Who’s in Charge of Pet Food Manufacturing Regulations?

No one oversees the dog food industry as a whole; regulation and enforcement vary from state to state. More so than usual, buyer beware.


While most dog owners are certain that “someone” is in charge of regulating the manufacture of commercial dog food in this country, very few people know who that mysterious official or agency might be. But somebody’s gotta be making sure that dog food doesn’t contain any harmful ingredients and does contain what dogs need to survive, right? The FDA? Department of Agriculture? Someone?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as a simple, “Yes, it’s all taken care of.” There are numerous government and industry agencies that oversee and purportedly regulate various aspects of pet food production, but there really is no single office that provides seamless overall supervision of the industry. So is there anyone making sure that a “lamb and rice” food really contains lamb and rice? Or testing the food to see whether it really contains a minimum of the 20 percent protein it claims in its “Guaranteed Analysis”? Maybe, but probably not. There are many opportunities for dog foods to fall between the cracks of testing and enforcement. A walk through the many halls of pet food regulation reveals why a reliance on some branch of the government to ensure a food is “nutritionally complete and balanced” is pure folly.

Top dressing

Many people assume the Federal government has some sort of control over the production of pet food. Not really. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. A division of the FDA called the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) is responsible for regulating animal drugs, medicated feeds, food additives and ingredients, and pet food, making sure that they conform with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

This Act requires that pet foods contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled. However, only in extreme cases does the FDA or the CVM get involved in an investigation of a food maker, and generally, only as a last line of enforcement. Meaningful regulation of pet foods occurs at the state level.

Each individual state has its own regulations and its own Department of Agriculture, which oversees the production and sale of pet food within its borders. Before a new brand or a new type of dog food can be sold in a given state, the maker is required by law to register the new food in each state in which it will be sold.

The state’s feed control officials are responsible for examining the food’s label claims and the food itself. Some states have very proactive feed control officials, who aggressively examine and test new foods being sold or made within their states’ borders. Kentucky, for instance, has a reputation for thoroughness when it comes to testing pet foods. California, in contrast, has a reputation for absolute laxity. We’ve been told that unscrupulous food makers often ship products that have failed tests (or that they know will fail tests) to California for sale, with full knowledge that the California feed control officials do not test foods.

What might the states test for? Not as much as you’d think. The main area of focus is the Guaranteed Analysis (GA), which the FDA requires to be printed on every container of pet food. The states can (and most do) test for everything that is included in the GA. The only things that are required to be in the GA include the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture in the food; that’s all. Some companies include more information in their GA, adding minimum levels of certain vitamins, fatty acids, or other nutrients they believe the consumer will appreciate. This is going out on a limb for the maker, because it just about guarantees that the states – the proactive ones, anyway – will test for these items, too.

Advisory committee
Before we discuss other tests or standards a pet food might be held to, we have to introduce another organization, one that influences the states’ policies on pet food.

Many people have heard of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and assume that this is the agency that polices the pet food industry. But AAFCO has no regulatory role whatsoever; it doesn’t have the power to approve or ban foods. Rather, AAFCO is a non-government, voluntary organization of feed control officials (FCOs) from each state, and its role is advisory. AAFCO exists to address issues of quality and standardization for animal and pet food, to suggest nutritional standards for pet foods, provide guidelines for food manufacture and labeling, and outline a course of action for regulators.

AAFCO influences the production of pet foods only in that many states (25) have adopted its “model” regulations, in whole or in part. AAFCO is the place where the state feed control officials can go to discuss issues of feed safety, animal health, and inter-state commerce with other people who have expertise with these issues. Then they go home and set policy for their states.

In order to obtain the best information about every imaginable aspect of pet food formulation, AAFCO invites certain experts from many different fields to join the conversation, as it were, to educate the Association in the finer details of associated specialties. Some of the liaisons come from the USDA and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, but many come from the commercial pet food industry, as well as the grain and feed industries, the rendering industry, laboratories, farm co-ops, and other groups with an interest in AAFCO’s decisions. My organization, the Animal Protection Institute, has had a liaison position on the Pet Food Committee and Ingredients Definitions Committee for several years. Many of these invited experts participate in AAFCO subcommittees as members and liaisons; there are committees on botanicals and herbs, environmental issues, feed safety, ingredient definitions, state/industry regulations, and many more.

A watchdog, not a pawn
The presence of so many vested experts, all of whom would like to influence the feed control officials to benefit their own aspect of the industry, worries many animal welfare activists, and some even regard AAFCO as a sort of pawn of industry that does not have our animals’ health at heart. However, only the state feed control officials (and on some committees, the FDA and USDA representatives) are voting members of AAFCO; the liaisons are there in an advisory role only. At AAFCO meetings, which are held twice a year, the liaisons often speak on issues where they have an interest or stake in the outcome. Comments are taken under advisement by the FCOs and then the issue is voted on by the FCOs. In my experience, the FCOs are definitely not pro-industry; they take their role as industry watchdog very seriously.

As an example, a few years ago the rendering industry pushed to have the official feed term “by-products” re-named “animal proteins.” This was debated in the Ingredient Definitions Committee (IDC). The proposal was turned down, because the IDC felt it was anti-consumer, and that the new term was being requested not because of a change in the ingredient itself, but to obscure and confuse the issue for consumers.

In spite of that defeat, the renderers approached the IDC last January with another request, this time to change the name “poultry by-products” to “poultry and bone meal.” As a new liaison to that committee, I argued strongly against this change, as did representatives from two major pet food companies and others. The IDC voted unanimously against the change.

Inadequate standards?
Perhaps AAFCO’s biggest legacy to the state feed control officials has been the development of two tools for the standardization of pet food formulation. Most states have adopted these development tools.

The first standard is the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles, an effort to identify the minimum (and a few maximum) levels of “macronutrients” (protein, fat, and fiber) and the “micronutrients” (vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids) that research has shown to be necessary for maintaining the health of dogs and cats. Years ago, pet food makers manufactured foods to the nutritional standards set by the National Research Council, but feed control officials found numerous faults with the studies that produced that set of suggested nutrient levels, and, over time, AAFCO developed and adopted new, better standards.

Although the Nutrient Profile system has done a lot to standardize the business of pet food production, the system is not without criticism. There are studies that suggest some nutrient levels may be too high, and others too low. The Nutrient Profile system of formulation does not address the issue of ingredient quality whatsoever. One critic of this method of feed formulation designed a “food” that met all the AAFCO nutrient profile requirements – even though the food was primarily formulated from old shoe leather, sawdust, and motor oil, with a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement. Obviously, there would be no guarantee that any animal would eat such a food, or could digest it, even though it contained all the vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, etc., that the Nutrient Profiles required.

The second method for pet food formulation addresses those concerns – but contains some loopholes, as well. AAFCO has developed a protocol for feeding trials that can be used to determine whether a food can sustain life in a target test population. One is a six-month test for “maintenance” of adult dogs (or cats); the other is a shorter (10-week) test for young dogs (or cats) in a “growth” or “lactation” phase. The growth/lactation protocol is much shorter than the maintenance test, but requires more extensive blood tests for analysis. A food must pass the growth/lactation test in order to receive an “all life stages” clearance.

Whichever feeding trial is undertaken, the test population is fed nothing but the food in question for the requisite period. If the subjects test normal on a few minimal health parameters, the food passes.

The feeding trials method at least would help a maker demonstrate that the food is palatable and digestible enough to maintain life in the test population – something the Nutrient Profile system doesn’t do. This method is good if a feed maker has some brilliant research that indicates the levels of certain nutrients in the AAFCO nutrient profiles are inadequate for promoting maximum health, and they can formulate a food that they think is better; they can conduct feeding trials to prove their food works.

However, the feeding trials involve only eight test subjects, and require that only six finish the trial. Many nutritional deficiencies or overdoses would not appear in this short period; the feed’s true ability to maintain longevity, or reproductive or multi-generational health would not be demonstrated.

These two systems necessarily miss a lot of potential problems. A food meeting the Nutrient Profile may or may not pass a feeding trial; not all foods that have passed a feeding trial meet all specifications of the Nutrient Profiles. Clearly, it would be possible for a marginal food to pass these tests, yet fail to provide adequate nutrition in the long run, and in fact such problems are well documented. In generational studies, where animals were kept on the same food for three to five generations, researchers at the University of California at Davis found that some foods that pass feeding trials still won’t support animals over the long term. They estimated that, of 100 foods that pass AAFCO analysis criteria, 10 to 20 would not pass the feeding trials, and of those, 10 percent would not be adequate for long-term feeding. A former FDA nutritionist emphasizes, “The formulation method does not account for palatability or availability of nutrients. Yet a feeding trial can miss some chronic deficiencies or excesses.”

In the case of minimum requirements without a corresponding maximum, some foods contain significant nutrient excesses that may actually be dangerous in the long run. The Kentucky feed control official analyzed test data from all pet foods tested during 1994 and 1995, and found that certain nutrients, such as magnesium, iron, and manganese, were present in most dry dog and puppy foods at 200-400 percent or more of their AAFCO Nutrient Profile values. Their conclusion: the AAFCO profile for certain nutrients is not a reasonable indicator of the actual level present in many products. An excess of many minerals, including copper, magnesium, and iron, may produce signs of toxicity over time.

And here is a big wrench in the works: according to both of AAFCO’s methods of certification, manufacturers are allowed to test one food of a similar “family” of foods, and apply that certification to all foods in that family. There is no way for the consumer to know which foods were actually tested for the Nutrient Profiles or Feeding Trials certification.

Up to the states
If a food has met either AAFCO requirement, it may state on the label that the food is “complete and balanced.” These label statements are why many people are under the mistaken impression that AAFCO actually regulates the food industry.

But, remember, it’s the states that are in control – and they are in control of only the pet food manufacturers who try to sell food within their borders. Only the state’s feed control officials have the ability to approve or deny the right of a manufacturer to sell a particular food in their state, or to punish manufacturers for labeling infractions. And the only way they can make these decisions is to test the various foods that the makers register for sale there.

As we said above, some states test only the Guaranteed Analysis information (protein, fat, fiber, moisture). Others test individual nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, minerals) as well. California has a reputation for testing nothing. Kentucky tests nearly the entire AAFCO Nutrient Profile. Nearly every manufacturer has had one or more foods fail various tests at one time or another. Many foods fall short, usually on the stated protein levels. Even more ominous is the failure of tests for major minerals such as phosphorus or calcium. The manufacturers assert that tests on any particular batch or lot of food may not be representative of all their foods, but because such failures are so widespread, from the cheapest generic to the most specialized and expensive foods, it is a very disturbing trend.

Oddly enough, there is no way to test a food to see if it actually contains the ingredients listed. Only DNA testing of the raw ingredients – before a food is made – could determine whether the protein source was really chicken meat, for instance, and not a mixed poultry by-product. Once the food is cooked, the DNA is destroyed and testing is futile.

Failing tests
State feed control officials can and do enforce violations of their states’ regulations, but this process is not sweeping and surely not swift. Depending on the nature of a problem they discover with a food, there are numerous levels of notification and correction; in the mean time, tons of non-compliant food can be sold and consumed by our dogs. Each state compiles an annual report which lists the violations; these documents are public record. Many states publish this data; a few, like Missouri, and Indiana, post it on the Internet.

Regulation and enforcement of the pet food industry varies widely from state to state. Some states have adopted very tough legislation, and others have minimal pet food laws. Some states scrutinize foods carefully, and others hardly at all. And you can’t assume any coordination between the state’s regulatory aims and its follow-through on enforcement. California, for example, has one of the nation’s most restrictive pet food production Acts in the country, the “Pure Pet Food Act of 1969.” It prohibits 4D meat and other bad stuff in pet food. However, the Act isn’t enforced at all. Texas has adopted the AAFCO nutrient profiles, tests the Guaranteed Analysis, and enforces everything. The annual feed report from Texas averages around 100 pages (in very fine print) of violations and actions taken. There are almost 30 pages just listing Stop Sale orders of animal feed and pet food!

In reviewing the states’ reports, it’s obvious that every food fails something somewhere, some time. But the most striking trend is that the foods with the most problems tend to be locally produced and regionally marketed; there are numerous small pet food companies that make foods that are sold in one state only or across one state border only. The national manufacturers stick closer to the rules; if they ship nationally, they pretty much have to make their products to whichever state standards are the strictest.

If you’re like us, the more you learn about the pet food industry, the more you feel you should worry about your pets’ food! The kind of regulation and oversight that many of us assume is present over the industry as a whole really doesn’t exist. Instead, existent regulation and the vicissitudes of the market itself tends to promote the better products, and weed out the “bad actors” over time. It really is amazing that the industry is as “clean” as it is – but this isn’t, perhaps, saying much. In an ideal world, every food in the country would have to pass feeding trials and lab tests that prove sufficient (and not harmful) nutrient levels on an ongoing basis. But in this world, our dogs represent the “test dogs” and we are providing the feeding trials.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Pet Food Labeling Regulations –Know the Facts”
Click here to view “Problems with Artificial Preservatives in Dog Food”

-By Jean Hofve

Dr. Jean Hofve is the Companion Animal Program Coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute, located in Sacramento, California.


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