Updated: Apr 1
AAFCO stands for Association of American Feed Control Officials.
When I was in school for Veterinary Technology, there was a lot of emphasis put on making sure that we choose and only recommend pet foods which are 'AAFCO approved.'
And it made sense. A regulatory agency making sure that pet food is 'complete and balanced?'
What could go wrong?
Well, many years later, after countless hours looking into pet food... I stumbled upon some interesting information.
AAFCO is not even a regulatory agency (the FDA actually regulates animal feed).
So, why all this hype on AAFCO APPROVAL?
What DO they actually do?
Let me start by saying... It's always disappointing to hear a veterinary professional say:
"You need to feed an AAFCO approved/ certified food to your pets."
This is false, and actually quite a heavy dose of misinformation.
"Despite what you may read, there is no such thing as “AAFCO-approved” or “AAFCO-certified” pet foods!..... AAFCO creates model language for definitions, guidance, and best-practices related to the regulation of pet foods, but it doesn’t “regulate, test, approve or certify pet food."
Here's the scoop:
AAFCO is not a governing agency. It's an independent, private corporation, comprised of CEO's and representatives from companies like Hill's, Cargill, and Nestle Purina. Sound's crazy, huh?
They control the definitions of pet food ingredients (things like meat meal, additives, or industry waste). Obviously leaving very lax what can be used. The best part?... you actually have to PAY to view these definitions, they are not readily available to the public.
"If your interest in ingredients carries you beyond a basic understanding of what is what, a recommended reference is the AAFCO Official Publication which can be purchased on the AAFCO website at www.aafco.org/Publications."
Why should we have to pay money to see what is being used in our pet's food?!
AAFCO also regulates the standards for what they deem as essential nutrient levels for animals in 2 life stages:
Things like crude minimums and some maximums (for those nutrients that could be toxic in large amounts such as vitamin D) on the guaranteed analysis.
They do NOT set ideal nutrient levels. As long as a food contains the minimum of some nutrients, and doesn't go over the maximum of others... it gets a "complete and balanced" label. This leaves a large gap in variation of nutrient levels.
*Keep in mind, even if a food tests adequate in laboratory analysis for specific nutrients... it does not mean these nutrients are bioavailable to the pet... therefore, the food can still be deficient.
What About Senior Pet Foods?
There is no formal AAFCO regulation of what is considered a 'Senior Pet Food.' Actually, there is no regulation by any agency on this subject.
Yes, I said it. You've been duped!!
As I mentioned above, AAFCO defines the nutrient levels for growth/ reproduction, and adult maintenance. They do not even have suggested (let alone regulated) nutrient profiles for sick, injured, recovering, or senior animals. As you can imagine, the nutrients needed during different life stages can vary tremendously. Which is why it's important to take AAFCO & other pet food regulations with a grain of salt.
If you've followed my blog for awhile, or even worked with me: you'reporbably well sed in the fact that nutrition is NOT a one size fits all... With each changing life stage and ailment, comes different needs.
The biggest differences you will see in senior pet foods is the variation in protein levels, along with a slight difference in fat and fiber content.
The food productss pictured here are all common brands that you will readily find in pet stores, or your local veterinary office.
Anywhere from 15%- 36% protein level. And that is just the select few I chose as example. You may find foods that are higher or lower.
As you can see, like I mentioned above: there's no regulation on this... Everyone has their own beliefs when it comes to protein levels for senior pets (due to fear of kidney disease).
Truth is, there have been no conclusive studies that show low protein diets PREVENT kidney disease... But they can manage it after it happens. Or can it...?
Many holistic veterinarians find that restricting protein actually does MORE harm to our animals, including those with kidney disease.
Muscle massand body condition is especially depleted as animals age due to the decrease in overall activity.
“The low-protein myth is like an old-wive’s tale, something based on ignorance that just won’t die. Yes, inferior-quality protein can harm a dog’s kidneys, but the solution isn’t to continue with inferior-quality ingredients and feed less of them. The solution is to improve the quality of ingredients and in that way provide what the dog needs for good health.”
- Wendy Volhard, author of Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog
Therefore, providing a protein rich diet of high quality meats can benefit your dog or cat greatly.
Worse yet, pet food companies know exactly what they can get away with... And they know how uneducated the average pet owner can be... And even some veterinary professionals.
Each of of these ingredient lists is from the SAME BRAND of pet food... But a different product line.
Nearly the same ingredient base for all.
Chicken and grains.
Now, to continue on to more of AAFCO's real job... or lack thereof.
AAFCOhas a set of nutrient profile standards for pet food that were set the the 1990's, and widely vary from the newest NRC (National Research Council) guidelines.
Very few updates have been made to the AAFCO guidelines over the years, but one that sticks out is the minimum protein content. For dogs, it used to be 22% and is now 18%.
Perhaps this is why companies can get away with using more of the cheap ingredients like grains and legumes as opposed to meat products, which are far more expensive.
Also keep in mind, that by setting these standards, this is only placing a bare minimum requirement on the food to be able to sustain life.
These are NOT the levels for optimal, thriving vitality or health. Nor is it providing extra nutrition in times of disease, illness or injury as we discussed above.
An entirely different set of standard for pet food.
While AAFCO upholds standards for adult maintenance, as well as growth and reproduction stages of animals... The NRC marches to a different beat of more practical nutrient guidelines.
The NRC sets standards for various life stages, including puppies and kittens, post-weaning, lactation/ gestation, and adult maintenance.
They also have a range of nutrient profiles, such as recommended allowance, low, moderate, and high end nutrient profiles.
*Image courtesy of Today's Veterinary Practice
AAFCO simply sets minimums, and in a few cases, maximums.
There is also another agency FEDIAF, for European Pet Food. But I'll leave it there for now.
The Scary Part of AAFCO:
Veterinary prescription diets do NOT have to meet AAFCO minimum requirements... In fact, the AAFCO minimum protein content for adult cat maintenance is 26%. Some common veterinary diets contain a whopping 10% protein.
We know that high quality, animal-based protein is essential to carnivores. In fact, nearly every single cell in the body contains, and uses protein. By limiting this vital nutrient, we are doing great harm to our pets.
Have you been hearing a lot about taurine deficiency and grain-free diets?
Well, why is everyone so upset over Grain Free foods causing DCM due to lack of taurine? Veterinary professionals will readily lecture pet owners about how dogs and cats 'NEED' grains in their diet.
But here's the kicker:
Taurine comes from MEAT. Not grains.
A note about prescription diets:
When looking at a regular 'over the counter' pet food (one sold in stores), as opposed to a 'prescription' food..
Notice the wording within the AAFCO claim:
Food A: "Feeding tests substantiate that it provides complete and balanced nutrition.
Food B: Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO.
See the difference? One actually tested their food for nutrient levels, the other did not.
I'll explain more about the feeding trials below.
If a diet or treat is NOT 'complete & balanced' a label should read: "For supplemental feeding only."
There are no clear guidelines for the SOURCE of ingredients used in pet food.
Which brings us back to protein content.
To AAFCO, protein is protein. It can be meat-based, or plant-based. It can come from shoe leather, or peas, or chicken.
As we know, a plant-based diet can be very dangerous to an carnivore's health!
Obviously, a food can pass this test with flying colors, made with things like wood pulp, potatoes, corn, etc... Why? Because a vitamin pre-mix is added to the food to meet nutritional these adequacy guidelines.
This means, that no matter how much poor quality 'ingredients' are used to make the pet 'food' it can meet the nutrient standards. As stated in a another one of my blog posts, we can literally add a bunch of vitamins to a bowl of sand and make it "complete and balanced."
What About Feeding Trials?
Everyone seems to put a lot of importance into feeding trials... That proves the food is good, right?
I wish it did.
A feeding trials is where one single food is fed to an animal, or a group of animals, and their health is monitored for any improvement or decline. To put it simply.
Here's the criteria for AAFCO feeding trials. I'll let you decide if this is adequate in determining the quality and completeness of a food:
There must be 8 animals in the trial who are at least 1 year of age. Of those 8, two can drop out (for any reason). Leaving only 6 that need to complete the trial (75%).
2. The animals must be pronounced healthy and in good health prior to and after the trial. A veterinary exam is done with blood work.
3. The trial length is 26 weeks, which is about 6 months, for adult maintenance. And 10 weeks for growth and reproduction.
4. The animals are only fed the single food being tested.
5. Animals cannot show signs of deficiency or toxicity. *admittedly, it's nearly impossible for deficiencies to noticeably arise within a 6 month time frame.
6. The animals must not lose more than 15% body weight during trial.
7. Four blood values (hemoglobin, PCV, alkaline phosphatase and albumin) are measured and are compared to specified requirements.
Criteria met? Passed! 'Stamp of approval.'
Which really doesn't mean much, except that minimum requirements were met for the food to keep your pet alive for 6 months.
Some foods do not even have to go through an approval process, if it is similar to an already approved product on the market, a family claim can be made.
Does AAFCO matter? Yes, but not for the reasons people think it does.
"Although the AAFCO profiles are better than nothing, they provide false securities. I don't know of any studies showing their adequacies, or inadequacies."
-Quinton Rogers, DVM, PHD, AAFCO panel expert
As stated here: standards are minimal, and the regulation of pet food (and quality) is far from ideal.
To obtain optimal nutrition, there needs to be a clearer set of individual guidelines for each stage, including a wider range of nutrient profiles.
What's even scarier is that many pet foods have had MAJOR recalls for excess vitamin levels which have caused serious injury and even death in pets.
Where's the regulation?!
How did this food pass inspection?
While it may seem that AAFCO means well... I must advise caution.
This agency has been at the forefront of speculation with some pretty questionable ethics.
They have been known to ban consumers from their public meetings simply because they question the lack of standards and regulation in pet food quality. These consumers PAY to attend these meetings... and then get banned for asking questions that don't conform with the beliefs this organization has?
Hello?! They are just concerned about safety!
One last note:
There's been talk about many secrets that are withheld in this industry. Including loopholes within federal regulations that allow pet food companies to use diseased, euthanized animals in their feed... without ever having to disclose it to customers.
In my opinion, the idea of AAFCO standards are great.... while the overall actuality of the company, what they regulate and represent leaves many questions to be answered.
WSAVA does not regulate or enforce guidelines or quality for pet food either. They simply guide pet owners on how to choose a pet food. They have to authority in pet food regulation. And their funding comes from the brands they recommend. Conflict of interest, perhaps?!
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