Unexpected Dangers Lurk in Your Pet's Food -- What to Do Now

Commercial Pet Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study has revealed what appears to be an ongoing and widespread problem with the mislabeling of commercial pet food.
  • The study, conducted by Chapman University, shows that an unacceptably large number of ingredient labels do not accurately represent what’s actually in the bag or can of pet food. These results are similar to the results of a study done two years ago, in which nearly half of dog foods tested were mislabeled.
  • Neither study lists specific product or manufacturer names.
  • If you’re concerned about whether your pet’s food is mislabeled, you can try contacting the manufacturer to ask questions about the procedures they use to avoid product adulteration and contamination. You can also consider making your pet’s food yourself, from ingredients you select.

By Dr. Becker

Two years ago, I wrote about an alarming situation with the mislabeling of commercial dog food. ELISA Technologies, Inc., a laboratory in Florida, tested 21 dog food formulas for gluten and animal protein sources. The lab then compared their test results with the ingredient labels on the dog food packages, and learned that 10 of the 21 foods were mislabeled as follows:

  • 8 formulas tested positive for an animal protein not listed on the ingredient label, with 2 foods containing undeclared beef or sheep, 5 containing pork, and 1 containing deer
  • 2 foods labeled as containing venison tested negative for deer, but instead contained beef, sheep, or pork
  • 2 foods labeled as containing “meat and bone meal” rather than a specific protein source tested positive instead for pork, but because pork can be considered meat, these formulas were not technically mislabeled
  • 12 formulas listed no gluten source on the label and 5 were labeled either gluten-free or grain-free. However, 5 of the 12 – including 2 labeled gluten- or grain-free – contained gluten at greater than 80 ppm, a level much higher than the FDA’s limit of 20 ppm to qualify for labeling as gluten-free in human foods

More recently, another pet food labeling study was conducted by Chapman University in Orange, California. The results were published in August in the journal Food Control,1 and like the study results two years ago, raise serious concerns for all of us who depend on accurate ingredient listings on pet food labels.

Over 50 Dog and Cat Diets Were Examined for Evidence of ‘Food Fraud’

According to Dr. Rosalee Hellberg, co-author of the Chapman University study:

"Although regulations exist for pet foods, increase in international trade and globalization of the food supply have amplified the potential for food fraud to occur.

"With the recent discovery of horsemeat in ground meat products sold for human consumption in several European countries, finding horsemeat in U.S. consumer food and pet food products is a concern, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do this study."2

The Chapman study tested 52 commercial dog and cat foods to determine what meat species were present, and any instances of mislabeling. For each product, DNA was extracted and tested for 8 types of meat: beef, goat, lamb, chicken, goose, turkey, pork, and horse.

Of the 52 Products Tested, 20 Were Mislabeled

A majority of the pet food tested by the researchers contained chicken, followed by pork, beef, turkey, and lamb, in that order. A few of the formulas contained goose; none contained horsemeat. Of the 52 products tested, 20 were “potentially” mislabeled, and one contained a non-specific meat ingredient that could not be verified.

Of the 20 mislabeled products, 13 were dog food and 7 were cat food. Of the 20, 16 contained meat species that were not listed on the product label, with pork being the most common unlisted ingredient. In three cases, one or two meat species were substituted for other meat species.

The Chapman University researchers concluded that while pet foods are regulated by both federal and state entities, it’s clear that mislabeling is occurring, though how it’s happening, and whether or not it’s intentional is unclear.

What to Do if You’re Concerned About Misleading Pet Food Labels

In the study two years ago, 48 percent of the dog food tested was mislabeled. In the more recent Chapman University study, 38 percent of tested pet foods were mislabeled. That’s a truly disturbing amount of mislabeled pet food, and even more frustrating is that neither study revealed the names or manufacturers of the mislabeled products.

If you’re concerned about the ingredients in your pet’s food – perhaps you have a dog or cat with allergies or who requires a novel protein diet to treat food sensitivities or bowel disease – you can try contacting the pet food manufacturer to ask how, and how often, they verify the authenticity of their ingredients.

A few questions to ask:

  • Do you apply hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) procedures to avoid product adulteration and contamination?
  • Do you require your ingredient suppliers to verify the source, type and species content of grains and meals, including results of any testing performed?
  • Do you check the quality of new suppliers by carefully examining their products and testing them as necessary?
  • Do you keep records of the receipt and use of each type of grain and meal?
  • What measures are in place in your production facility to prevent ingredient confusion and cross-contamination? What other foods are manufactured in the facility that makes your pet food?
  • Do you randomly test product ingredients to validate the accuracy of labeling?

Another option is to feed your dog or cat species-appropriate meals from your own kitchen with fresh ingredients you select. If you decide to give it a try, remember that balanced nutrition is of utmost importance when preparing homemade pet meals.