New Pet Food Standards – Finally?

by Jean Hofve, DVM

The standards by which pet food are made are set by an organization calledAAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). AAFCO provides model rules and standards that most states have adopted, and that pet food companies abide by. You’ve undoubtedly seen statements on pet food labels referring to either AAFCO feeding tests or AAFCO Nutrient Profiles. In order to claim that they are “complete and balanced” for a given life stage (or all life stages), pet foods must meet one of those two standards.

This is not a glamorous topic, but it’s critical for your pet’s health, so please bear with me for a little bit of history. The current Nutrient Profiles were published in 1989-1990. They were based on the 1985 National Research Council (NRC) report on dog and cat nutrient requirements, which was itself based largely on research in rats, chickens and cattle. There was very little published research on canine nutrition back then, and virtually none on cats. Even when they were brand new, the AAFCO standards were widely criticized. Nevertheless, most “holistic” pet foods are made to those standards; in general, only big companies who can afford to do feeding tests rely more on those.

In other words, today’s AAFCO standards were never great, and are now outdated by 30 years. The good news: revisions to the Nutrient Profiles and Feeding Protocols are set to be adopted at the AAFCO Annual Meeting this August!

The NRC book was updated in 2003, though not published until 2006. The delay was due to protests by pet food companies and their lobbying mouthpiece, the Pet Food Institute. NRC authors wanted to set new upper limits on certain nutrients, but having to actually measure what they were putting in pet food was considered too expensive for the pet food companies, and they didn’t want to be bothered. And they won: NRC watered down its recommendations. Subsequently, new AAFCO standards were created by Expert Committees, relying on the “new” NRC book as well as other more recent research.

After a few rounds of revisions and comments by FDA and others, the new publications are in their final form, ready to be voted on by AAFCO members at their annual meeting, which will be held in St. Petersburg, Florida, in August. Because you–the consumer–have wised up a lot since the last revision, AAFCO has decided to post the proposed revisions to the Nutrient Profiles and to the Feeding Test protocols online (I’m also including the Pet Food Committee minutes so you can see how the process works…they’ll give you a clue on why it takes AAFCO so long to do anything!):

Minutes of the January 2013 Pet Food Committee meeting

Proposed Revisions to AAFCO Nutrient Profiles

Proposed Revisions to Feeding Protocols

If these proposals are adopted, as expected, at the August meeting, they will be published in the 2014 AAFCO Official Publication.

Of course, these revisions will already be more than 10 years out-of-date the minute they roll off the printing press, given that the NRC finished its report in 2003. For example, there will be no adult requirements for the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, despite the reams of research and wide acknowledgment showing their importance. Most of the changes are minor. But at least something is happening! 

If you want to see even more glorious “AAFCO in Action,” here are the minutes from my other committee, the Ingredient Definitions Committee:

IDC Minutes

The working group I’m currently in is updating the labeling for specialty pet foods (birds, fish, rodents, etc.), and the labeling checklist for enzymes & microbials. Please, stay calm, I know it’s very exciting and you all wish you could be on those conference calls! Okay, it’s a grind for a bunch of volunteers, but it’s important work!

AAFCO seems kind of abstract to a lot of people. But there is no other group that has more impact on the food you feed your pets every day.Without AAFCO, it would be a total free-for-all in the marketplace (especially since the Federal Trade Commission decided it didn’t want to monitor pet food labels for false and misleading advertising any more), and you wouldn’t be able to glean any meaningful information whatsoever from pet food labels. What we’ve got isn’t perfect, but it’s way better than nothing!

AAFCO’s mission is three-fold: to provide protection for consumers as well as industry, to safeguard human and animal health, and to provide a structure for orderly commerce. But when I started attending AAFCO meetings in 1999, it was clear that its most important mission–consumer protection–had long been neglected.

Now, this was not a deliberate oversight. But when the State Feed Control Officials meet, twice a year, there are just as many industry representatives as voting members (State Feed Control Officials and representatives from FDA and USDA) who actually make the rules. For decades, the only feedback AAFCO members heard was from employees of big pet food companies (Hill’s and Purina are always represented), and companies that produce supplies for pet food (such as the National Grain and Feed Association, the American Feed Industry Association, and the National Renderers Association). So when the Animal Protection Institute (API), an animal rights organization, secured a place on the Pet Food Committee and Ingredient Definitions Committee, it was a very big deal. Other “consumer” groups had come and gone, but even though I left API in 2001, I have maintained friendly relationships with many of the AAFCO members, and attended as many meetings as possible.

It’s a peculiarity of the way AAFCO works that anyone can attend the meetings, and they can speak up and give their input, but to have a (literal) “seat at the table”–to be an official member of a committee, you have to represent a non-profit group of some kind. When pet food company employees get such a seat, they claim to be representing The Pet Food Institute, which is the pet food manufacturers’  lobbyist group in Washington, DC. And each company producing pet food ingredients is likewise representing their own lobbying groups.

But since consumers aren’t an official, non-profit organization, they can’t be on the committees. And, for the most part, no big consumer advocacy groups have paid any attention at all to AAFCO (although some of them have plenty to say about pet food–though most of what they’ve said has been misguided or outright wrong!).

Today, it’s more important than ever that consumers have reliable representation at AAFCO meetings. Susan Thixton (www.truthaboutpetfood.com) and I have attended all meetings (two per year) for the last several years. In August, we will be joined by the inimitable Mollie Morrissette of PoisonedPets.com. I can’t wait to see the fireworks as the irresistible force of we three meets the almost-immovable object of AAFCO!

As I mentioned, I’m currently an official advisor to the Pet Food and Ingredient Definitions Committees, representing the Pet Welfare Alliance, an international coalition for consumer education, and watchdog for the global pet products industry. I do this work as a volunteer, on behalf of you and your pets, and for pets everywhere, because other countries pay close attention to what the U.S. does, and often follows in its footsteps. Many AAFCO members have told me personally how happy they are to see consumers represented, and that they appreciate having us to remind them of their responsibility to every single person who relies on them to keep the pet food industry at least a little honest, and keep pet food as safe and nutritious as they possibly can. Having consumer representatives like Susan, Mollie, and myself at the August meeting will be extremely important.

But…the AAFCO meeting is in south Florida, and that’s a long way from Denver! While for many years I have paid to go to these meetings out of my own pocket (once with  emergency help from Susan’s and my amazing readers, and once with partial support from OnlyNaturalPet.com), the cost to attend the crucial Annual Meeting will be nearly $2,000. It pains me to admit this, but that’s a problem, because I don’t have an actual job; I’m on disability. I consider Little Big Cat my primary job, but unfortunately there’s no salary that goes with it! Like so many of you, and like so many other people who spend the vast majority of their time helping animals, I live “on the edge.” Without some help, I just won’t be able to go.

As a pet parent, you deserve to have a voice in how pet food is made.The pet food industry makes tens of billions of dollars a year, and it can afford to send multiple representatives to these meetings, to speak and to schmooze the Feed Control Officials (who are generally state workers who do AAFCO work on the side on top of all their other duties). Without someone standing right there in St. Petersburg to counteract the force of Big Pet Food, the biggest losers will be our cats and dogs, and indeed every animal that eats foods produced by these mega-companies.

So, if you can spare $10, or $20, or perhaps a little more, please consider donating to Little Big Cat to help cover these hefty travel and meeting expenses. I hope you know I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t desperate! You can just hit the donate button on the right, or go to our page on YourCaring.com to donate. And I promise to work as hard as I possibly can to fairly represent you and your pets as these crucial decisions are being made!

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