As owners who love and care for their pets, we are always searching for ‘the best’ that we can afford, much the same as we do for other members of our families. Whether it be good quality, secure lead for walks, the most user-friendly litter box, or selecting the most trustworthy and friendly vet, pet ownership comes with many choices. One BIG choice you make on their behalf every day is: what do I put in their bowls!?
Answering this question for ourselves relies on that good old ‘value proposition’: getting to the guts of ‘what’s the best pet food?’. Apart from the feedback our pets give when they’re enjoying eating food (or when we see the after-effects), we can only judge value based on what’s staring us in the face when we pick up a bag or can or pouch or tray: the pack gives us reams of information.
A CLAIM IS ANY STATEMENT ABOUT A PRODUCT
In the world of pet food and PFIAA, much of the information on packets is what is called a ‘claim’. It may be a jumble of words, a picture of the unpacked food or ingredients, a logo or icon, or the name of the product itself:
Doggo’s High-Cal Active Egg-free Puppy Food with Australian Beef (10kg) Here’s a hive of claims already! This (fictional) food has identified the species it should be fed to, the relevant life-stage and activity level of the consumer, said something about the energy or calorie content, made many commitments on ingredients and highlighted what weight of product we should expect… and none of these claims should mislead us.
Let’s put these claims into 3 wide categories. COMPONENT & DESCRIPTIVE CLAIMSThese usually tell us that something is in (or not in) the food, and quite often indicates levels, if they’re deemed important and significantly different from the norm. Ingredient lists are a great example and tell us what’s in the product, in the order of highest weight inclusion in the recipe, to the lowest.
Both ingredients and nutrients can be called out of course: ‘High in Chicken’ or ‘Reduced Fat’ might be seen, as are ‘Free’ or ‘Free from’ claims. These must not mislead of course and where a level of this or that is highlighted, the basis of comparison should be given. High in Chicken compared with what?
Geographical origins or country of manufacture can be a strong communication for some products and the term ‘Natural’ is also one that we often see on the shelf, generally meaning only physical processing has happened to the ingredient or product.
MARKET CLAIMSThese claims quite often give us a ‘value-add’ and are a marker of the approach the brand is taking to making a diet. ‘Biologically appropriate’, ‘Sustainably-sourced’, ‘Wild-caught’, ‘Free-range’ and ‘High-meat’ might be claimed. You can see that these generally hinge on more aspirational qualities of a product.
The difficult thing here is that sometimes these terms have a defined meaning, set down by international guidelines or consumer law, and for other terms, we need to ask the company responsible or the educated staff selling the product, what these terms actually mean. We should seek the meaning behind the terms, for our pet’s sake, and below you will see a list with some meanings – not exhaustive, but hopefully helpful.
Less claims, but more an efficient indicator of what is going into a diet. For those of us wanting to know exactly what is in a food, knowing these terms is important. For example, appreciating the definitions of ‘by-product’, ‘meat-and-animal derivatives’ and even ‘meat’ itself should be clear. Official definitions are set by pet food international guidelines, and some are mentioned below.
FUNCTIONAL & HEALTH CLAIMS
Beyond the above, some foods and manufacturers lend themselves to more functional claims. Apart from flagging the presence of a certain characteristic, the health benefits or intended actions of these characteristics are pointed out to customers. ‘Muscle-building protein’ or ‘Fish oils for skin and coat health’ are examples of nutrient or ingredient function claims, respectively. Functional claims may relate to what’s happening in the normal, healthy pet: In growth and development we’ll often see reference to calcium for example, and digestibility claims are on many products. Alternately and often in the case of ‘prescription’ or ‘clinical’ diets (sold by your vet), they can go a step further. As these diets are used to help manage illness in your pet, it’s always best you seek clarification on the features and safe feeding from your veterinary practice. Again, when making these claims, widely accepted and published research is used to substantiate them.
Figure 1: Some claims and terms … and what they mean. Lamb is used as an example ingredient here. Supporting evidence for all of these claims should be available.
Minimum 3% (if AAFCO), 4% (if FEDIAF) lamb or
5% (AS5812) of the meat component for wet or all product for dry
Lamb ‘Dinner’, ‘Recipe’, ‘Formula’
Minimum 25% (if AAFCO), 26% (if FEDIAF) lamb or 25% (AS5812) of the meat component for wet but not the major meat and 20% of the product and at least 25% of the meat component although not the major meat ingredient for dry
Enough to impart a flavour
‘Higher’, ‘lower’, ‘increased’, ‘reduced’, ‘fewer’, ‘more’…
Quantities measured against either a named product or the standard diet in the range. Where reduced or increased, this signifies a minimum 15% change in the levels indicated.
‘No added’, ‘Made without’, ‘Free-from’, ‘X-free’… eg Grain-free
Manufactured without the named substance or ingredient, eg. Wheat, corn, barley, oats and rice in the case of grain.
Only physical processing has happened to the ingredient or product.
Dependent on the country of manufacture dictating an exact definition. Generally referring to the source, handling, processing and certification both on-farm and off.
Often used on raw or high meat-content diets, indicating that the diet aims to mirrors what dogs & cats would eat in the wild.
Defined by the ingredient producer or certifying body, usually indicating animal population size, environmental impact and stock management.
‘Wild-caught’ vs ‘Farm-raised’
Indicating the population and environment from which an animal ingredient has been sourced.
Often simply referring to animals having access to outdoors.
‘Meat by-products’ or ‘meat & animal derivatives’
Clean parts of the carcass of a mammal which contain nutrients which are valuable and suitable for use in pet food. This excludes many parts of the animal, including hair, horns, teeth and hooves, for example.
Generally accepted as ‘skeletal muscle’, but extending to clean muscular tissue from mammals which is suitable for use in pet food.
AS5812 Defines meat as any part of the animal other than feathers which contain protein, and in which ordinarily in nature, used as food by dogs or cats.
Intentionally added component (including minerals, vitamins, ingredient regulators, preservatives, flavours, colouring agents, binders and many more) which add value to the food, but is not consumed as a pet food ingredient by itself.
AN ADDED CONSIDERATION
You can see that there are heaps of messages on pet food packaging, just the same as what we see in human foods. There are many options made available to us, which can only be a good thing when it comes to finding a diet that truly suits our dogs and cats. The Australian pet food market benefits from not only home-grown manufacturers but sees many products traveling from the US, EU or Asia-pacific region to nourish our pets.
There are two organisations who put the industry on track and ‘write the rule books’ when it comes to dog and cat nutrition. These are the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in the US, or the European Pet Food Industry (FEDIAF) in Europe. Both organisations publish robust guidelines – which are the source of many definitions above – based on decades of combined research and knowledge which manufacturers act upon. Largely dependent on country of manufacture, the food you buy should respect and incorporate the industry’s great mass of knowledge, circulated and forever improved by AAFCO & FEDIAF.
One very important claim to conclude with is the statement that any product is ‘Complete and Balanced’. This says that the manufacturer has used one of the above rule books to precisely deliver the right nutrients for the dog or cat to sustain every-day life. This is critically important when we are choosing one diet to keep them happy and healthy. It’s wonderfully convenient and quite magical in some ways when you think of it, to give one ‘food’ which gives them all their need, and the trust we put in the relevant people to deliver is built around the ‘Complete and Balanced’ claim.
ACCOUNTABILITY: THE KEY TO TRUST
Pet food manufacturers and marketers need to be held to their claims, and this is one way in which PFIAA helps them along. Reminding members of their obligations and the guiding Australian Standards is key, and that anything that’s said to paying customers needs to be supported by facts. Is there evidence to prove what they’re saying?
So let’s be secure in the knowledge that only true statements should make their way onto the product, and that the industry is forever improving, with more and more checks and balances.
Pet owners are encouraged to reflect on the words and pictures jumping out at us from the grocery, pet store or vet clinic shelf, or even online. Use these to get to the bottom of what each brand or product is truly about, and if in doubt, ask questions of the company responsible.
Just the same as your dog or cat trusts you to put something nutritious and delicious in their bowls, you should be able to trust that you are getting exactly what you’ve paid for: good food!