When you shop for your food, you trust the labels to tell you what you are buying. This is especially true if there are certain foods or ingredients you need to avoid for medical reasons. That is why regulations require that labels accurately disclose the ingredients in food items. But is this also true in pet food? Apparently, the answer is no. A just published study found that 40 percent of pet food may be mislabeled.  


The Alarming Findings


Researchers in the Chapman University Food Science Program tested 52 dog and cat food products to identify the meat species in the foods. They used a sophisticated technology to identify DNA in the foods as beef, goat, lamb, chicken, goose, turkey, pork, or horse. This technology, polymerase chain reaction, allows accurate genetic fingerprinting and is also used to accurately diagnose infectious and hereditary diseases.


Laboratory identification of the meat species was then compared to the ingredient list on the food labels; 31 products were labeled correctly. One food contained a non-specific meat ingredient that could not be identified by the parameters of the experimental design. Of the remaining 20 mislabeled foods, 16 contained meat species that were not listed on the label as ingredients. Pork was the most common undeclared meat protein. In 3 of the mislabeled foods, evidence supported meat species substitution (for instance one type of poultry for another type). The research report did not indicate the mislabeling error of the final food sample.


Why is Accurate Food Labeling Important?


The major food safety problem with mislabeled pet food is for the allergic pet. A food that does not disclose a potential allergenic meat source could cause severe itching and skin problems, or severe stomach or intestinal adverse reactions. Worse, it might lead to a deleterious change in veterinary treatment based on the assumption that the food was as advertised.


Mislabeling is no small issue. U.S. households purchase $22.6 billion worth of pet food. To think that 40 percent of that market could be improperly labeled is mind boggling. The only salvation in this is that food allergies are not as common as environmental allergies and represent a smaller portion of the pet population. This only makes the food makers lucky, not exempt.


The bigger questions about this study are the ethical ones. Is mislabeling intentional or accidental? At what point in the production process is this occurring and how can it be corrected? How widespread is the practice in the industry? Who is responsible for the oversight and what steps are being taken to address the issue? This is not the first study to identify mislabeling. I have posted at petMD and at my own blog, Dog Food Matters, highlighting studies of contaminated hypoallergenic diets. How many studies are necessary to grab the attention of regulating agencies and the pet food industry?


However, I must admit to you I am not optimistic. For me this is just another reason that makes homemade pet food a much better option than commercial pet foods. It gives you, the pet owner, absolute control over the consistency, quality, and safety of your pet’s food.


Dr. Ken Tudor





Tara A. Okuma, Rosalee S. Hellberg. Identification of meat species in pet foods using a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay. Food Control, 2015:50:9 DOI.


Image: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock


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