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How to Tell If a Pet Food Manufacturer is Untrustworthy

How to Tell If a Pet Food Manufacturer is Untrustworthy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recently a Tufts University professor and DVM who specializes in pet nutrition gave a lecture focused on exposing myths about pet nutrition and helping pet owners select an optimal diet for their dog or cat.
  • Dr. Freeman believes pet food labels can tell us a lot about the reliability of the pet food company behind them -- whether they employ a full-time nutritionist and an R&D department, and whether they operate their own manufacturing plant and impose internal quality control standards.
  • In Freeman’s experience, some of the most important information to look for on a pet food label is not the ingredient list, but whether the formula is complete and balanced per AAFCO guidelines, how the company knows the food is complete and balanced, and what life stage the food is intended for.
  • Dr. Freeman also cautions pet owners to be careful about trusting advertising on pet food labels, and to not be drawn in by terms used to sell human foods, for example, “premium,” “organic” and “holistic.”

By Dr. Becker

Recently a DVM and professor from Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Lisa Freeman, gave a lecture based on her research on companion animal nutrition.

According to

"The lecture, part of the "A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research" series, focused on exposing pet nutrition myths and educating pet owners on how to select an optimal diet for their pet."

I ran across some information on Dr. Freeman's lecture and wanted to share the highlights with my readers here at Mercola Healthy Pets.

Freeman is what is known as a "Triple Jumbo."

She has earned a degree from three separate Tufts campuses: a B.S. from the College of Liberal Arts, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Cummings School and a Ph.D. from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Her special area of interest is pet nutrition and heart disease.

Many Pet Food Companies Don't Employ Even a Single Nutritionist

Dr. Freeman made the point that pet food labels are used by manufacturers and marketers for advertising as well as informational purposes.

And most of the pet owners Dr. Freeman talks to base their pet food buying decisions not so much on the information contained on the label, but on the advertising claims.

The most important information on a pet food label is certainly not advertising claims, nor is it even the ingredient list, according to Dr. Freeman.

It's the name of the manufacturer. "You would absolutely be shocked at the variability in the quality of different companies," said Freeman.

Dr. Freeman believes any reliable pet food manufacturer employs at least one full-time qualified nutritionist, a research and development department, runs its own plants and imposes internal quality control standards.

According to Dr. Freeman, it is shocking how many pet food companies do not have a nutritionist on staff. She would prefer companies spend less money on marketing and more on research and development and experts in animal nutrition.

Unfortunately, many small, family owned, good quality pet food manufacturers cannot afford to employ a full time veterinary nutritionist, so they employ them on a consulting basis. Finding out who your pet food company has consulted with during the formulation process is very important.

How to Identify an Untrustworthy Pet Food Company

After the manufacturer's name, Dr. Freeman believes the most important feature of a pet food label is the nutritional adequacy statement, which should contain three key pieces of information:

  • Whether the pet food is complete and balanced per AAFCO guidelines. This insures pet owners the food meets the nutritional requirements of their dog or cat.
  • How the company knows the food is complete and balanced. Feeding trials are the best way for manufacturers to determine if a food does indeed provide adequate long-term nutrition to the animal for which it is intended.
  • The life stage of the animal the food is intended for.

During her presentation, Dr. Freeman showed images of various pet food labels. One label for a cat food showed flaxseed on the ingredient list. Flaxseed can be metabolized by the human digestive system. It can also be marginally digested by dogs. However, cats can't digest the stuff at all – but there it was, big as life, on the ingredient label.

In Dr. Freeman's view, this is a sign the pet food manufacturer doesn't know much about canine and feline nutrition. I would take it a step further and suggest the company also doesn't care much about pet nutrition. How can a maker of cat food use an ingredient wholly indigestible to cats and still give a hoot about feline nutrition?

Dr. Freeman believes, and I certainly agree, the flaxseed was added as a marketing ploy to attract cat food buyers. Flaxseed is a very popular human nutritional supplement today, and pet food manufacturers are well aware of current trends in people food and how they can be manipulated to market pet food.

According to Dr. Freeman, "People get really deceived by the ingredient list. But that's how I use it — to look for red flags that say they don't know very much."

That's a pretty good approach, actually. The more you learn about species-appropriate nutrition and pet food labels, the better able you are to select reliable pet food companies whose products you can trust. Why spend money with a company who doesn't know enough or care enough about your pet's nutrition to even learn which ingredients are digestible?

Confusing Pet Nutrition Terms

Dr. Freeman wrapped up her lecture with a discussion of other pet nutrition myths.

In her view, animal by-products are not necessarily poor quality. I have to disagree with Freeman here.

Animal by-products are rendered ingredients in pet food. The rendering process is designed to blend anything and everything – from clean muscle meat … to slaughter floor waste … to roadkill … to euthanized shelter pets – into ingredients pet food manufacturers can include in their formulas.

In my opinion, the probability you will be lucky enough to purchase pet food made entirely from the clean muscle meat of a healthy animal who died naturally is miniscule. I wouldn't risk it.

Dr. Freeman also makes the point that terms like "human-grade," "premium," "holistic" and "organic" are not defined by AAFCO. However, in my opinion you can be reasonably confident pet food companies making a human grade claim about their ingredients, mean it.

Unlike "premium," "holistic," and "organic," "human-grade" isn't a catchy, trendy term used to market people food. It's usually a term used by manufacturers of non-human food to reassure knowledgeable consumers they are using high quality ingredients fit for human consumption.

I do agree words like premium, holistic and organic are unreliable indicators of what's really in a pet food, and are used primarily as marketing tools.

Dr. Freeman's hope is that pet owners are careful about trusting pet food advertisements and believing the myths of pet nutrition.

As regular readers here know, I often discuss the many creative ways pet food manufacturers market their products. I also stress the importance of learning about biologically appropriate nutrition for pets, and reading pet food labels like an expert.