The Politics of Pet Food

Update on calorie labeling standards
By Marion Nestle PhD, Malden C. Nesheim PhD, November 2008, Updated February 2015

In the wake of the 2007 recalls, Congress ordered the FDA to work with state regulators and the industry to develop national standards for pet food processing and labeling. We’d like to go on record right away as seconding the need for better regulation of pet foods.

We were pleased when the FDA announced a hearing on pet food labeling standards for May 13, 2008. We asked to attend the hearings, but when we didn’t get a reply from the FDA, we decided not to bother. We were surprised that we didn’t hear anything much about the hearings afterwards, but Christie Keith of explained why. Hardly anyone came, she said, and the FDA shut down the hearings after 90 minutes.

We did see a handful of short press accounts, but these covered only one item of testimony: the American Veterinary Medical Association called for calorie counts to be listed on pet food labels. This proposal hardly seems groundbreaking, but the Pet Food Institute, the trade association for pet food manufacturers, vigorously opposes it. So calorie labeling for pet foods, just as it does for human foods, makes news.

Because obesity is now as much of a health issue for pets as it is for humans, we can hardly believe that calories are not required to be listed on pet food labels. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the group that oversees what is printed on the labels, says that listing calories is voluntary unless the product claims to be “lite.” If companies do list calories, these “shall be separate and distinct from the Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” In our experience, some pet food companies reveal calorie counts on their labels or websites, but most do not.


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In the United States, roughly 60 percent of the human population is overweight, and obesity is a worldwide problem. In developing as well as industrialized countries, as many people are overweight as suffer from extreme malnutrition. Pets have joined this trend. Perhaps up to 60 percent of dogs in America also weigh more than is healthy for them. Just as with people, being overweight raises the chance that pets will develop diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, urinary tract disorders and cancers. Most important, thinner dogs live longer. But owners may not even be aware that their dogs are overweight. Surveys have found that veterinarians consider 44 percent of the dogs they see in their practices to be overweight, but only 17 percent of owners view their pets as anything but normal.

The basic explanation for obesity trends in humans and dogs is the same: eating more calories than are expended in physical activity. For dogs, the fattening trend is explained not only by reduced activity, but also by the increasing use of high-calorie dry pet foods as well as treats. Premium dog foods, for example, are deliberately made to be highly concentrated in calories so the animals won’t have to eat as much to satisfy their appetites and will produce less poop. Treats may not look calorific, but they have calories, and sometimes lots of calories. If owners don’t take treats into account in feeding regimens, dogs can quickly pack on the pounds.     

Calorie labels would seem to be an obvious way to address this problem. Other veterinary groups also have called on AAFCO to require calorie labeling. In January of this year, the AAFCO pet food committee agreed to look into the matter. Like most such committees, this one will be doing a thorough study that is likely to take years. In the meantime, the Pet Food Institute opposes calorie labels on the grounds that they are unnecessary and will not prevent obesity in pets.

We are baffled by this stance, since it seems so consumer unfriendly. Owners are totally responsible for the food intake of their pets, but figuring out how much food a dog needs is a real challenge. Dogs vary in their calorie needs. Some dogs regulate their body weight well and will not become overweight even when given continuous access to food; others are gluttons and will overeat in such situations. The feeding directions on pet foods offer general guidelines but cannot account for a particular animal’s activity pattern or disposition. And then there are the mysteries of calories in treats; you have no way of knowing how many each has.

The only way to know for sure that your dog is gaining weight is to weigh him regularly. If he is, you need to feed him less and exercise him more. Feeding less is also not so easy to do, because the number of calories your dog needs is tricky to figure out. Veterinarians determine calorie needs using a formula based on weight and expected activity, but these needs are not in direct proportion to body weight (the formula involves a fractional exponent). Smaller dogs need more calories to maintain the right weight for their size than do larger dogs. Without a clear idea of calorie requirements, you have to adjust food intake by trial and error. Our conclusion: More information about calories could help.

Will calorie labeling eliminate obesity in pets? Of course not, but it could be useful, especially if accompanied by information about the calorie needs of dogs based on size, age, condition and activity levels. We think that the time has come for calorie labeling of pet foods and treats. And we cannot think of a single good reason not to do it.

This exactly parallels the situation in New York City, where the Health Department wants fast food outlets to post calorie information on menu boards. Surprise! The New York Restaurant Association (NYRA) strongly opposes this measure for now-familiar reasons: unnecessary and useless. Although the NYRA still is fighting the measure, restaurant chains must post calorie information. For many customers, including us, the information is a revelation. Our favorite example so far: a blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that sounded wonderfully healthy until we saw its 1,100 calorie count. No wonder the NYRA doesn’t want customers to know such things.

So let’s get those calories onto the labels of commercial pet foods as well as onto treat packaging. Let your veterinarian, AAFCO and the FDA know that you want calories revealed. Use those customer call numbers and website addresses on package labels to ask pet food and treat companies to give you the calorie counts. We think calorie labeling will be required eventually, but we’d like to see it come sooner rather than later.


Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 49: Jul/Aug 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.

Malden Nesheim, PhD, is a professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University.