What The Pet Food Label Doesn’t Tell You – Part One
In this article, we look at the regulation surrounding labelling a pet food “natural” “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive” and what is required of a pet food manufacturer before it can make these claims. We also offer our thoughts on what to consider before you buy a pet food labelled “natural”, “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive”.
The Pet Food Label
There has been much media attention in the last decade on the health implications of many processed foods available at the supermarket for humans. It should, therefore, come as little surprise that highly processed pet foods can also have serious health implications for our pets.
With this in mind, more and more pet owners look to provide their pets with pet food brands that are healthy, free from artificial preservatives and colourings and contain identifiable sources of protein. Others look for brands that are appropriate for pets with existing allergies and intolerances. In response to this, the pet food industry has provided pet foods labelled with words such as “natural”, “hypoallergenic”, and “sensitive”, as well as many other claims.
The problem is some of these claims mean very little. Provided the pet food manufacturer is not making any specific medical claims, they can still claim that pet food has a whole range of health benefits, provided it can point to evidence that supports its claim. Unfortunately, this evidence can come from research specifically commissioned by the manufacturer as opposed to an independent study, so can sometimes be considered bias.
The European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) represents the national pet food industry associations in the EU, including the Pet Food Manufacturers Association in the UK (PFMA). FEDIAF has produced a Code of Good Labelling Practice For Pet Food. The Code considers the claims that pet food manufacturers can make and what is required before they can make these claims. The Code is published on the PFMA’s website and is largely based on the legislative requirements of the Pet Food Industry.
Natural Pet Food – What Does It Mean?
The FEDIAFs’ Code for pet food labelling includes the term “natural”. A pet food claiming to contain “natural ingredients” may imply that the pet food is healthy for your pet and could be seen as a sign of quality pet food. However, when you look at the guidance contained in the Code on the use of the word “natural” you realise that calling a pet food “natural” is no guarantee of quality at all. The Code states the following:
“The term “natural” should be used to describe pet food components (derived from plant, animal, micro-organism or minerals) to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for pet food production and maintaining the natural composition”.Section 184.108.40.206 of the FEDIAF’s Code of Good Labelling Practice for Pet Food, Published October 2019.
The Code goes onto list which processes and materials are considered unacceptable for natural foods. These include bleaching, chemical treatments, and the addition of any genetically modified additives of feed materials.
So breaking this down, the guidance tells us the following:
The use of the term “natural” should only be used to describe pet food components derived from “plant, animal, micro-organism or mineral”. So all cereals, meats and cellular organisms including bacteria and fungi would come within this part of the definition. This means that a food high in cereal content (a known cause of allergies in dogs and diabetes in cats) may still permit a manufacturer to call the pet food “natural”.
What is clear from this is that just because something claims to be “natural” does not mean it is a species-appropriate food, nor, does it suggest that it will benefit your pet, it just means it is derived from a “plant, animal, micro-organism or mineral”.
The FEDIAF also confirms that the term “made with natural…” may be used provided the natural components are clearly identified. So, it could be claimed that pet food made “with natural ingredients” but could still contain other highly processed ingredients that may not be beneficial to your pet’s health.
Does a pet food label containing the word “natural” help you identify a high quality and healthy pet food? No, not really. It is important to note, however, that some pet foods that use the word “natural” are excellent pet foods! It is always preferable that you read the ingredients on the back of the pet food label before you decide whether something is the right food for your pet.
Hypoallergenic & Sensitive Pet Foods – What Do They Mean?
Another claim frequently made on pet food labels is that the food is “hypoallergenic”, or, “sensitive”. The problem is that these words can be placed on a pet food label and still contain many components capable of causing or inflaming an allergy and other health issues in your pet.
In January 2010, the PFMA circulated a document for its members. The document concerned EU Regulation 767/2009, which sets out certain legal requirements concerning the labelling of pet foods. The PFMA confirms in this document that:
“There is no definition of the term “hypoallergenic” as such. Companies need to carry out an internal risk assessment if the use of the term is justified. (Need to substantiate if challenged by Authorities).”
In essence, it is a matter for the manufacturer and its own internal risk assessment to decides if it claims a pet food is “hypoallergenic”. The PFMA does remind its members that the FEDIAF Code “includes a checklist and tables that can help members to collect information to substantiate their claims” and that manufacturers can be required to substantiate their claims. If disputed, the manufacturer can point to evidence to support its claims, which may be in the form of its own funded research. Provided it takes other research which may not support its views into account, it can conclude that its own research is right and its claim that a food is “hypoallergenic” is valid.
Many pet owners purchase these products unaware that words such as “hypoallergenic” and “sensitive” are not legally defined and that the use of these words is not subject to strict regulation. The simple fact is there is no definitive list of what is and what isn’t “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive”, it is simply a matter for the manufacturer of the food.
Just like with “natural” foods, there is no guarantee that because something states it is “hypoallergenic”, or, “sensitive” that it is a good quality or will be beneficial for your pet. Whether a particular food will be beneficial for a pet with allergies or intolerances will ultimately depend upon the ingredients contained in the pet food and the type of allergy or intolerance an individual pet is suffering from.
A classic example is hypoallergenic pet food that contains grains or cereals. Whilst some grains such as brown rice may be very beneficial for some pets with allergies or intolerances, if your pet scratches and has itchy skin because it has an allergy to storage mites, then feeding your pet any food which contains grain or cereal is unlikely to assist your pet’s allergy.
Again, the point should be stressed that some pet foods which contain the term “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive” are excellent pet foods, and they may be beneficial for your pet, Be sure to read the ingredients list on the pet food and make your own mind up as to whether it is a food which is likely to benefit your pet.
If you do have a pet with allergies or intolerances, then here are our thoughts on what to consider when looking for a suitable food for your pet:
– If your pet suffers from allergies or intolerances that are being treated by your vet, always speak with them before changing your pet’s diet.
– Try a grain and cereal free pet food, this will assist with storage mite allergies or allergies to cereals. If you can feed wet food that is grain and cereal free, even better!
– Try feeding single source identifiable proteins; avoid having more than one meat type in your pet’s food, at least whilst you’re trying to works out what meats your pet can tolerate. Pets with digestive issues can find pet food with a mix of proteins more difficult to digest. This will also help you identify if your pet is allergic or intolerant to certain types of meat.
– You may want to try feeding your pet a form of protein it has not eaten before. Pets with food allergies and intolerances usually build up intolerances to the common forms of protein such as chicken and beef. So, try something different, such as turkey, rabbit or venison.
– Ensure that your pet food does not contain meat and animal derivatives, meat meal, or, animal by-product. You simply can’t be sure what you are feeding your pet if these ingredients are present in your pet’s food. It could be a meat source your pet is intolerant or allergic to, or, it could be the parts of an animal that are not particularly digestible and will inflame an existing intolerance or allergy.
– Always introduce new food slowly over three to four days. Changing your pet’s food overnight is likely to cause an upset tummy, so give them time to adjust to a new food.