[pullquote]Different labels, different marketing, different prices, same dog food[/pullquote]The manufacturing of dog food is just as concentrated as the market shares. Plants are usually outsourced by the big companies where either wet food (which is canned) or dry food (which is kibbled) is produced using thousands of recipes, with slight variations, to make many more thousands of product lines in all price ranges. Different labels, different marketing, different prices, same dog food (and same denim).
At this point you may be thinking that you’ve beaten the system, found a dog food that is better for your pup. I have news: you probably haven’t. Because dog foods are sold as “complete and balanced”, meaning your dog can live a healthy life by eating only the one product, each brand has to meet the exact same nutritional requirements. The profiles for those nutrient requirements are issued by the American Association of Feed Control Organizations (AAFCO). Though not all states have adopted the AAFCO model regulations and profiles as law, companies must (and do) abide by them in order for their products to be marketed as “complete and balanced.” And it is because of this that nutritionally, commercial pet foods are all pretty much the same.
Among other AAFCO requirements, dog food labels have to contain:
- a statement of guaranteed analysis
- a statement of nutritional adequacy
- a list of ingredients in descending order by weight.
The statement of guaranteed analysis ensures that the food contains adequate levels of protein, fat and fiber by providing crude measurements. “Crude” is basically a way to measure by proxy – for example, the amount of nitrogen present in the food is translated into a measurement for crude protein based on the amount of nitrogen typically found in a protein source. Often on pet food labels you will also see voluntary guarantees of nutrients like calcium, phosphorous and taurine. Besides the fact that taurine is totally unnecessary –dogs make their own – if the food meets AAFCO guidelines (which it does), then it has to have the appropriate amount of calcium, phosphorous and all the other essential nutrients anyway. In other words, voluntary guarantees are for marketing purposes only.
The statement of nutritional adequacy ensures that companies have used one of three methods to demonstrate that their food is “100% complete and balanced.” They can do this by formulating the food specifically to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles, by testing foods through feeding studies, or by making foods with formulas similar to those already tested in a feeding study.
The ingredients are, for many people, the most important requirement for dog food labels. At the top of the list in almost any can or bag of dog food will be grains and meat products but keep in mind that if your dog is eating canned food, the first ingredient is always water (about 75%) and that won’t be on the label. Other ingredients will include binders and thickeners, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants used as preservatives. While it is frustrating that the quantities of each ingredient are not listed, there is a way to at least have a general sense of ingredient amounts. All the major ingredients and sources of protein, fat and fiber will be listed in the top five, this is obvious. But in order to tell whether the “organic carrots” or “fresh beef” is on the label as a real ingredient or as a marketing gimmick, look to see whether it is listed before or after salt. Salt will almost never be more than .5-1% of the ingredients, so anything after that is just a teeny tiny smidgen.
The Dog Food Preparation Process:
We’ve established that based on the fact that all commercial dog foods are meeting the AAFCO profiles, nutritionally, they are pretty much the same. So how do companies compete in the marketplace? How do they make products that taste good to dogs and appeal to the owners while maintaining low prices and high profit margins? The answers are in the processes and the marketing gimmicks.
What most consumers want to see on the ingredient list is MEAT, and companies know they can charge more money if they put meat at the top of the list and make it sound appetizing. The other major ingredient is some kind of grain because it is much cheaper than meat and also contains protein (though not as much or as high in quality as meat, so meat meals are added to grains to compensate). But here is the big secret: regardless of how the meat is described, whether it is fresh, rendered, or mealed, it is without exception a by-product. And that’s OK. The meat industry in the United States produces many billions of pounds of animal waste every year. Humans don’t want to consume this so, it is a blessing that we have a pet food industry to make use of the highly nutritious by-products. It makes no difference whether the label says “by-product” or “all beef” – what your dog is consuming are the perfectly tasty parts of the animal that we don’t like such as tails, de-boned backs and organs.