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Veterinarian Technician April 2008 (Vol 29, No 4)

Clinical Nutrition: Understanding Pet Food Labels

by Carol Rosenfield, CVT

    Selecting the appropriate pet food can be challenging for clients, who may be overwhelmed by the number of products available. In addition, not feeding the pet the appropriate amount or type of pet food can lead to such problems as obesity. Therefore, it is important that technicians know how to read a pet food label in order to help clients select the proper type of food for their pet and determine how much their pet should be fed.

    The main pet food label components (i.e., product identification, net quantity statement, manufacturer's name and address, list of ingredients) are established by the FDA.1-3 Some states develop their own labeling regulations; however, most states adopt labeling regulations that have been established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),3 an advisory agency comprising federal and state regulators. Although the information listed on labels can differ among manufacturers, the packaging for canned and dry commercial pet food should contain a principal display panel (PDP) and an information panel.

    Principal Display Panel

    The PDP must include the product name, a designator (statement of intent) that identifies the species for which the food is intended, and the net weight (i.e., the weight of the product, exclusive of the weight of packaging or other materials). The product name will often incorporate the name of an ingredient (e.g., chicken, beef). The percentage of this ingredient used in the total product is subject to regulations by AAFCO.1 For example, if a product name includes the term "beef," beef must represent at least 95% of the total weight of all ingredients (exclusive of water used for processing); however, if the product name includes a term such as "beef dinner," "beef entree," or "beef platter," beef must represent at least 25% — but not more than 95% — of the total weight of all ingredients (exclusive of water used for processing).1

    The PDP may also include the manufacturer's name, the brand name, a product vignette, or a nutrition claim. If the PDP states that the product is "complete and balanced" — meaning that all required nutrients are present in the proper proportions and quantities — the manufacturer must be able to show proof of this claim in the nutritional adequacy statement (discussed later), which must appear on the information panel.

    Information Panel

    The information panel lists all the ingredients in the pet food. At the bottom of the information panel, the manufacturer's name and address will usually be displayed. In addition to the ingredient statement, the infor­mation panel must include feeding guidelines, a guaranteed analysis, and a nutritional adequacy statement.

    Ingredient Statement

    The information panel on packaging for pet food sold in the United States must list each ingredient (e.g., chicken, chicken meal, corn, corn by-products) in an ingredient statement. No single ingredient can be given undue emphasis, nor can designations of the quality of the ingredients be included.4 However, different forms of the same ingredient (e.g., wheat bran, wheat flour) may be listed separately, making it appear that a certain ingredient represents a smaller portion of the food than it actually does.1 Because ingredients are listed in descending order based on predominance by weight, dry ingredients may be listed after moisture-rich ingredients.1

    Feeding Guidelines

    In the United States, feeding directions written in common language must be listed on the label of pet food designated as complete and balanced for any or all life stages.1 The directions list suggested amounts to feed a pet per day, often based on the pet's ideal weight and activity level. However, the feeding guidelines offer only general recommendations, and many animals will require more or less food than that recommended on the label.1

    Guaranteed Analysis

    In the United States, pet food manufacturers are required to provide a guaranteed analysis on the label, which must include information regarding minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture.1 The exact amount of these nutrients in the product is not listed. For example, a pet food label claiming that the product has "minimum crude fat: 11%" cannot have less than 11% fat but may have more.4

    When examining the guaranteed analysis, owners must also consider the moisture content of the product. Dry pet food often contains between 6% and 10% water, whereas canned pet food may contain up to 78% water.4 The amount of water in the food significantly affects the values listed in the guaranteed analysis.4 Pet food labels often indicate nutrient levels on an "as fed" or "as is" basis (which does not account for the amount of water in the product) rather than a "dry matter" basis. To compare nutrient contents in food with different amounts of moisture, the nutrient percentage should be converted into a dry-matter percentage.4 The dry-matter percen­tage is obtained by subtracting the moisture percentage listed on the label from 100% (e.g., dry food usually contains approximately 88% to 90% dry matter, whereas canned food usually contains about 22% to 25% dry matter).3 The remaining percentage indicates the amount of dry matter in the food. The dry-matter percentage of each ingredient in the food can be obtained by taking the listed percentage of one of the main nutrients and dividing that number by the percentage of dry matter.

    Nutritional Adequacy Statement

    Since 1984, US regulations have required that all labels for pet food, except food products clearly designated as treats or snacks, contain a nutritional adequacy statement (see the box at the top of page 237).1 When a claim such as "complete and balanced for all life stages" appears on the label, the manufacturer must specify the method used to substantiate this claim (e.g., "complete and balanced for all life stages based on AAFCO feeding studies").4

    Other Label Claims

    Many pet food labels include terms such as "premium," "superpremium," "ultrapremium," or "gourmet," but these terms lack standard definitions and official regulatory standing.5,6 However, AAFCO does regulate the use of other descriptive terms on labels, such as "natural," "light," "lite," "less calories," "reduced calories," "lean," "less fat," and "reduced fat."4,6,7 According to AAFCO, "natural" can only be used to describe food or ingredients that are derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources and that do not contain additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic. Food labeled with the terms "light" or "lite" must meet specific metabolizable energy requirements, which may vary by state. The label on a product described as having "less calories" or "reduced calories" should provide the percentage of reduction in calories from the product of comparison and include a calorie statement.4,6 If a product is described as having "less fat" or "reduced fat," the label must provide the percentage of reduction in fat from the product of comparison.4,6

    Calorie Statement

    In 1994, new regulations from AAFCO were developed to allow pet food manufacturers to voluntarily include a calorie content statement on the label.4 If a calorie statement does not appear on the label, the food's calorie content can be estimated using the steps outlined in the box at the bottom of page 237.

    Expiration Date

    Some pet food manufacturers include an expiration date or "Best If Used By" date on the product label. However, this information is currently not required.

    Medical Claims

    Some pet food manufacturers claim that use of their products can aid in treating certain diseases. If manufacturers make these claims, the Center for Veterinary Medicine must ascertain that the claims are truthful.8


    The labels on packages of canned and dry commercial pet food provide information about the product's ingredients and intended use. By understanding how to interpret the information provided, veterinary technicians can educate their clients and help them make informed choices among the many different types of pet food available on the market.

    1.Hand MS, Novotny BJ (eds): Pet food labels, in Pocket Companion to Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, ed 4. Topeka, KS, Mark Morris Institute, 2002, pp 85-99.

    2.21 CFR chapter 1, part 501. Available at ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&tpl=%2Findex.tpl.

    3.Dzanis DA: Interpreting Pet Food Labels. Accessed March 2008 at www.fda.gov/cvm/petlabel.htm.

    4.Case LP, Carey DP, Hirakawa DA, Daristotle L: Canine and Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals, ed 2. St. Louis, Mosby, 2000, pp 151, 153-163.

    5.Dzanis DA: Reading Dog and Cat Food Labels. Accessed March 2008 at petcaretips.net/reading-pet-food-label.html.

    6.Bren L: Pet Food: The Lowdown on Labels. Accessed March 2008 at www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2001/301_pet.html.

    7.Wortinger A: History and regulation of pet foods, in Nutrition for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses. Ames, IA, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp 77-84.

    8.Dzanis DA: Regulation of health claims for pet foods. Vet Clin Nutr 1:5-11, 1994.

    References »

    NEXT: Editor's Letter: Inside the Highly Complex Animal Brain


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