A Web search query for pet foods returns millions of hits. Many sites offer sound advice, but numerous others provide incorrect or misleading information.
Pet owners often use their veterinarians as a resource on pet foods. An awareness of the facts surrounding the more common
issues is important to effectively communicate on these matters with clients.
The acronym AAFCO commonly appears on dog and cat food labels. However, few in the public understand the nature and role of the Association
of American Feed Control Officials in pet food regulation or, in fact, even know what the acronym stands for (Table 1). Many assume AAFCO is the regulatory overseer of the industry or a certifying body that tests pet foods to ensure that they
meet nutritional and other standards. Others believe AAFCO is a trade association or otherwise caters to the pet food industry's
Table 1. Common misinterpretations of the acronym AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) on pet food Web
In fact, AAFCO is a private organization that has no regulatory powers. It does no product testing, nor does it otherwise
exercise authority over the production or sale of pet foods. Rather, these functions are performed by the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and individual state governments. While AAFCO is not a government agency, all of its members are federal,
state, and foreign government officials.1 Essentially, its role is to set standards that represent a consensus among regulators as to what constitutes the appropriate
regulation of animal feed. This includes the AAFCO Model Bill and Regulations and other guidance that state agencies are then
free to adopt and enforce as their own rules.
Representatives of outside groups can provide information to committees and working groups within AAFCO and are free to voice
their opinions at public AAFCO meetings. While pet food trade associations are always well represented, consumer and veterinary
representitives are also free to attend and participate in discussions. The important fact is that these non-government representatives
are not allowed to be members of AAFCO and, hence, cannot hold office, make motions, or cast votes on any matter. Therefore,
all actions taken by AAFCO are from the point of view of regulators, not industry.
Nutritional adequacy substantiation methods
In the early 1990s, a panel comprising experts from academia and industry and chaired by an FDA veterinary nutritionist were
asked to develop a proposal to replace the National Research Council recommendations as the basis for substantiating the nutritional
adequacy of pet foods. The result of the panel's deliberation was the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. The panel
also recommended revision to AAFCO feeding trial protocols during that period. The recommendations of the panel were subsequently
passed by the Pet Food Committee, the board of directors, and the full membership of AAFCO.
Veterinarians are often taught that the nutritional adequacy of pet foods is better substantiated by feeding trials than by
reliance on meeting a set of nutrient standards such as the profiles. In reality, both methods provide reasonable assurances
of nutritional adequacy, but each method has its advantages and disadvantages (Table 2).2
Table 2. AAFCO methods for nutritional adequacy substantiation of pet foods
The biggest issue with the feeding trial method is that many pet foods bearing an animal feeding tests statement on the label
are never tested in the manner suggested by the claim. Under a third but rarely discussed "product family" option, the results
of a single feeding trial can be used to support claims of nutritional adequacy for a number of distinct products. This option
is allowed as long as the product family members meet provisions for nutrient and calorie content similar to those of a product
actually tested. However, there are no restrictions on ingredient substitutions, so the equivalency of nutrient bioavailability
compared with that of the tested product cannot be assured. Further, the nutritional adequacy statement on the product family
member label misleadingly suggests it was fully tested for nutritional adequacy, when in fact it was only subject to a 10-day
digestibility trial in order to calculate and compare caloric content with the tested product. Thus, the product family option
is the least reliable means of substantiating nutritional adequacy, though perhaps the most common for pet foods bearing the
feeding tests statement.
While both methods have their pros and cons, the feeding trial and nutrient profile methods tend to make up for each other's
deficiencies. Thus, while AAFCO only requires one or the other, the best assurance of nutritional adequacy is if both methods
are employed. Most products declaring substantiation by the feeding trial criteria also meet the nutrient profiles, but that
latter fact rarely appears on the label. On the other hand, a pet food label bearing a claim of substantiation by the nutrient
profile method is less likely to have been tested by feeding trials. Interestingly enough, some companies are presently declaring
substantiation by the nutrient profile method even when feeding trials were conducted, assumedly in response to concerns by
animal rights advocates.