Food & Nutrition
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Natural, Human Grade, Organic Dog Food: Really?


Because the NOP has not yet adopted the task force recommendations, organic pet foods are in regulatory limbo, leaving AAFCO with the unenviable task of explaining how to label “organic” pet foods. AAFCO says that (1) under NOP rules, pet foods may not display the USDA organic seal or claim that they were produced according to organic standards. But (2), NOP also says labeling terms such as “100% organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients” on pet foods may be truthful and do not imply organic production or certification. Therefore (3), AAFCO recommends that labeling rules for human foods apply to pet foods.

What to make of this? We think the statements imply that nobody is going to make a fuss about organic claims on pet foods, even when some, most or even all of their ingredients are not really organic.

Mind you, following the rules for organic labeling is complicated (see chart). Even so, you can go into a pet food store and easily find products that violate these standards. Our favorite: companies calling themselves organic when their foods do not contain a single organic ingredient. They get away with this because the USDA, unlike the FDA, doesn’t regulate company names.
At the moment, “organic” means something for human food; it does not mean much for pet food. We worry that the USDA doesn’t think pet foods are important enough to care what is said on their labels. This may be a good situation for unscrupulous marketers, but we do not think it is good for pet food companies, buyers of pet foods or the organic industry itself. If products are labeled organic, they should follow the rules for organic certification—all of them. If they do not, the organic standards won’t mean much.

Organic foods command higher prices because people believe in the integrity of the standards. If the standards are not met, why pay more? If the USDA allows weaker standards for pet foods, we wonder whether it will continue to defend strong organic standards for human foods. Without strong standards, organics are just about marketing, not production methods. We think everyone—pet food makers, the USDA, AAFCO and the readers of Bark—should demand nothing less than the highest possible standards for natural, human-grade and organic claims on dog foods.




This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 50: Sept/Oct 2008

Marion Nestle, PhD, is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU; her most recent book is Pet Food Politics.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Heidi Junger | December 13 2009 |

When I saw the title of this article, I was happy that an expert would finally clear the clouds hovering over organic pet food claims. But I soon was quite disappointed that the authors didn't realize that *certified* organic pet food claims ARE regulated and enforced by the government and its accredited organic certification agencies.

As certified organic pet food manufacturer (www.onestaorganics.com), I know this much. Unlike non-certified organic pet food claims, certified organic pet food claims are as stringently regulated and enforced as are certified organic claims for human foods. These claims are verified by an unbiased 3rd party (i.e., organic certifiers such as Oregon Tilth, OAI, etc.)

As pet food manufacturer, I believe that organic certification provides generally the best regulatory system available for pet foods. Among others, organic certification ascertains that those well known undesirable, undefinable ingredients (4Ds, GMOs, byproducts, pesticide-, hormone-, antibiotic-treated ingredients, etc.) are not included in certified organic pet foods.

Here is what a State compliance officer at CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) wrote to me in 2008:
"It is buyer be ware of any pet food product that does not show that it is certified by one of the NOP certification agents."

Here is what a Green Seal staff member wrote to me:
"USDA organic certification is the best and most credible label for pet and human food products, also in respect to any green claims."

But you don't have to believe me, the CDFA officer, or Green Seal member who I communicated with. Simply call or email USDA or one of the organic certification agencies and ask if certified organic pet food claims are regulated and enforced or not (or if they even exist!). Just don't believe everything that's written; even otherwise very well-informed and knowledgeable expert's can't know everything or they may not be very clear. It's best to check at regulatory places which deal with particular issues on a daily basis.

I'd have loved to see a clarification on this topic in the Bark magazine. I unfortunately, never saw one, maybe I missed it, maybe it's still coming?

However, I still hear people doubting that "organic means something in the pet food industry" (quoting directly from the Bark article), while they refer to this article. Which is a shame because there is no doubt in this matter: certified organic pet foods simply are regulated and enforced, and the use of the words 'certified organic pet food' is *not* simply a marketing strategy as other non-certified pet food claims can be. A clarification on this issue would support the true (i.e., certified) organic movement for our pets and ourselves.

Anyway, Happy Holidays - Heidi

Submitted by Marion Nestle, ... | December 15 2009 |

We agree with Dr. Junger that it is certainly the case that the USDA regulates use of the term organic on foods for humans (as we explained in our article). However, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has never defined what Certified Organic means for pet foods. Without established rules for pet foods, the USDA-designated certifying agencies can--and do--decide for themselves what Certified Organic means and do the best they can to apply the human standards to pet foods. This does not cause problems for treats because treats can be made with fully organic ingredients, as Dr. Junger's pet food company does. Certified Organic treats really do meet human food standards for organic certification. But certifying the organic status of complete-and-balanced pet foods presents serious problems because they contain non-organically produced vitamins, minerals, and other additives. The certifying organizations differ substantially in their interpretation of the rules about whether a complete-and-balanced food qualifies as Certified Organic. Some organizations refuse to certify any complete-and-balanced pet food because the vitamin and mineral mixes are not produced organically. Others overlook the problem, make an exception, and certify the food as organic. If you see a Certified Organic complete-and-balanced food, it means that the certifier chose to overlook the vitamin/mineral problem.

We also continue to see plenty of pet foods labeled as organic (although not Certified Organic) in their brand names or on their ingredients and we worry that most consumers cannot tell the difference between organic and Certified Organic. We think the NOSB has been sitting on this issue far too long and that clear, unambiguous organic standards for complete-and-balanced foods as well
as treats would be good for the pet food industry as well as for pet owners.

Submitted by Shireen | October 8 2013 |

These distinctions are very interesting to be aware of. There should be more awareness on the percent of organic ingredients and the labelling on packages. www.barkbites.com.au

Submitted by sharron | September 16 2014 |

so now if a dog food isn't fit for human consumption it's classed as garbage? - when did this start - if it came down to starving to death i would eat it regardless what the food ingredients were. when did we start comparing humans to dogs and cats and we should all eat

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