Pet food facts and fallacies (Sponsored by Nestle Purina)

Pet food facts and fallacies (Sponsored by Nestle Purina)

Part of the 2010 Nestlé Purina Veterinary Symposium publication
Jun 04, 2010

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.

What's AAFCO?

Table 1. Common misinterpretations of the acronym AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) on pet food Web sites
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 interests.

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.

Table 2. AAFCO methods for nutritional adequacy substantiation of pet foods
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

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.