A peek inside the pet food industry (Proceedings)


The United States petfood market has been estimated to be over 18 billion dollars annually.

The United States petfood market has been estimated to be over 18 billion dollars annually. This is many times the size of the entire animal health product industry (e.g., animal drugs, vaccines, pesticides). While therapeutic diets intended for distribution through veterinarians are only a small proportion of total petfood sales, the opinion of the veterinarian as to the merits of a petfood is held in high regard by pet owners. It is no wonder, then, that the marketing of petfood products to the veterinary community is a priority to the industry.

Recent events have brought increased scrutiny as to how petfoods are made and regulated, and many pet owners are concerned. Some of that concern is legitimate, but much misinformation about petfoods on the World Wide Web and elsewhere has caused undue alarm. An accurate understanding of the petfood industry by the veterinarian is important to effectively communicate on these matters with clients.

Industry associations

The Pet Food Institute (PFI) is a major representative of the industry, with all its "active" members petfood manufacturers (affiliate members include ingredient suppliers, equipment and service providers, etc.). In fact, PFI boasts of representing the manufacturers of 98% of the petfood produced in the US. However, that membership is comprised of only about 30 petfood companies. Some members' names are very familiar to the consumer, while others not as much. In many cases, a company may manufacture product for distribution under a variety of names, i.e., "co-pack" for private brands, small companies, or even big companies in the case of specialized manufacturing methods, hence may not be an immediately recognizable force in the market.

The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) represents a wider consortium of manufacturers of animal feeds, but includes many petfood companies. Many member of PFI are also members of AFIA. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) includes members who manufacturer a wide variety of pet goods, including pet toys, leashes, beds, cages, drugs, and pesticides. However, a significant number of the 900-plus APPMA members produce some type of petfood product, including complete and balanced foods, treats, chews, supplements, and "specialty pet" (fish, birds, exotics) foods. Members of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) are primarily manufacturers of dietary supplement products for companion animals, particularly horses, dogs and cats.

The regulators

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over all animal feeds in interstate commerce (which is virtually everything on the market) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. This includes petfoods, even those containing meat and poultry ingredients. This is in contrast with oversight of human foods, where meat and poultry products are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Within FDA, issues involving petfoods are dealt with by the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Federal Regulations pertaining to animal feeds include general requirements for labeling, and lists of approved food additives and GRAS (generally recognized as safe) substances. There are no specific petfood regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations. Products found to be misbranded or adulterated may be subject to enforcement action, which may include physical seizure of the violative petfood, injunctions against the company, or in the most egregious cases, criminal charges.

Most states also have authority over petfoods distributed in their jurisdictions, typically through the state's department of agriculture or chemist's office. Many require some sort of licensure of companies or registration of products before petfoods may be distributed in that state. Each applies its own set of regulations pertaining to labeling, ingredients, and other matters. The states often coordinate efforts with FDA. The federal agency offers scientific, nutritional, and technical expertise to the states, and the states initiate the enforcement action on that basis. Even though the state only has jurisdiction within that state's borders, an action against a company to change a product formulation or label by even just one state can have nation-wide impact.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) was formed in 1909 to foster uniformity in regulation of animal feeds between the states. It is not a government agency, nor does it have any enforcement authority. However, all its members must be government employees. Contrary to many assertions, industry representatives do not have any voting rights within AAFCO, though they can serve as "committee advisors." AAFCO publishes a Model Bill and associated regulations, along with ingredient definitions and other guidance that represent a consensus among regulators as to what is appropriate for regulation of animal feeds. For petfoods, these include regulations to address issues of nutrient content, nutritional adequacy, and many other aspects not covered in FDA regulations. While these have no power of law in and of themselves, states that subsequently adopt the models do have the power to enforce them. The number of states that do follow the AAFCO models is sufficient so that they effectively apply to any product in interstate distribution.

As mentioned above, USDA has little direct authority over petfoods. It does offer a program for voluntary inspection of dog and cat foods. Products that pass its requirements may bear a distinguishing USDA "shield" on its label. "Organic" petfoods are subject to requirements under USDA's National Organic Program.

While FDA is responsible for labels and "labeling" (brochures, displays, and anything visible at point of sale) the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for overseeing print and electronic advertising.

Other organizations

The National Research Council (NRC), the "working arm" of the National Academy of Sciences, is not a government body, though its mandate is to advise the government on science-related matters. It convenes panels of experts to deliberate and issue reports on a wide variety of issues, among them recommendations on the nutrient requirements of domestic animals. The NRC publications were used as the recognized authority in substantiating nutritional adequacy of dog and cat foods in the US until the mid-1990's, when the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles were established. A revised Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats was published in 2006, and while these recommendations are not expected to replace the AAFCO Profiles, they are expected to be considered heavily in AAFCO's forthcoming review and update of its nutritional adequacy substantiation methods. A report from NRC on assessing the safety of dietary supplements for horses, dogs and cats is anticipated to be published in 2008.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has been frequently involved in petfood issues. It was very helpful in conveying information about the 2007 petfood recall to its members and other interested parties through its web site. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) has a representative who attends and provides input as a committee advisor at AAFCO functions. In fact, ACVN has submitted a proposal to AAFCO to amend the model regulations, requiring among other things, mandatory calorie content statements on all dog and cat food product labels. Both AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have endorsed the proposal.

Petfood requirements

The mainstay of the US dog and cat food market are "complete and balanced" products, i.e., deemed suitable as the sole source of nutrition for a given life stage or stages. These include dry, semi-moist and canned products, as well as less conventional forms of petfoods such as raw diets. In all cases, nutritional adequacy must be substantiated by one of several means. One method is by formulation to meet minimum and maximum nutrient levels as dictated by the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. Another means is for the product to pass feeding trials following AAFCO protocols. Under the "product family" criteria, products that can be established as "nutritionally similar" to a product that has successfully passed a feeding trial are also considered complete and balanced without undergoing feeding tests themselves. Depending on the method, a verbatim statement attesting to the substantiation of nutritional adequacy must appear on the label. However, products within a product family that were not directly tested by feeding trials typically bear the same statement as one that was actually tested.

In any case, regulators do not conduct these methods of substantiation directly. Rather, either the companies or a third-party facility performs the necessary procedures. If the nutritional adequacy of a product is questionable, companies must provide legally-binding affidavits to regulators attesting to its means of substantiation. Data to support the claim must be kept on file and be available for regulatory review.

Products that do not meet any of the above criteria for nutritional adequacy must be labeled "for intermittent or supplemental feeding only." An exception is made for products conspicuously identified as "snacks," "treats" or "supplements." This is because products so labeled may be reasonably assumed not to be intended as the sole source of nutrition for long-term feeding. However, some snacks and treats are formulated to be complete and balanced. Although all treats are intended to be fed in moderation, those that are complete and balanced are less likely to throw off the nutritional balance of the diet as a whole if fed to excess where consumption of the mainstay petfood is decreased.

All complete and balanced petfoods must bear feeding directions, and at minimum, suggest a quantitative amount per given body weight and frequency of feeding (e.g., "Feed one can per 10 pounds body weight daily"). Because of the wide variation in energy needs, these directions may or may not be appropriate for any individual animal. To that end, ACVN has proposed mandatory calorie statements on all dog and cat food labels, to give the veterinarian and pet owners another tool by which appropriate feeding amounts may be determined. The fate of that proposal has not been decided by AAFCO to date. In the interim, feeding to ideal body condition (e.g., 4 to 5 on a nine-point scale) is recommended.

Supplements may be intended to augment the diet with one or more dietary essential nutrients. While helpful in formulation of homemade diets, their necessity when feeding a complete and balanced commercial product is debatable. FDA policy dictates that essential nutrient supplements provide nutritionally "meaningful" amounts of each nutrient it reports to contain (generally, at least 10% of the daily requirement when fed as directed).

The market is replete with supplement products that provide herbs, botanicals, non-essential nutrients, and other substances. Depending on the ingredients and claims, some may not be wholly compliant with FDA and AAFCO requirements. Recently, some companies are labeling supplement products as "drugs," which avoids scrutiny by AAFCO and many states but still falls under FDA authority. A policy wherein these products may be deemed "unapproved drugs of low regulatory priority" may be put in place in the future. In any case, due diligence when using or recommending any supplement product is prudent.

Therapeutic diets intended to be distributed through veterinarians for treatment or mitigation of disease in dogs and cats may be construed as "drugs" under the law. While not formally approved as drugs by FDA and hence subject to enforcement action as "adulterated," the agency recognizes the need for such products, and typically allows them to remain on the market unfettered as long as claims regarding diet and disease are directed toward the veterinarian, not the consumer, and/or the products are distributed only under a valid veterinarian/client/animal relationship. However, that means little is done by regulators to ensure the merit or accuracy of efficacy claims at this time, and veterinarians must rely on their scientific and medical knowledge to judge the validity and usefulness of therapeutic diet products.

Chews made out of rawhide, bone, tendons, ears, etc., are typically exempt from AAFCO labeling or state registration requirements. However, they are still "food" under FDA law, and as such, must not be misbranded or adulterated.

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