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  • What The Pet Food Label Doesn’t Tell You – Part Two

    What The Pet Food Label Doesn’t Tell You – Part Two


    In this article, we look at the regulation surrounding what information a pet food manufacturer has to give you about the meat content of your pet’s food, and the legal definitions of meat and animal derivatives and animal by-products, and how these ingredients may impact on the quality of your pet’s food. 

    Pet food manufacturers realise that most pet owners want to see high meat content in their cat or dogs food. It is not unusual to see claims that meat is the main ingredient in their products, or, that the pet food has a high protein content (the implication being that this protein has been derived from meat). A pet food manufacturer cannot claim that a product has a greater meat content than is really contained in its product without breaking the law. With some intelligent marketing and the right presentation, a manufacturer can, however, make a fairly low-quality pet food sound like a gastronomic dinner for your pet. The main question you need to ask when considering which pet food to feed to your dog or cat is; what does my pet’s food contain?

    It needs to be remembered that five multi-national companies own 80% of the pet food brands on the market. Brands owned by these companies are commonly referred to as “Commercial Pet Foods”. The multi-national companies behind these commercial pet food brands have major marketing budgets, and understandably, employ many talented people to present their products in the best light. In theory, there is nothing wrong with that. All businesses want their products to be seen in the best light possible, but one question that needs to be asked is, has the marketing got ahead of the science?

    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”). 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.


    A pet owner should be able to assess the quality of a pet food by reading the ingredients list on the pet food label. This exercise is not, however, always as simple as it should be. 

    By law, the pet food industry has to provide the consumer with certain information. Further, FEDIAF in its Code confirms that:

    “The prime purpose of a label is to facilitate the buying act of the purchaser by delivering clear, concise, accurate, true and honest information on the composition, characteristics and use of the product.” 

    The problem is, this is only a code of practice and is not law and cannot be enforced. All that can be enforced is the legal requirements surrounding the labelling of pet foods.1 Currently, the legal requirements are not strict enough to guarantee the pet owner that they are receiving clear information on the composition and characteristics of the pet food they purchase. Further, special provisions have been made for pet food, which in some regards relaxes the laws around labelling of pet food when compared to the labelling requirement of feedstuffs for animals destined for the human food chain2.

    On many commercial pet food labels, words such as meat and animal derivatives and animal by-products are contained within the ingredients list. This tells the consumer nothing about which animal species are contained within the pet food, or, which parts of the animal have been added to the pet food. Does the use of words such as “meat and animal derivatives” and “animal by-product” provide clear information on the composition of your pet’s food? We don’t think so. 

    The law defines a “meat and animal derivative” as:

    “All the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcase or parts of the carcase of warm-blooded land animals”.3

    You may be thinking that the first part of this definition isn’t too bad, albeit that it doesn’t require the manufacturer to identify the species of the animal slaughtered. The second part of the definition is, however, more problematic. This could be connective tissue, feathers, hooves, beaks, wool, hides and tails. If that was all your pet’s food contained would you really want to feed it to your pet? Do you think that obscuring these ingredients behind words such as “meat and animal derivatives” complies with the spirit of the Code’s requirement to provide clear information on the composition and characteristic of your pet food?  

    The use of the term “meat and animal derivatives”, to describe the meat-based protein source in your pet’s food, was sanctioned by the EU to relieve manufacturers from the requirement to specify every ingredient contained in the pet food they produce.4 The EU only sanctioned this relaxation of the labelling requirements of feedstuffs for pet food, and not for animals which may enter the human food chain5

    If you are purchasing a cheap pet food and it lists the main meat ingredient as “meat and animal derivatives” rather than “fresh deboned chicken and chicken liver”, ask yourself, is it likely that the pet food manufacturer has out of the goodness of their hearts opted for pet food containing only lean muscle meat and offal, or, is it more likely to contain connective tissue, high percentages of bone, feathers, wool and/or hooves? As pointed out by Henrietta Morrison, the founder of Lily’s Kitchen, “cheap pet food is cheap for a reason.” 

    If, however, you think that a food containing “meat and animal derivatives” is unacceptable for your pet’s food, you may also want to consider the legal definition of  “Animal by-product”. This is defined as: 

    “entire bodies or parts of animals, products of animal origin or other products obtained from animals, which are not intended for human consumption, including oocytes, embryos and semen.” 7

    Hooves, beaks, hair feather and connective tissue are all high in protein and cats and dogs need protein. Further, it is obvious that even quality pet foods will not be using prime cuts of meat, it’s not necessary and it’s not viable. We all know that many of the quality pet foods will contain a significant proportion of offal and the cheaper cuts of meat. There’s nothing wrong with these cuts of meat being contained in your pet’s food. They are an excellent source of protein. So you may be asking yourself if meat and animal derivatives and animal by-products are high in protein then what’s the problem with these ingredients? Well, the problem comes with the quality and digestibility of the protein source contained in your pet’s food.


    Dogs and cats need 22 amino acids to be healthy. Dogs can synthesize 12 of these amino acids and cats can synthesize 11 of them. Accordingly, the remaining 10 amino acids for dogs and 11 amino acids for cats must come from the food they eat if they are to remain healthy. Hence why they are referred to as essential amino acids.  Amino acids are found in the protein and therefore, the quality of that protein and its quantity is extremely important to your pet’s health. The less digestible the protein the less amino acids your pet will gain from its food. 

    Beaks, feathers, wool, hooves and connective tissue may be 100% protein, but they are indigestible for dogs and cats and are extremely low in essential amino acids (see our article on Dietary Protein for Cats and Dogs-The Importance of Digestible Protein). Further, the more indigestible a protein the more stress it places on kidney and liver function in a cat or dog. Accordingly, if you are feeding your pet a food which contains meat and animal derivatives you have no way of knowing how much digestible protein your pet food truly contains.  

    In a recent programme The Truth About Your Dog’s Food 8, the Chief Executive of the PFMA observed that there is no legislation that focuses purely on pet food. At present, the laws surrounding pet food are contained in the same legislation that provides for farm animals and feedstuffs. Whilst a piece of legislation focused purely on pet food would be welcome, it is not the need for separate legislation that is the biggest problem, it is the fact that the legislation is not stringent enough to ensure that the pet owner is being given all the necessary information to make an informed choice on what they should feed their pets.

    Further, the current laws on animal feedstuffs have in some instances been relaxed in relation to pet food9. Separate legislation for pet food may be in the distant future, but what is needed now is at least a tightening of the existing laws so that labelling requirements for pet food are at least as prescriptive as they are for other animal feedstuffs.


    So what should you remember when you are reading the ingredients list on a pet food label? 

    1. Look for pet foods that contain whole ingredients, with identifiable meat sources. 
    2. Look at what comes first in the composition description. This will usually be the biggest component of the food. If it’s not meat and it’s a meat-based pet food this is likely to indicate a low level of meat content in your pet’s food. If it’s been replaced with cereals and other fillers you may wish to look to an alternative pet food with a higher meat content, from identifiable meat sources, which is likely to be more beneficial to your pet’s health and wellbeing.
    3. If you want to be sure what you are feeding your pet, avoid foods that contain generic terms such as: “meat and animal derivatives”“meat meal”, and “animal by-products”. These terms don’t give you sufficient information about what is in the food.
    4. Avoid foods that contain wheat and soya. These ingredients are known to cause allergies in cats and dogs.
    5. Avoid foods that contain sugar or high levels of artificial additives, preservatives and colourings. Dogs and cats do not need sugars added to their foods and its hard work on their pancreas.
    6. Avoid foods that contain propylene glycol. This is a controversial additive used to preserve the moisture content in certain dog foods. It is the cousin of ethylene glycol one of the main components of antifreeze and is itself used in modern vehicles as antifreeze and as de-icer for aircraft. Propylene glycol is banned in cat food and treats as it can cause a serious blood disease in cats known as Heinz Body Anaemia. It is still legal to include propylene glycol in dog food.
    7. It is suggested by FEDIAF that where a feed material has been incorporated in a dehydrated form that terms such as “dried”, “powdered” or “meal” should be used to indicate the process and or state of the dehydrated material. Dried deboned chicken breast, for instance, may be more preferable to chicken meal. With chicken meal, you have no way of knowing which parts of the chicken the meal comes from unless the manufacturer tells you. If you feed a food that contains chicken meal you can always ask the manufacturer what parts of the chicken is contained in the meal. If they won’t give you a straight answer then you may want to think twice about feeding your pet that particular brand of pet food.

    So the next time you go to open up a bag of kibble or a tin of pet food for your pet, turn it around and look at the label, familiarise yourself with the ingredients (you can cross-reference this with our pet food glossary) and then armed with this information ask yourself am I feeding my pet quality pet food? If the answer is “no”, then in the interest of your pets health and well being it may be time for a change.