit and at least one deficiency in its ability to guarantee the nutritional adequacy of a pet food, so it’s good to know what standard your dog’s food met, and what it means!
Every aspect of an AAFCO feeding trial is meant to ensure that a food is capable of maintaining a population of a minimum number of dogs for a minimum period of time (26 weeks for a “maintenance” claim; 23 weeks for a “growth” claim). At a minimum, products that pass a feeding trial have at least demonstrated that they are palatable and digestible – its nutrients are adequately bioavailable – enough to keep a dog alive and well for the period of feeding trial.
However, these products are not required to be formulated to meet the Nutrient Profiles (the next standard), so it’s possible that they are deficient or excessive in some nutrients deemed essential.
AAFCO has developed a table of nutrients that dogs of different “life stages” need, in varying amounts. There is a table for “adult maintenance” and another for “growth and reproduction.” If a product is labeled as being for dogs of “all life stages,” it meets the standards for the life stage with higher nutritional requirements, the “growth and reproduction” standards.
Foods that have been labeled as complete and balanced by virtue of having nutrient levels within the parameters proscribed by the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles have demonstrated that they contain adequate but not excessive amounts of the nutrients that are essential to dogs of the life stage in question. But whether those nutrients are bioavailable, and the food is sufficiently palatable and digestible for the dogs who will be expected to eat it, is not addressed by this method.
The family designation indicates that the company subjected a “lead product” to an AAFCO feeding trial, and, once it passed, developed other products that are nutritionally similar to the one that passed the feeding trial.
There are a number of requirements for a product to be judged to adequately resemble the lead product:
– It must be of the same processing type as the lead product; its moisture content must fall within the same moisture content category (in the case of raw frozen diets, the category includes products with a moisture content of more than 65 percent).
– It must have within 7.5 percent of the lead product’s dry matter metabolizable energy (ME).
– It must meet the dry matter nutrient levels and ratios of the lead family product for crude protein, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, lysine, and thiamine.
– It must possess nutrient levels and ratios (for the nutrients in the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles) that meet or exceed the levels and ratios found in the lead product, and must not exceed the maximums established by the Nutrient Profiles.
Pet food companies strongly promote the idea that a “family member” product is every bit as good as the product that passed the feeding trial. But the fact is, since “feeding trial” products are not required to meet the AAFCO Nutrient Levels (and so, may have nutrient levels that do not meet the AAFCO Nutrient Levels), and “family” products (other than the lead product) have not themselves been tested in a feeding trial, we feel that the family designation is the weakest qualification of nutritional adequacy of all.
If a pet food company were to make a complete nutrient analysis of a typical batch of its product available to consumers, they could easily see whether a product labeled with a “family” designation would be able to meet the AAFCO Nutrient Levels qualifications, too. This would address at least that concern for educated consumers.