The truth behind pet food labels

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When you shop for pet food you see all sorts of eye-catching claims that make you want to pick one product over another, but what do the terms like "all natural" or "ultra premium" really mean? How do you know what's really best for your best friend?

Ilana Jacqueline tried 10 different dog foods for her dog Happy, researching ingredients and scouring labels to finally find one that didn't upset his stomach. 
"It was very frustrating at times trying to figure out what the claims were actually trying to say," she said.
We found when it comes to pet food, while the FDA and USDA regulate certain terms on the bag or can, not all claims are regulated or even clearly defined.

We asked a veterinarian.

"There are a lot of buzz words out there right now that pet food companies are putting on their labels because its what hot in the market," Dr. Katy Nelson says.
"Organic" is one of those buzz words. The FDA says there are "no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods for pets".  
Same goes for the USDA, though this agency will certify a pet product if it meets current organic standards for humans.
Don't go looking for the definition of "holistic" either, and what about claims like "premium" "super premium" and "ultra premium?"
These foods are "not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients."
The Pet Food Institute (PFI) says those terms are defined by the marketplace, and that manufacturers comply with current laws and keep an eye on standards set by other agencies and organizations.
"As we learn more about the nutrition requirements of cats and dogs and as new ingredients evolve, the profiles are revised," PFI president Duane Ekedahl said.
But Nelson says a lot of the terms may be more about marketing. Like the phrase "natural?"
We found no FDA definition for the term, but there are industry guidelines set up for the pet food companies to follow: there should not be artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. 
"You can still be using by-products. You can still be using all sorts of things that might not be the best quality, but they're still natural, so you can put natural on your pet food label," Nelson said.
She suggests looking for claims that say "complete and balanced." That's actually defined by law, and a company must prove its pet food contains all the nutrients necessary for a healthy dog or cat. 
So why would pet food makers put all those other terms or claims on products? The Pet Food Institute believes pet owners will know the difference.
"They know the coats. They know the energy level.  They know how much the cat or dog likes the food," Ekedahl said.
Ilana says doing all the research she could to find the best pet food to make Happy -- happy -- was confusing at times, but well worth it!
"My dog is very happy and healthy now that he's on the right food," she said.

The USDA says it's working very hard to come up with rules and regulations to define criteria for organic pet food.

If you have specific questions about a pet food, experts say call the pet food company and ask them -- or ask your vet.

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