By Vanessa Voltolina
Feel confident that your pet food is up to snuff by asking manufacturers these 10 questions approved by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). They will also help you to determine a pet food company’s transparency and honesty, says Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, and Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.
“Evasive answers … raise my index of suspicion that something may be amiss,” said Buffington.
Q1: Do you have a veterinary nutritionist or some equivalent on staff in your company?
“A veterinary nutritionist — especially a board-certified veterinary nutritionist — is someone who has extra (and special) training in formulating pet foods,” said Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD and Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Since dogs and cats have different nutritional requirements than other species, including humans, it’s important that someone with a strong background is involved in the food development.
Q2: Are these experts available for consultation or questions?
“In my opinion, these experts should be available to answer questions about the diet,” said Dr. Bartges, even if that means electronically over e-mail. “This offers pet owners a chance to have any questions answered by a qualified source, and verify a veterinary nutritionist was, in fact, involved.”
Q3: Who formulates your diets, and what are their credentials?
“I think this is one of the most important questions,” said Ashley Gallagher, DVM, staff veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, D.C. It’s vital for pet food manufacturers to have a veterinary nutritionist — or someone with training in what cats and dogs need — either on-staff or as a consultant.
Q4: Which of your diet(s) are tested using AAFCO feeding trials, and which by nutrient analysis?
There are two methods for pet food testing: nutrient analysis and Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trials. Nutrient analysis (the most common) requires that diet ingredients be analyzed and compared against the AAFCO profiles. These virtual diets may look good on paper, but give no indication of palatability when fed to a real dog or cat. On the other hand, AAFCO feeding trials, considered to be the gold standard, do.
“The upside is that the choice [of manufacturers to perform feeding trials] may reflect the company’s commitment to producing satisfactory foods,” said Dr. Buffington. Be aware, though, that many pet food companies don’t perform feeding trials, since they’re the “most expensive method of testing foods.” Do you know if your pet food brand does feeding trials? It’s as simple as checking the pet food label.
Q5: What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your product line?
“A company should be able to outline their quality control measures and provide proof of quality if asked,” said Dr. Bartges. This includes separating raw ingredients from cooked products so there’s no cross-contamination. Careful and rigorous control of ingredients is important for pathogen or allergen contamination. (Think, Soy contamination of a diet that claims to be soy-free for dogs with allergies.) Also inquire about food testing throughout the manufacturing process and how recalls are handled. Companies which make safety a priority often test the food for contaminants and await results before releasing it for shipment to retail outlets.
Q6: Where are your diets produced and manufactured?
A product that’s co-manufactured — meaning a third party plant makes food for the company, in addition to other companies that may include other species — may have less ingredient control and be more prone to contamination and other issues. You’ll also want to find out if meat comes from USDA-inspected plants, recommends Dr. Gallagher, emphasizing the point that it should. Large manufacturers often provide more safety and quality control, as they own their facility and have access to more consistent, quality ingredients.
Q7: Can this plant be visited?
This is “always an eye-opening experience,” said Dr. Bartges. If a manufacturer is local, it’s worth a visit, as it’s one more way of asking a pet food company for transparency.
Q8: Will you provide a complete product nutrient analysis of your best-selling dog and cat food, including digestibility values?
This provides much more information than what’s on the pet food label. “If a [pet food] company doesn’t have or won’t share it,” said Dr. Bartges, “then it would be worth looking at other diets.”
Q9: What is the caloric value per can or cup of your diets?
Key to maintaining your pet’s svelte figure, caloric value is a fairly basic question, and shouldn’t require more than a phone call to the pet food manufacturer. “If a person on the phone can’t give you this information, I’d look elsewhere,” said Dr. Bartges.
Q10: What kinds of research have been conducted on your products, and are the results published in peer-reviewed journals?
It’s a bonus if a pet food manufacturer has any published peer-reviewed information, said Dr. Gallagher.
But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t exist, “especially life stage diets and therapeutic diets used to manage diseases” said Dr. Bartges.