What Is Organic Dog Food?

January 08, 2021
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You might think that “organic” foods are top-tier and better than nonorganic food. And if organic food is “better” for people to eat, is it the same for dogs? What does it actually mean if a dog food is organic?

This article will help you interpret dog food labels related to organic dog food, whether it’s 100% organic or made with some organic ingredients.

What Makes a Dog Food Organic?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has not yet defined “organic” specifically as it relates to use of ingredients in pet foods. According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), pet foods claiming to be “organic” must meet its human food regulations.

And according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “There are no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods for pets at this time, but the USDA is developing regulations dictating what types of synthetic additives, such as vitamins and purified amino acids, may be used in pet foods labeled as organic.” 

However, you may see still see the term “organic” on pet foods that are made with ingredients that are produced using standard organic practices as these regulations for pet food develop.

What Does Organic Mean?

Organic is a term used to describe food ingredients, for human consumption or for feed for food-producing animals, including meat, produce, and multi-ingredient processed foods, that are grown, raised, or produced according to a specific set of guidelines defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These federal guidelines cover a wide range of factors. 

Organic Plants

For organic plants, the guidelines relate to:

  • Not using certain prohibited synthetic pesticides or fertilizers

  • Not using genetically modified seeds

  • Preventing GMO contamination on the farm

Organic Meat-Producing Animals

For organic meat-producing animals, the guidelines include:

  • Raising the animal in living conditions that accommodate its natural behaviors

  • Feeding organic feed

  • Not using antibiotics or hormones

  • Processing the meat product prior to packaging in a certified facility to avoid contact with any prohibited substances

Organic Multi-Ingredient Processed Foods

Finally, for organic multi-ingredient processed foods, the guidelines relate to the exclusion of artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives; however, some approved nonagricultural ingredients may be included.

Do All Organic Dog Foods Have the USDA Organic Seal?

No, not all dog foods have the USDA organic seal.

There are a variety of different labels that you might see on a bag or can of dog food as they relate to organic ingredients. These are the three main categories that you might come across.

100% Organic

For a multi-ingredient food such as dog food to be considered 100% organic, the product must be composed of 100% USDA certified organic ingredients.

The label must include the name of the organic certifying agent (e.g., “certified organic by…”) and may bear the USDA certified organic seal as well.

In the ingredient list, you may see the term “organic” preceding each organic ingredient or an asterisk following such ingredients that is referenced below the ingredient list.

Organic: 95% Organic Ingredients

Many organic dog foods fall into this category of general organic food.

In this category, at least 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic. No more than 5% of the ingredients may be nonorganic ingredients found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

These types of products must also include the name of the organic certifier on the label, and you may also see the USDA certified organic seal.

Made With Organic _______: 70% Organic 

Finally, you may see a dog food product label that states, “made with organic…” Such products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.

In this case, the overall product cannot be labeled as organic, and as such, you will not find a USDA certified organic seal, but the name of the organic certifier must be on the label.

Only up to three ingredients or ingredient categories in the ingredient list can be labeled as organic, and similar to the above-mentioned category, any nonagricultural ingredients included must be on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.  

What's the Difference Between Organic Dog Food and Natural Dog Food?

In contrast to the term “organic,” which applies to the production and handling requirements for specific ingredients in pet food, “natural” is an extremely broad term.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), defines “natural” as follows:

"A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Essentially, an “unnatural” ingredient is a chemically synthesized ingredient and can include things such as added:

  • Vitamins

  • Minerals

  • Preservatives

  • Artificial flavoring

Many ingredients used in pet foods, organic or not, can claim to be “natural” because they are derived from “plant, animal, or mined sources.”

Is Organic Dog Food Better?

To date, there is no convincing research in humans confirming a significant nutritional difference in foods produced conventionally or via organic farming practices, and no such studies comparing the nutritional content and potential health effects of organic dog food have been performed in dogs.

While there may be some small increases in certain nutrients such as antioxidants or fatty acids in some organic ingredients, a dog food that’s formulated to be “complete and balanced” according to AAFCO requirements already meets your dog’s minimum essential nutrient needs (and often exceeds the minimum). So, an increased amount of a specific nutrient provided by an organic ingredient is not necessarily better for health or nutrition.

Important aspects to evaluate on a label regarding a dog food’s nutrient quality include:

  • AAFCO statements that ensure that the product meets AAFCO nutrient profiles for a specific life stage

  • Whether an AAFCO feeding trial has been performed

  • Whether the food is only intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding (meaning that it is not complete and balanced and cannot be fed as a regular diet)

The product should also contain the manufacturer’s name and contact information, so that you or your veterinarian are able to contact them if you needed to ask questions about:

  • How the food is formulated and tested and by whom (a board-certified veterinary nutritionist?)

  • What types of product research or quality control measures have been performed

When in doubt, your dog’s veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist is your best resource in choosing the right food for your dog’s individual needs.

Featured image: iStock.com/YakobchukOlena