Look at the Label
Consumers looking for a better commercial dog food must rely on manufacturers to make and label them correctly. Pet foods are regulated on both the national and state levels. Nationally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set the standards for labeling pet foods, including product identification, manufacturer’s name and address, net quantity and ingredients. Most states have their own regulations, which typically are modeled on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAF CO) guidelines. AAFCO’s regulations stipulate specific information manufacturers must incorporate, including a guaranteed analysis of the food’s ingredients and a nutritional-adequacy statement, which shows that the food has been shown to be “complete and balanced,” meaning it will meet a dog’s basic nutritional needs. Foods without this statement may require the addition of supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, to complete the canine diet. (For more on label deciphering, see Rules & Regs on below.)
Commercial dog foods are generally lumped into a few categories, including “premium,” “super premium,” “ultra premium” and “gourmet.” Although it’s safe to assume that foods containing exotic meats will be classified thus, these words don’t have any official meaning: Dog foods that carry one of these terms on the label aren’t required to contain better ingredients or pass any more stringent nutritional requirements than ones that don’t.
Many dog foods, including exotic products, are labeled “natural” or “organic.” But this can be tricky, says Nancy K. Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing petfood manufacturers, and chair of the USDA’s Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force recommended a set of standards for dog and cat foods similar to those used for food intended for humans, but as of today, none has been adopted. That means that a manufacturer that touts its use of certified organic ingredients (or certified organic manufacturing facilities) and uses the official “organic” seal, which is issued by the USDA, must follow the same rules as manufacturers of human food, says Barbara Haumann, a spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association.
The term “natural” does have a definition, although it’s not exactly precise (or legally binding), Cook says. “Basically, a pet food is supposed to be made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in order to be called natural,” she says. That, at least, is the AAFCO definition. The FDA and USDA have no official definition of the term.
The bottom line: If you’re thinking of venturing into the exotic aisle, be sure to read the label carefully, says Larsen. Different doesn’t always mean better.