In an earlier blog essay, “What’s in Your Food?” I reviewed the results of four published studies that compared the animal protein ingredients listed on various pet food labels with the actual ingredients found in the foods. Multiple instances of mislabeling occurred in which undeclared animal species were included as ingredients and/or protein ingredients declared on the label were completely absent.
This month, another study was published (1). Although this work was conducted in the UK and examined canned pet foods only, it was unique in one important way. Unlike the four previous studies, this group of researchers revealed the brand names of every single product that they examined.
All I can say is; It’s about time.
The Study: According to the authors, the objective of their study was to “examine the correlation between the composition of different animal proteins and the animal species disclosed on pet food labels“. Now, a naïve person might assume that such a correlation would be, oh, in the vicinity of, say…..1.0. But, we now know that this is not only naïve, but an assumption that has already been shown to be patently false. The authors tested 17 different brands of canned (i.e. wet) dog or cat foods available for purchase at UK supermarkets for the presence of cow, chicken, pig and horse meat DNA.
Results: None of the foods contained horsemeat. However, there the good news ends. Of the 17 foods, animal species that were not listed on the food’s label were found in 14 (82 %) of the products. Several errors worth noting include:
- Hill’s Prescription Diet R/D Feline Weight Loss listed chicken immediately after pork on its ingredient panel, yet contained no chicken (0 percent).
- Seven products included the phrase “with beef” in their brand name or prominently displayed on the label. The protein in four of these foods came predominantly from pork and chicken (75 to 86 % of protein). These products included a Pedigree (Mars) brand, two Nestle’-Purina brands, and a UK private label brand.
- A Mars brand (Chappie) that stated “14 % whitefish” on its ingredient panel actually contained no fish at all; 100 % of its protein came from chicken. An ALDI private label brand called “Salmon in Pate” listed fish first on its label, did not report chicken at all, and yet was 92 % chicken.
- Of six pet foods that highlighted “chicken” on the label or in the brand name, two products, both private label brands, contained more pig or beef protein than chicken protein.
Up on my Soapbox: The authors of this study note that technically most (not all) of these foods were still in compliance with EU pet food regulations. The finding of large proportions of chicken and pork in foods that reported no such species on their ingredient panels was technically correct provided the term “meat and animal derivatives” was found somewhere on the list. Unbeknownst to most consumers, this term includes “all products and derivatives of the processing……of warm-blooded land animals“. That covers everything from chickens to well, pretty much anything that has blood and feet. The second issue is the ubiquitous word “with“. Similar to regulations in the United States, EU standards require that pet foods using this descriptor contain….wait for it…..a minimum of only 4 % of the designated ingredient. (In the US, the minimum is a whopping 3 %). And as these products demonstrate, 4 percent is about what you get.
As the authors of this study note, and I agree, there appears to be a serious mismatch between label standards in the pet food industry and what consumers are lead to believe about the foods that they purchase for their animal companions. Is it not reasonable for my friend Alice to expect that the food she selects for her Yorkie called “Gourmet Terrine with Chicken and Game” actually contain more than 1 percent of its protein from chicken, not as is the reality, almost 90 percent of it coming from beef? And when my elderly neighbor Joe carefully selects food for his beloved cat Pumpkin, is it silly for him to expect that “Felix Complete with Beef” contains a substantial proportion of, say……beef?
Just as we need increased transparency from the pet food (and human food) industry regarding the source of ingredients, processing methods, measures of quality, and safety records, it appears that we also need regulations that prevent rather than support misleading label claims and brand names. Is it really too much to ask that a pet food actually contains what it claims to contain (and nothing else)?
Cited Study: Maine IR, Atterbury R, Chang KC. Investigation into the animal species contents of popular wet pet foods. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2015; 57:7-11.