Pet Food Labelling

One of the more frustrating experiences for a small animal practitioner is to make a specific diet recommendation to a client, only to discover later that the client chose another diet. In many cases, the alternate diet was chosen because it was very similar to the recommended food based on label information. Some pet store employees will commonly use label comparison to support their claims of equality or superiority of their own house brand when compared to virtually any other pet food. If the labels appear similar, owners conclude that the contents are similar. However, perception is often not reality.

In Canada, labelling requirements are minimal. Industry Canada regulates that labels must appear in both official languages and include the identity (e.g. "dog food") and net quantity of the product and the manufacturer's/distributor's name and place of business. For foods manufactured in Canada, there are no other label requirements, not even for ingredients or nutritional claims. In practice, however, a great deal more information appears.

The CVMA Pet Food Certification Program has very stringent requirements for its manufacturers which in most respects mirror or surpass the U.S. guidelines. Because manufacturers compete within a global framework, U.S. regulations take precedent over those of the Canadian government. In the U.S., a number of agencies are involved in determining what appears on a pet food label - including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Based on the CVMA's or AAFCO's guidelines, the following is a synopsis of what must appear on a label. The principal display panel must show the manufacturer's name, brand name and product name. An acceptable product name is determined by what are known as "the percentage rules". For example, using the term "beef" on its own, indicates that more than 90% (AAFCO's is >95%) of the total product must be beef. "Beef dinner/platter, etc." indicates at least 25% beef content. "Beef flavour" usually indicates less than 25% beef, yet enough to allow pet recognition. The AAFCO percentage rules also legislate a maximum of 78% moisture content, unless described with such terms as "in gravy". The principal display panel also includes a species designation, net weight, product vignette and a graphic or pictorial display.

The information panel includes an adequacy claim, e.g. "complete" or "balanced". The panel may also include a nutritional claim based on extensive feeding trials. All ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, using official names with proper definitions (refer to AAFCO Official Feed Ingredient Definitions). The label must also contain a guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (minimum %) , crude fat (minimum %), crude fibre (maximum %) and moisture (maximum %). The manufacturer's/distributor's name and address, universal product code and feeding instructions must also appear.

Despite this information, label comparisons of the product's quality remains difficult for a number of reasons. With respect to guaranteed analysis, only minimum and maximum values are stated. Although the CVMA does require a maximum ash value for all cat foods and a maximum magnesium level for magnesium-restricted foods, AAFCO has no such requirements. Furthermore, crude fibre is a poor measure of fibre content, and provides no indication as to solubility. Additionally, there are difficulties with interpreting the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order of weight with no reference to relative moisture content. For example, there may be more grain at less than 10% moisture than fresh meat with 75% moisture, yet meat is listed first. A primary ingredient such as wheat could be placed well down the list if divided up into its different components, e.g. wheat grain, wheat middlings and wheat mill run. Finally, several different grades of foods can have similar names.

How a diet was analyzed to achieve the label values should be considered. Pet food composition can be stated either on an "as fed" basis, percentage dry matter, or a percentage of total energy. Each method of analysis results in very different information on a label. Although many pet food manufacturers will use percentage dry matter, many nutritionists contend that, because an animal eats to meet its energy requirements, it is the percentage kilocalorie basis of analysis that is the method of choice. Few companies provide this information.

Under the CVMA Pet Food Certification Program, foods are tested every 2 months as part of the ongoing monitoring. In the case of the AAFCO regulations, a pet food may be only required to be tested once in its life time. The net result is that the consumer has to be very wary of comparing pet food labels to deduce quality. By advising owners to look for the CVMA's certification logo and to follow the veterinarian's specific recommendations, many of the possible pitfalls in interpreting pet food labels will be avoided.


Note: This section of the Canada's Guide to Dogs website is intended as a source of information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional care. Always consult with your Veterinarian about health related matters.