The riskiest myth you could believe about your pet’s food

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet food regulations

Story at-a-glance -

  • Federal pet food regulations include pet treats in the category of pet food; however, it’s important to recognize there’s no consequential “regulation” occurring
  • The FDA is responsible for regulating pet food but it delegates most of the job to local and state Department of Agriculture agencies
  • One example of the FDA’s regulatory ineptitude is the 12-years-and-counting fiasco with toxic jerky pet treats imported from China
  • AAFCO is not a federal agency and has no regulatory authority; its advisors and committee members include representatives from major feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers
  • Due to regulatory and many other issues with processed pet food, many pet parents are choosing to prepare their animal companion’s meals themselves

Recently, I was asked a question about regulation of pet treats, and specifically, whether the FDA is the responsible regulatory agency. For the record, all existing federal pet food regulations include pet treats under the umbrella of pet food. But as we've learned in recent years, there's very little actual "regulating" going on.

How US pet food is 'regulated'

From the FDA's Pet Food page:

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates that can of cat food, bag of dog food, or box of dog treats or snacks in your pantry. The FDA's regulation of pet food is similar to that for other animal foods. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that all animal foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled."1

So, the FDA has final authority to regulate pet food, however, it hands off the job to local and state agencies and in particular, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). From the FDA's Pet Food Regulation page:

"FDA's Partnerships with Local and State Agencies and AAFCO

FDA and local and state agencies all play a role in regulating pet food and participate in the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). While AAFCO itself has no regulatory authority, this association of local, state, and federal feed control officials works to:

Safeguard the health of animals and people;

Ensure consumer protection; and

Provide a level playing field of orderly commerce for the animal feed industry.

FDA representatives serve on AAFCO's Board of Directors, Pet Food Committee, and other committees. FDA staff also act as scientific resources for AAFCO and local and state feed control officials. By helping FDA's limited resources go farther and be used more efficiently, these partnerships are vital to effectively regulating pet food and ensuring safe food for animals."2

So, AAFCO — a private (nongovernmental), voluntary organization, not a federal regulatory agency, which therefore has no regulatory authority — "partners" with the FDA to supplement its limited regulatory resources.

One example of pet treat 'regulation'

A perfect example of the FDA's regulatory impotence is the ongoing toxic jerky treats disaster. There have been no official updates from the FDA since 2016, but from 2007 when the agency began its search for answers to the end of 2015, they had received over 5,000 complaints of illness caused by chicken, duck or sweet potato jerky treats made with ingredients imported from China.

Those complaints involved over 6,200 dogs, 26 cats and three people (including two toddlers). Tragically, over 1,100 of the 6,200 dogs ultimately died after eating the tainted treats.

The FDA's 12-years-and-counting investigation into suspect treat samples uncovered the existence of illegal residues from several antibiotics that aren't approved for use in poultry in the U.S. These include sulfaclozine, tilmicosin, trimethoprim and enrofloxacin, plus the approved-for-use drug sulfaquinoxaline.

The investigation also found illegal residues of the antiviral drugs amantadine, rimantadine and memantine, which are approved for use in chickens, ducks and turkeys. To clarify — even though some of the drugs the FDA discovered are approved for use in poultry in this country, the residues from those drugs should not be detectable in food products made from poultry. That's why the residues are described as "illegal."

Predictably, neither the FDA nor treat manufacturers believe the illegal drug residues were what caused sickness and death in so many pets.

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Perspectives on AAFCO

Now that we've dispensed with the FDA's non-role in regulating pet food, let's take a closer look at the agency's nonregulatory "partner." Here's one take on AAFCO from Brandy Vachal of The Honest Kitchen, a 100% human-grade pet food producer:

"AAFCO advisors and committee members include representatives from major feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers such as Nestle Purina, Hills Pet Nutrition, Nutro Products and Cargill Animal Nutrition. Despite this, AAFCO claims that its function is to protect the consumer.

Despite its regulations, AAFCO has no means of enforcement, nor do they perform any analytical testing of foods. Regardless, AAFCO's regulations are adopted by most states and are the standard to which pet and livestock feed manufacturers must adhere."3

Here's another hard-hitting perspective, written by attorney Justine S. Patrick during her third year at Harvard Law School, in a paper titled "Deconstructing the Regulatory Façade: Why Confused Consumers Feed their Pets Ring Dings and Krispy Kremes:"4

"Abstract

Americans own more than 130 million cats and dogs and spend over $12 billion per year on commercial pet foods. The commercial pet food industry faces minimal substantive regulation, despite navigating several layers of regulation from various groups including the FDA, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and state regulators.

The FDA entrusts AAFCO to issue regulations governing ingredients, feeding trials, labels and nutritional claims. But AAFCO's rules fall short of ensuring that America's pets receive adequate nutrition, or even foods that won't cause chronic digestive, skin, eye, and coat problems.

The influence by the pet food industry over AAFCO manifests itself through AAFCO's irrational regulations, including ingredient definitions which effectively prohibit organic chickens and vegetables, while blindly permitting thousands of euthanized cats and dogs to make their way into pet foods through the unsupervised rendering industry.

Trusting, but uneducated, consumers purchase these commercial pet foods under the assumption that the FDA or some other regulatory body has ensured that the foods contain 'balanced' meals, and 'complete' nutrition. These consumers naively believe veterinarians that endorse and sell pet foods from their offices while neglecting to mention that these 'pet doctors' are often 'on the take' and can earn up to 20% of their total income from such sales.

This paper will examine the ways in which inadequate regulation results in confused consumers and sick, malnourished pets. Ultimately this paper seeks to reveal that multiple parties, including consumers themselves, share the blame for the current muddled state of regulation."

You can read the full paper at Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH).

What you can do as a pet parent

The reality is there are countless potentially disastrous issues with processed pet food, and regulation is but one of them. Sadly, little is changing in the pet food industry despite the recalls, lawsuits, other forms of pressure to do better and the ever-growing number of beloved animal companions who've become sick or died after being fed contaminated pet food. To learn more about the regulatory side of the pet and agricultural feed industry, visit Food Regulation Facts.

Those of us who advocate for improvement in the sourcing, processing and regulation of pet food will continue the fight, but in the meantime, I strongly encourage you to consider preparing your pet's meals in your own kitchen using ingredients you choose yourself, and following nutritionally balanced recipes like those provided by my Recipe Creator for adult dogs, or created through Animal Diet Formulator.

If you want to help change the deceptive practices occurring in the pet food industry, I recommend becoming a member of the Association for Truth in Pet Food, which is the only organization out there committed to holding the regulatory agencies and AAFCO accountable.