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Are Pet Food Manufacturers Open to Being More Transparent?


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In a positive move for pets, at the most recent AAFCO meeting, manufacturers seemed to be embracing the idea of more transparency in pet food.

I am absolutely honored to sit as a “consumer advocate” at Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) meetings, but I must admit it is a very frustrating labor of love. To try to keep my energy positive, I usually find myself walking through the conference center muttering, “Someone is sitting in shade today because somebody planted a tree a long time ago.” 

For those not familiar with AAFCO, it is a voluntary association composed of employees of the local, state and federal agencies that are charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. AAFCO itself has no regulatory authority. It took a long time to understand how an association with no governmental authority is the ultimate voice for our pet food. 

AAFCO hosts meetings during which manufacturers and ingredient suppliers, hoping to get a stamp of approval, have the opportunity to pitch ingredients to the various regulators in attendance. A perfect example is the newly added and defined “recovered retail food,” which is a feed composed of edible human food products that are deemed safe and suitable for livestock feed collected from retail food establishments. Big-box stores are constantly throwing away products that are expired or damaged. Not only is it very expensive to dispose of these products, it is also very hard on the environment. 

So, a company came in and proposed mixing this entire leftover product together and feeding it to cattle. The research is then sent to AAFCO. AAFCO looks at all the research provided and sends it to the various agencies—such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)—to see if there are any objections. If there aren’t, then recovered retail food is voted to be added into the official publication of ingredient definitions. 

To me, some steps seem to be missing. How about independent research? Most of the research presented at AAFCO is from the “industry.” I guess the upside of recovered retail food would be the fact that the cows are getting a rotational diet, but what about the long-term effects of this feed on cows?

This ingredient definition does scare me, but I understand why it was introduced. Many years ago at a different AAFCO meeting, an industry representative said something along the lines of, “If you guys got your way, this world would be destroyed in a short period of time. There would not be enough food because there wouldn’t be enough products to feed animals. The landfills would all be at capacity because you want to divert everything into the landfills.” 

I think most of us are 100 percent behind diverting what we can from landfills, but do we have to do that by feeding trash to dairy cows? I don’t really understand the long-term implications of feeding cows that way, but I do know I feel the money spent on my organic milk is justified.

When I first started going to AAFCO meetings, I felt shunned. Many manufacturers, industry participants and regulators seemed to look at my presence as an inconvenience. I voiced concerns, and they were quickly dismissed. This meeting was different. I lost count of how many times the word “transparency” was used. Different manufacturers and regulators stepped up to the microphone at various points saying they looked forward to transparency or they were doing something in the interest of transparency. I’m sure many of those words were just lip service, but the mere fact that people are mentioning transparency in an industry that has worked very hard to not be transparent tells me something is changing. 

Another huge moment—I wish I had a video—was during the Pet Food Label Modernization session. The pet food label modernization committee is charged with updating and changing pet food labeling. Changing the labeling of our pet foods is something that needs to be done.

Personally, I believe the addition of carbohydrates to the guaranteed analysis label is awesome. I can tell you manufacturers fought this for years. Many of them thought it would become an unfair comparison item for uneducated consumers. During this session, the state officials went through representations of the new labels and the new label requirements. At the conclusion of their presentation, a state inspector encouraged industry members to stand up and complain about the new labeling requirements. He said the new labels are putting too much of a burden on the manufacturer, and it is going to be very difficult to meet all the requirements on smaller packaging. He also mentioned that inspectors are busy enough trying to get through the current labels and adding more mandatory items would just result in more delays. 

Here is the moment: Nobody stood up. He actually repeated what he was saying multiple times, and no one stood up and agreed with him. In fact, several manufacturers stood up and said they are excited about the new changes and it’s going to lead to more transparency. I’m sure there were people in attendance who agreed with this individual, but they realized that with the amount of bloggers, advocates and industry icons in attendance at this meeting, expressing those sentiments might be damaging to their public image. 

There was another first for me at this meeting, one I probably will never forget. Two consumers attended this meeting to ask for help, guidance and answers because their pets had been harmed by pet food and treats. A woman from Maryland spent $6,000 saving her dog after it became ill eating dog food. The woman had purchased what she believed was a high-quality, safe product. Almost immediately, her dog became ill. She has been given the runaround from many agencies, the manufacturer and the FDA. She wanted answers, and she wanted to make sure this did not happen again.

In another case, a dog belonging to a person from Georgia died after eating a dog treat. Much like the Maryland story, the owner believed the treat she was feeding was actually something completely different than what it was. We can thank marketing for that. She came to the meeting specifically to talk to the FDA because she has not had much success. She has done everything right, in my opinion, as far as documenting what she has experienced, and she even had the treat to turn over to the FDA. 

I am glad I was part of the group that was able to get both of these people in front of the FDA. I do not know what will become of it, but I think many people now realize there is a disconnect between the authorities and consumers, especially when a problem occurs. Regardless of your opinion of what happened with these pets, a consumer should not feel like their questions are not being addressed. One might even say there should be transparency when an adverse situation occurs. 

I want to thank Susan Thixton, Dr. Karen Becker, Rodney Habib, Daniel Orrego, Dr. Barbara Royal, Dr. Natasha Lilly and Chelsea Kent for attending this meeting and, more important, for standing with these two consumers to ensure that they were heard. I encourage everyone in this industry to attend at least one AAFCO meeting. It will change your view on our industry. 


B.C. Henschen, a certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, is a partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf. 

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