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PET FOOD SPECIAL : It's on the Bag

June 22, 1995|KATHIE JENKINS

Food: an article that provides taste, aroma, or nutritive value.

--Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (which grants the Center for Veterinary Medicine, a division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, primary federal regulatory authority over pet food)

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Ever wonder what's in dog food? Are Purina's Tender Vittles really tender? Does a Gaines-burger taste like a hamburger? Is Science Diet recommended by scientists? And exactly how many top-breeders actually feed their dogs Kal Kan's Pedigree?

Labels for pet food are regulated by rules different from those for food consumed by humans. At the federal level, pet food labeling and advertising claims are controlled by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission. Some states also enforce their own labeling regulations, which are usually stricter than federal laws.

Then there's the American Assn. of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an advisory group of feed control officials from all 50 states that also plays a role in the labeling. Although it has no legal authority over pet food manufacturers, AAFCO formulates the nutrient profiles and guidelines pertaining to pet food.

Food labeling is supposed to make it easier for consumers to know more about what they are eating (or what their pets are eating). But even with a careful read, pet label language is confusing. Listed below are some of the most revealing elements of a label that might help distinguish the good from the gross.

Bag

Name: The first thing a consumer notices. This is why manufacturers often use cutesy names. Wouldn't you look twice at Deli-Cat, Kibbles&Bits, Come&Get It, Moist&Meaty, Chef's Blend, Sheeba or Alley Cat? Well, maybe not Alley Cat.

Endorsement: AAFCO allows endorsements as long as they are true and not misleading. "We haven't run into too many 'top breeders' claims," says David Dzanis, a veterinary nutritionist with the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "But some food labels say 'veterinarian recommended.' Well how many vets do you need? Some have tried to get away with one, usually the owner of the company. It's supposed to be a statistically meaningful sample. I look on it more as puffery--I wouldn't put any value on that kind of statement."

Net Quantity: Check net quantity when comparing products, especially in canned food sold in non-standardized sizes. Also, dry products differ in density, especially in some of the "lite" products--a bag that looks like it might hold 20 pounds of food may be puffed up with air and contain only 15 pounds of food.

Ingredient List: Because the law requires manufacturers to list contents in order of weight before the food is cooked or processed, the ingredient list can be confusing. For instance, one manufacturer may list "chicken" as the first ingredient and "corn" as the second. But raw chicken has a high moisture content (it's approximately 75% water), which evaporates during processing so the actual chicken content is greatly reduced.

Another company may list "corn" first and "chicken meal" second. Water and fat are already removed from chicken meal before it's weighed. So comparing the two foods on a dry basis, the second product may have more chicken meal than the first product has chicken.

But then chicken meal doesn't necessarily contain any chicken meat. AAFCO defines chicken meal as "dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts of whole carcasses of poultry ... exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails."

Byproducts: Most of us are well aware that if we had to, we could eat pet food. There's nothing in it that would kill us. In fact, judging by the amount of protein listed on some labels, pet food is a lot cheaper and more nutritious per pound than, say, a T-bone steak. Plus, pet food requires no cooking. Yet despite the attractiveness of the cost and time-savings, not to mention bonding with the dog or cat, there are still those byproducts.

But Julie Zimmerman of AAFCO assures us that byproducts are nothing to get excited about. AAFCO defines meat byproducts as "the non-rendered clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals." Though this includes animal organs, the definition goes on to say: "It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs."

"You can't imagine the nutrition in [byproducts]," Zimmerman says, then adds. "Besides, if they weren't fed back to another animal, they'd go into a landfill!" Now that's a thought. Save money and save the planet.

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