What's Really in My Cat's Food?
These days many of us strive to be health-conscious food shoppers because we want our family meals to be healthy and nutritious as well as tasting great. As we push our carts along the food aisles we stop to read the bag, box and can labels in our effort to avoid the bad stuff like high levels of salt, fat, calories and cholesterol. Sadly though, we aren't as label-conscious about the food we buy for the cats we love.
When shopping for cat food, many people just zero in on a specific brand of kibbles and canned food based on nothing more than advertising hype, cute packaging or the wad of coupons they clipped the night before. Others buy a certain type and brand of cat food simply because it's what their parents always fed to their cats. Worse yet, some of us pick a brand only because it's cheap.
We've been programmed to be pet food brand loyalists and coupon shoppers when, in fact, we should be buying the healthiest nutrition we can afford for our feline friends. Our cats will be happier and healthier as a result, and we’ll be rewarded with fewer vet bills. The key to providing our cats with safe, nutritious food is reading cat food labels to sort out the good from the bad just as we've learned to do with our own foods.
How Do Cat Food Labels Work?
Before I get into what is actually on the labels, it's important for you to know that makers of cat food (and all other animal foods) are required to follow FDA ingredient and labeling regulations. Almost all states also require that pet foods comply with their label regulations, which are modeled on the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Unfortunately, these labeling requirements are substandard and vague compared to the stricter human food labeling regulations. This creates certain loopholes that allow pet food makers to include legal, but undesirable, ingredients in pet foods. Some pet food companies and their ingredient suppliers often take advantage of this situation because they put market share and profit far above pet health and wellness. Complicating things a bit more, AAFCO is really just an advisory group with no legal authority to regulate pet food manufacturing and labeling. While the FDA and AAFCO rules are better than nothing, they don't prevent cost-cutting manufacturers from using cheap, potentially harmful ingredients in their pet food formulations. Although it is the job of each state to monitor and regulate pet food label compliance, in reality they are understaffed and underfunded, so it's on you and me to guard our cats' health by being aware of what's in the cat food we buy.
What Are Pet Food Label Requirements?
- Brand and product name
- Species the food is intended for (cat, dog, horse, etc.)
- Quantity – the net weight or volume in the package (U.S. and metric)
- Guaranteed analysis (Nutritional Values) – These four nutrient values have to be on the label: protein, fat, fiber and moisture. (Other guarantees will be required if the manufacturer makes a label claim such as “high in vitamin A and niacin,” “low-calorie senior diet,” etc.)
- Ingredient statement – Pet food ingredients are always listed in descending order of their raw weight contribution to the total weight of the final product. (Be careful, as this can be misleading – while meat may be listed first because it’s the heaviest pre-cooked ingredient going into the kibble mix, it often contributes less weight than non-meat ingredients further down the list on a dry basis.) Because cats are carnivores, the first three ingredients in kibbles and the first two in canned foods should be real meats such as chicken, turkey, or salmon.
- Nutritional adequacy statement – This is the claim on the package that says the food is complete and balanced as per the AAFCO guidelines for a particular stage in the pet’s life, i.e., kitten, growing, pregnancy, nursing, adult, senior, etc.
- Feeding directions and frequency – These directions should be used only as a guideline. They are based on badly designed feeding trials that only lasted six months and used small numbers of animals in controlled environments, such as kennels and cages. Normal parameters like daily exercise, life stage, temperature and weather are not factored in.
- Name and address of the manufacturer or distributor.
Other label requirements may apply if the package makes certain claims, such as “Made in USA” or “Veterinary Recommended." For instance, a cat food label cannot legally claim it is “Made in USA” if the food is supplemented with an ingredient that is originally sourced from China – even if all the other ingredients are sourced in America. Visit the AAFCO site for more information about pet food labels.
What About Pet Food Ingredient Requirements?
The FDA is charged with ensuring that all pet foods and treats produced and packaged for sale in the U.S. are made of ingredients that are approved by the agency as being safe for pets to eat, free of harmful contaminants and having a nutritive function appropriate for the intended species. This includes ingredients added to pet foods, such as vitamins, minerals, coloring agents and preservatives, which have to be classified as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS). Each state also has animal feed control officers to ensure that pet foods sold in their state meet the minimum federal requirements and AAFCO standards.
Why It's Not Enough
However, regardless of the official policies and oversight, food-related pet health problems occur because many of the common ingredients – especially byproducts and fillers – that are approved as safe by the FDA and AAFCO are only assumed to be safe. There are no significant long-term feeding studies that prove these ingredients are safe for pets.
A particularly troubling byproduct regarded as safe for use in pet foods by the FDA is restaurant grease. This nondescript junk ingredient is often burnt, contaminated and rancid, yet it is commonly, and legally, used by name brand pet food companies as a fat source. Why do they use it? Because it is cheap, and thus adds profit to their bottom line.
Click through to part 2 of this series for my full list of other harmful ingredients commonly found in cat foods and the reasons they are bad for our cats...