By Dr. Becker
I get many questions from Mercola Healthy Pets readers who are confused or bothered by my views on AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutrient profiles. AAFCO is the non-profit organization that sets standards for animal feed and pet food in the U.S.
The confusion seems to arise whenever I advise pet owners that it’s better to feed a commercial diet meeting AAFCO nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet food, than an unbalanced, species-appropriate diet.
The comments I receive whenever I give this advice are along the lines of,“I don’t understand why Dr. Becker insists on meeting minimum nutrient requirements from AAFCO, when AAFCO shouldn’t be trusted.”
So I thought I would write a short article to address those concerns.
Some Information is Better than No Information
Unlike many countries, the U.S. has an organization that collects data on nutrition research for animal health. That organization is AAFCO, and I’ll tell you why I’m thankful it exists.
Before AAFCO was founded in the early 1900’s, countless pets and other animals suffered and died from diet-related diseases because human caretakers could do no more than guess at their nutritional requirements. Unable to use their natural instincts to feed themselves properly, captive animals were and are utterly dependent on humans to nourish them in a manner that meets their basic nutritional needs.
Thankfully, AAFCO has taken some of the guesswork out of the equation. In order for a dog or cat food to be labeled “complete and balanced,” it must meet the nutritional standards established by AAFCO.
These standards are defined by two nutrient profiles: adult maintenance, and growth and reproduction (this second profile includes puppies, kittens, and pregnant or lactating females).
In order for a pet food manufacturer to claim a product meets an AAFCO nutrient profile, it must be validated through laboratory analysis alone, or by laboratory analysis combined with feeding trials.
Pet food that does not meet one of the two nutrient profiles must be labeled,“This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”
AAFCO’s nutrient profiles dictate, for example, the correct calcium/phosphorous ratios for growing puppies. And that’s a good thing.
Better Than Nothing, but Certainly Not Perfect
Chemical analysis of food and short-term feeding trials are not sufficient to determine the ultimate nutritional adequacy of commercial pet diets... but again, other countries have no standards or guidelines whatsoever, and neither did the U.S. a hundred years ago.
AAFCO’s nutrient profiles don’t address micronutrient deficiencies, but they do serve to prevent gross nutrient abnormalities in pet food. Unfortunately, AAFCO does not have any standards for the quality of vitamins and minerals used in pet food pre-mixes, meaning there are substantial differences in the quality of nutrients going into pet food premixes, and unfortunately, whole food nutrients are not encouraged.
Additionally, AAFCO has not set maximum requirements for many nutrients, probably because they haven’t conducted clinical nutrient overdose trials in research animals to see exactly what side effects develop. This lack of upper limit standards has led to serious health problems in some cats and dogs because pet food companies have over supplemented, often in an attempt to replace nutrients lost during the extreme processing methods many commercial pet foods undergo.
So my wish list for AAFCO improvements would include establishing maximums for nutrients. Other items on my list:
- I would like to see AAFCO evaluate absorption and digestion of nutrients in pet food. I’d also like to see them move more quickly to develop standards for valuable nutrients they currently don’t recognize, like MCHA (Microcrystalline hydroxyapatite -- the healthiest form of bone meal) and krill oil, as well as whole food nutrients
- I would like to see AAFCO include other valuable animal nutrition research in their standards. The National Research Council (NRC) and Ellen Dierenfeld’s report on the nutrient composition of whole vertebrate prey have contributed substantial findings that should be incorporated into AAFCO standards. AAFCO has accepted some of NRC’s recommendations, but there are others that should be included.
- I would like to see AAFCO acknowledge that some of their recommendations are based on excellent research data, while other recommendations – for example, iodine requirements for cats – are not backed up by well-sourced research. Certainly there is much room for improvement.
“AAFCO Does Not Regulate, Test, Approve or Certify Pet Foods in Any Way”
This quote is straight from AAFCO’s "The Business of Pet Food" web page. And I think this is where some people get confused about whether AAFCO is a “good” or a “bad” entity.
In a free market economy such as ours (in the U.S.), organizations like AAFCO set standards and then leave the decision whether or not to comply with those standards to individual manufacturers. For those who don’t want government regulating every aspect of their lives, this is a good thing.
Obviously, problems can arise when pet food manufacturers choose not to abide by AAFCO’s minimum nutrient standards. AAFCO has proven through research that dogs and cats require certain nutrients. To disregard this research means more pets will suffer and succumb to diseases created by nutritional deficiencies. This isn’t my own hypothesis -- it’s what vets see on a regular basis in their practices.
There are pet food manufacturers who are aware of AAFCO’s reputation with some pet food-savvy consumers. And those companies aren’t above using your distaste for AAFCO to skirt nutritional adequacy requirements with a declaration along the lines of “We don’t trust AAFCO, and you shouldn’t either.”
That takes them off the hook, and pet owners are none the wiser. They’re off the hook to insure there’s enough manganese in their formulas to support healthy ligaments... off the hook to insure the calcium to phosphorous ratio is appropriate for large and giant breed dogs... off the hook, really, for any nutrient requirement set forth by AAFCO.
Every pet food company has an obligation to have their formulas analyzed and their products clearly labeled with easy-to-understand information for consumers. If companies choose not to abide by the minimum nutrient guidelines set forth by AAFCO, they have a responsibility to explain their reasoning and more importantly, how they are providing balanced nutrition for pets by ignoring AAFCO standards.
Using a marketing slogan about not trusting or agreeing with AAFCO nutrient guidelines should not be an excuse to overlook the basic, well-established nutritional requirements of cats and dogs... nor should a weasel statement like, “An array of fresh vegetables assures your pet is receiving the antioxidants she needs for a healthy body.” (No offense to weasels, by the way.)
Do I think AAFCO is going to radically change, for example, their current recommendations to provide not minimum, but optimal nutrient requirements based on research into the ancestral diets of canines and felines?
No, I don’t.
Which means we must turn to ethical, private pet food companies that are committed to using human grade, species-appropriate ingredients in their formulas, and/or well-researched recipes for homemade pet food to help us sort through these issues.
I tend to think of pet food that meets AAFCO standards as similar to products that once received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. (For you youngsters, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute gave a “seal of approval” to products tested at the institute.)
AAFCO provides some basic nutritional guidelines – a rough framework to build upon. Are the guidelines optimal? No. If you totally disregard them can you create entirely avoidable nutritional health issues? Absolutely.
Some pet owners are able to provide their companions with well-balanced, species-appropriate nutrition made from scratch. Not everyone has the time or energy to do this. Fortunately, thanks to AAFCO, pet owners with no extra time and no knowledge of animal nutrition can offer a reasonably nutritious diet to their dog or cat by sticking with commercial pet foods that meet AAFCO standards for complete and balanced nutrition.