Deciphering Dog Food Labels: Good Luck with That!
The Upland Almanac|Summer 2020
“There’s no way anyone can look at a label and tell anything about the quality of the dog food.”
Tom Carney

Arguably, many of us hunting dog owners devote much more time and energy trying to figure out the best food for our dogs than we do on food for ourselves. But the decks are stacked against consumers in this pursuit, and we’re left with a “the best you can do” situation.

Federal laws seem to thwart dog food manufacturers to such a degree that they are hamstrung in any efforts to help consumers to determine the quality of the food we choose. Additionally, there seems to be no agreement among manufacturers even about the value of ingredients as simple as chicken or corn, for example.

Depending on which dog food brand is doing the selling, any one of these ingredients is better than the others: real chicken, chicken meal or chicken byproduct meal. Industry standards define each one, but each company’s take on the ingredients might be different. For example, Dr. Jill Cline, Site Director at the Eukanuba pet foods Pet Health and Nutrition Center (PHNC) says, “Chicken byproduct meal includes the heads, feet, intestines, livers and hearts of the birds.”

Just when you’re convinced that chicken meal is the best and chicken byproduct meal is icky, she adds that the liver and hearts are rich in nutrients dogs need, so byproduct meal isn’t so bad after all.

Here’s another one. Numerous dog foods advertise themselves as “grain free.” But Eukanuba proudly proclaims, “A grain, such as corn, is one of the most important ingredients in high-quality dog food. … While there are no stated biological needs for carbohydrates in dogs, there are studies that show the benefits of a diet containing carbohydrates/grains.”

Whether corn is touted as an important ingredient will depend on the manufacturer and how it chooses to market its products.

Further, one concept of the “nutritional philosophy” at Eukanuba is “superior palatability, digestibility and a better nutritional experience based on the RSS value of food (Relative Super Saturation).”

This sounds great. But how useful is that information to the common, everyday consumer?

Eukanuba isn’t the only dog food company to lay difficult-to-digest ideas on consumers. Check out the following from a recent Pheasants Forever post:

“When choosing a food, it’s best to determine your dog’s energy needs, the most critical part of his or her diet other than water,” says Purina Research Nutritionist Christina Petzinger Germain, Ph.D.

“Energy fuels a dog’s performance. When a dog food provides the right levels of energy nutrients — carbohydrates, fats and protein — a dog is more likely to achieve a high VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake. …

“The higher the VO2 max, the more intense a dog can exercise. This is due to the supply of energy from fat to the muscles, sparing the liver and muscle glycogen stores, and the body’s use of amino acids. …”

So how many of us can calculate our dog foods’ RSS, right levels of energy nutrients and VO2 max as well as gauge the levels of liver and muscle glycogen stores and the body’s use of amino acids?

To help their clients make the best choices, veterinarians usually advise their clients to make sure the dog foods they purchase have the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement on their packaging. What the statement means, however, as Cline explained, is that the food meets the minimum standards.

“It means the food is sufficient, not optimal.”

Eukanuba claims its tests are more stringent than those performed by AAFCO. However, the law forbids a dog food company from putting “Exceeds AAFCO standards” on a bag of dog food. “And the ingredient list offers little guarantee on how the dog food performs,” says Cline.

Another way the food quality remains a mystery to the consumer lies in how much detail pet food manufacturers are allowed to give.

For example, “Joint health,” says Russ Kelley, Science Lead/Service & Working Dog Research Manager at the PHNC, “is a vague term. But that’s as far as the FDA will let you go” on packaging and marketing claims.

For Eukanuba foods, “joint health” means joint support gets a boost. The “support” doesn’t exist at the “therapeutic level” in the food, says Kelley, but rather it works to repair joints from a day’s work and to prevent long-term injury. But that information is not allowed on packaging.

The law also forbids companies from adding the digestibility rating of foods to the packaging.

“Doesn’t it sound as if the FDA is protecting the small manufacturer who might be producing less than healthy food rather than the consumer who needs the information to make educated choices?” I asked.

Neither Cline nor Kelley disagreed.

In fact, Kelley added, “There’s no way anyone can look at a label and tell anything about the quality of the dog food.”

Words not minced, sure to cause a rude awakening to those of us faithful dog owners who have spent hours in the pet food aisles of our nearest feed, pet or grocery stores trying to figure out which food is the best for our pups. Have we been wasting our time?

In effect, therefore, the AAFCO label doesn’t help the consumer make any decisions at all about the quality of dog food. And that raises the additional question, “What’s up with that?”

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