How to understand the labelling on cat food
Cats are ‘obligate carnivores’ (animals whose sole survival depends on animal flesh) which makes for specific dietary requirements. Their eating habits remain un-evolved like that of the wild cat. Cats occasionally eat grass but this is assumed for medicinal reasons and for the inducement of vomiting. Their jaws are designed to bite down and hold prey so they have limited side to side movement. Their sharp teeth are designed to tear meat from the bone.
Controlled studies of the cats unique nutritional needs started within the last 40 years in direct response to the cat as an increasingly popular companion animal and the need for commercial cat foods. There are several large organisations who regulate the commercial pet food industry. In the US these are the FDA (US Food and drug Administration) and the AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials). In the UK the FSA (Food standards Agency) is the main regulator.
Pet owners and animal professionals should know how to read the labels on cat food so that an informed choice can be made so if you have some spare time, make a cup of tea, get those choocie biscuits out of the fridge, put your mobile on silent, and put your feet up to read through this list of the most common ingredients:
The first thing to note is that pet food ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight not volume. Because of this some companies use a practice called ‘splitting’ whereby ingredients, such as ground corn and corn gluten meal, can be split into two categories, therefore allowing the ingredient to appear further down the list. The consumer would then naturally assume the product contained a much lower carbohydrate quantity because the main protein ingredient appears first. Should the consumer add all of the ‘split’ corn ingredients together they may find that the % is actually higher than the meat!
- MEAL: The word meal means an ingredient that has been ground or reduced in particles, removed of water and fat. It is classified as a rendered product. According to CVM’s pet food specialist William Burkholder, D.V.M., Ph.D “Meal is another ingredient that some people like to avoid. In processing meat meal or poultry by-product meal, by-products are rendered (heat processed), which removes the fat and water from the product. Meat or poultry by-product meal contains parts of animals not normally eaten by humans…. Protein quality of by-products sometimes is better than that from muscle meat”
- CHICKEN MEAL: Is a combination of clean chicken flesh, and skin (with or without attached bone) and is exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails (Contreras 2007 ). The ground up chicken meat is dried to a moisture level of 10%, which means the protein % is higher than that of chicken meat due to how much moisture (water) will be in the latter. The downside to this is that ‘rendered meat’ proclaims to get rid of any diseases, infections due to the rendering process and so 4D animals (dead, dying, diseased or disabled) can make up the components of chicken meal. The CVM (Center for Veterinary medicine) is aware of this process as stated on the FDA website. Because of the ‘possible’ inclusion of 4D animals chicken meal is not considered fit for human consumption. This is in contradiction to what is stated for the EU Pet food regulations, which I quote: “All ingredients used for the manufacture of pet food have to be “fit for human consumption” according to EU standards. Only animals declared healthy after ante- and post-mortem examination
will qualify as ingredients for pet food”
- MEAT AND BONE MEAL: (MBM) is also a product of rendering. It is typically about 48-52% protein, 33-35% ash, 8-12% fat and 4-7% moisture. It is used as animal feed but because it is considered a major cause of mad cow disease is no longer used to feed hoofed animals such as cattle, goats, sheep and other ruminants. It is still widely used in the US as a low-cost meat for cats and dogs, as well as some parts of Europe. Pedigree list it as an ingredient in their premium dog food. It is interesting to note that in UK abattoirs, the brain, spinal cord, trigeminal ganglia, intestines, eyes and tonsils from cattle are classified as SRM (specified Risk materials) and must be disposed of appropriately. Astonishingly most countries in Europe now use MBM as a fossil-fuel replacement for renewable energy generation, or as a fuel in cement kilns, land-filling or incineration which is why it is disconcerting that the US still use it as pet food and describe it as nutritional.
- FISH MEAL: is a product made from fish and fish bones and resembles brown powder or cake after the drying process. The usual types of fish used in fish-meal are marine fish that contain a high % of bone and oil and therefore not seen fit for ‘direct’ human consumption. Other sources of fishmeal can be by-catch from fisheries (other specimens caught up in the fishing net) or fish waste and offal (by-products of trimmings during the fish processing) The amino acid profile of fishmeal is what makes this feed ingredient so attractive as a protein supplement.
- ANIMAL BY-PRODUCTS: (ABP’s) are animal carcasses, parts of carcasses, or products of animal origin not intended for human consumption. They can present a risk to human and animal health if not used or disposed of safely. Animal by products can vary from carcasses from slaughterhouses, animal shelters, zoos and veterinarians to animal by-product food waste such as raw meat, fish and shell fish not fit for human consumption, to other animal by- products such as milk or eggs not fit for human consumption, manure and digestive tract content, Semen, Ova and embryos (except when destined for breeding purposes) and catering waste. There are controls on the use of animal by-products when used as feed (including pet food). EU regulations require all pet food using by-products to add the wording “Not fit for human consumption”
ABP’s fall into three categories which determines the associated risks and whether particular products can be re-used. The following categories have been lifted from the Department of environment, Food and Rural Affairs as this will assist the reader in understanding which ones can end up in our pet food!
So what ABP’s can be used in pet food? According to the food and feed business’s, pet food manufactures section on the DEFRA web site “only certain Category 3 animal by-products and products derived from Category 3 material including Processed Animal Protein (PAP) and certain imported Category 1 materials can be used in pet food” We may be alarmed that category 1 products may be used in pet food but Defra states regarding this “ The EU Control Regulation requires operators to carry out safe sourcing, or failing that, safe treatment. This applies to pet food plant operators Safe sourcing means using material that:
- does not present unacceptable risks to public or animal health
- has been collected and transported, or brought from the point of import, to the plant under conditions excluding risks to public and animal health. “
- PROCESSED ANIMAL PROTEIN (PAP): contains protein, fat and minerals from by products in category three which are animals fit for human consumption at the point of slaughter.
- MEAT AND ANIMAL DERIVATES: are a generic term for animal proteins which avoids having to specify where the meat comes from – it can be any part of the animal. This enables some pet food company to use whatever meat is the cheapest – and there’s no way you can tell what it is. The meat is sourced from animals which have been inspected and passed as fit for human consumption and are the parts of the animal which are surplus to the requirements of the human food industry in the UK eg. heart, lung, or muscle meat, which may not be traditionally eaten by people in this country.
- CRUDE ASH: is what is left over after the food (protein, fat and carbohydrates) has been completely incinerated leaving the residue (minerals). Crude ash content is normally low.
- DIGEST: The AAFCO description of Digest “is material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and un-decomposed animal tissue. The animal tissues used shall be exclusive of hair, horns, teeth, hooves and feathers, except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice and shall be suitable for animal feed” .Any kind of animal can be used including the now infamous “4-D animals” (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter), goats, pigs, horses, restaurant and supermarket refuse. Digest is used to ‘flavour’ kibble so it becomes palatable to the animal. A miniscule amount of digest can be used for the manufactures to then label the food ‘chicken flavour’. Digest is usually sprayed onto kibble.
- CORN: is the main ingredient for many cat and dog dry foods. The list of corn products that can be used is extensive but I will list a few below as noted from the AAFCO web site and also listed in the book ‘Food Pets Die For’ by Ann N Martin.
Corn Gluten meal: This is the dried residue from corn after the removal of the larger part of the starch and germ, and the separation of the barn by the process employed in the wet milling manufacture of cornstarch or syrup, or by enzymatic treatment of the endosperm.
Corn flour: This is the fine size, hard flinty portion of ground corn containing little or none of the bran or germ.
- WHEAT: Many cat foods include wheat – which, like corn, has several definitions. Here are some listed below from the AAFCO web site.
Wheat flour: Wheat flour mixed with wheat germ, bran, flour, and offal from the ‘tail of the mill’. The term ‘tail of the mill’ means the floor sweepings of leftovers in the mill after everything has been processed from the wheat.
- COMPLEMENTARY OR COMPLETE CAT FOOD are worlds apart in definition. In the UK the term complete means a balanced diet with all nutrients covered whereby complementary cat food ultimately means a ‘treat’ to be served in moderation with a complete food substance. Gourmet foods are like treats, with incomplete nutrients, and should also be given in moderation.
- MAIZE GLUTEN: Also known as corn gluten meal (CGM) is a by-product of maize processing. Gluten is prepared by centrifugation, filtering and drying of the slurry received from the primary and secondary stages of corn refining. It is high in protein and is cheap, so historically has been used for animal feed.
- SODIUM CHLORIDE: Is salt and is used for fluid balance in pet food. The National Research Council lays down guidelines on sodium levels for cats and dogs.
- POTASIUM CHLORIDE: Is a salt containing the compounds potassium and chlorine. It is used as an added source of potassium in pet foods when other ingredients do not supply enough. It is also used as an aid to gelling strength in canned pet food.
- CALCIUM CARBONATE: is a chemical compound with the formula carbon. It is medicinally used as a calcium supplement for humans and is widely used in pet food as a inexpensive source of calcium.
- YUKKA EXTRACT: Yukka is a perennial shrub from the family Asparagaceae. Yucca extract is used to control the smell of animal waste. This is possible because Saponins bind to Ammonia to prevent the smell from passing through the air. It is commonly found in food for cats and dogs and may also be found in cat litter.
- CHICORY EXTRACT: The plant Chicory is a member of the Dandelion family. According to James Wellbeloved “ the purpose of adding chicory extract to the food is to act as a digestive aid. Chicory is a natural source of Fructo-oligo-saccharides (FOS) which are naturally occurring sugars that are also known as prebiotics. Prebiotics have the ability to help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, which in turn, helps to improve the digestion of food and assist in the absorption of nutrients into the body. The end result is that the cat gains greater benefit from the food that it eats and it also helps to maintain a healthy and efficient digestive system”.
- TOMATO POMACE: is a cheap by-product of tomato manufacturing. It’s what is left over from the making of foods such as tomato juice, tomato sauce, and soups. It is used in pet food as a dietary fibre as well as B vitamins and to a lesser extent vitamin A. It is known to be rich in powerful antioxidants such as Lycopene, and has a high level of soluble fibre which, according to Wellness Pet Food, “ helps create excellent stools, gut health and a strong immune system”.
- TAURINE: Is an extremely important component in cats’ food. It is an organic acid found in animal tissue (muscle) and has many functional roles such as development and function of the skeletal muscle, the retina and central nervous system, and is essential for cardiovascular functioning as well as other major factors. Most mammals manufacture taurine from other amino acids. However, cats cannot manufacture an amount sufficient to their needs and, therefore, must source enough taurine through their food source. It can only be found in muscle meat.
- VEGETABLES: Many pet foods have a small % of vegetables added. Vegetables can provide a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
- NATURAL: As defined by the AAFCO is “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices” The use of the term “natural” on the label is false and misleading if any chemically synthesized ingredients are present in the product. Two common examples of this are Prophylene Glycol and BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, which are chemically synthesized ingredients found in some pet foods.
- PREMIUM/ULTRA PREMIUM/HOLLISTIC: These terms have no official definitions within the AAFCO so should just be taken as a clever marketing tool with little value.
- VETERINARIAN FORMULATED: it only takes one veterinarian to support the claim “veterinarian formulated”, or “veterinarian developed”, assuming that fact can be sufficiently documented.
Above is a list of the main ingredients found in cat food although there are many more to be found if one were to investigate all of the extensive brands on the market in what has now become a very competitive billion dollar industry.
What I have noticed is many of the well known brands are coming to their own defense, on their web sites, regarding labeling and why they use certain products, because the internet is rife with web sites alarmed by what they have found after doing their own research into pet food manufacturing and the ingredients that are allowed. Rules and regulations vary from country to country.
There are also many myths and poorly researched or out of date facts, so it’s important for the reader to try and do as much journalistic digging as possible and follow up on individual’s references and citations. Even with this method of research, the reader needs to be careful of the background of the writer and who that person might be ‘backed’ by, influenced by or whether they have these views for financial gain such as the manufacturers of the pet food brand itself!
So lets look at the first debate from both sides.
DEBATE ONE – The Use Of By-Products.
I think it’s true to say that by-products are bits of the animal that humans don’t normally eat and because of this, and the fact that the guidelines on what exactly can end up as a ‘by-product’ have many grey areas, people are alarmed and see it as morally wrong and compare it to being offered an inferior product. It cannot be comfortable for the cat carer to read about diseased animals used as by- products possibly ending up in their pets’ food. In some cases the consumer has no idea what meat has made up the finished product in their purchase and this can be bad in the case of a pet with allergies or an illness. Consumers also object to ‘inferior’ unknown meats in a product sold to them with deceitful marketing and with a higher price tag too.
People view the parts of animals that humans would not consume as repulsive and equal to ‘garbage’, not real meat but offal/tissue. Pet carers began to investigate more about pet food manufacturing after the 2007 pet food scare in the US whereby 1000’s of pet foods had to be recalled due to many animals falling ill and dying when (and I quote from Wikipedia on the subject)
“samples of wheat gluten mixed with melamine, presumably to produce artificially inflated results from common tests for protein content, were discovered in many U.S. pet food brands, as well as in human food supply. The adulterated gluten was found to have come from China, and U.S. authorities concluded that its origin was the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, a Xuzhou, China-based company”
In the US certain rendering plants were found to be using euthanized pets from animal shelters and vets practices. Although this practice is currently refuted by leading manufactures in 2012 the practice is not illegal in some states in the US and it was reported that at least one major rendering plant had about 3000 such pets found piled up out the back of it’s plant. The writer who wrote this piece for the San Francisco Chronicle had to go into hiding after receiving death threats when the newspaper ran the story. It would certainly be illegal in the UK and no reports of euthanized pets being used in pet food has ever been linked to any UK rendering plants. People are also alarmed by the vague terminology on the AAFCO web site when explaining what by products mean“…..exclusive of feathers, hair, horns, teeth, hooves except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice “ . In large conveyor belt factories, dealing with 1000’s of dead carcasses the word unavoidable becomes very realistic. Also, no-where on the AAFCO site does it define ‘good processing practise’.
The side of the debate that puts by-products in a more positive light is that most feral or wild cats are not fussy about parts of the animal they eat and we, by being appalled, are only projecting our own human hang-ups/bias. The quality of ‘protein’ in by-products can sometimes be better than that of muscle meat and the heart, liver, lung and brain of animals are known to be nutritionally beneficial. Why should so much of an animal, already slaughtered for human consumption, be made to go to waste when most of the animal that is left can be recycled into perfectly edible animal feed. Also, something to bear in mind is that people in the West may find chicken feet repulsive (I’m saying this because chicken feet can be a by-product) and yet people in the East eat them as delicacies. Food for thought. A totally muscle-based meat diet with no other ingredients would not be a healthy diet for a cat.
DEBATE TWO – wet food verses dry food
This debate has always intrigued me and I sway from one to the other when hearing various arguments for and against. For me the answer is balance and variety. I lean more towards a wet meat diet which is the natural food source for this species, but that’s not to say I do not feed my cats a handful of complete dry food to go with their meaty dinner so that all angles are covered with their nutritional needs as well as variety. I will also admit that dry food can be convenient when one has fussy cats who like both textures.
The debate for wet food is that cats are obligate carnivores that need animal flesh to survive. Their anatomy is designed for meat eating, their teeth designed for ripping flesh from bones and their jaws designed for downward movement for crushing/holding prey. Cats in the wild do not eat biscuits and seeing as a cats’ evolution has not changed over millions of years why should they eat them now. Dry food is higher in carbohydrates and contains far less moisture so can be seen as an unnatural food source. It’s a clever marketing ploy that dry biscuits help to maintain healthy teeth and gums. What would keep teeth clean and free from plaque is ripping big clumps of meat from bones and disembowelling small rodents etc although the inner city pet cat would not necessarily have the means to hunt and kill in this way and if it did would more likely bring their catch home as a gift to their carer than eat it.
Some cheap dry brands contain a high % of grains, fillers and E products and have little nutritional value, although more reputable companies ensure that their dry food is a complete balanced meal for different stages of the cat’s life cycle. The price of the food should help determine it’s quality although reading the labels and especially the small print should also help.
Most cat owners that choose a dry food diet for their cat do so as a convenience so that they can leave food out all day for the cat to graze on. Dry kibble does not smell, does not attract flies in the summer, and can be easily stored. Cats on a dry food only diet can become obese due to the high carbohydrates content and the simple fact that their carers leave huge piles of food out for them to constantly graze on. Cats will eat when not hungry and will continue to graze if food is there. A high grade dry kibble from a reputable company will be better than a low grade cheap wet brand so it’s not always the case that wet food is better!
Complete dry food from companies such as Hills or Science Plan have perfected their dry kibble to meet all of the cats needs but I still think it unnatural for a cat to eat kibble as it’s main food source of food as this goes against what a cat naturally is and what it eats in the wild.
It has been noted by Lisa A Pierson (DVM) that “ The protein in dry food, which is often heavily plant-based, is not equal in quality to the protein in canned food, which is meat-based. The protein in dry food, therefore, earns a lower biological value score. Because plant proteins are cheaper than meat proteins, pet food companies will have a higher profit margin when using corn, wheat, soy, rice, etc.”
An important factor to consider is the water content. Prey would naturally have a high water content and this is so important for a species that perhaps does not drink as much as it should and therefore needs to get water from it’s food source to remain healthy. Wet food addresses this ‘problem’ with its high moisture content.
Some cat carers have taken to feeding their cat raw meat meals and many new companies have materialised, offering commercial pre-packaged raw meat. Most of the meat is organic and lists where the animal originated from, such as local farms, which pet owners find reassuring. There is nothing wrong with feeding a cat raw meat but not all cats will take to it. My two Norwegian Forest cats will not eat it and ironically raw meat lacks essential calcium.
Variety with the best quality ingredients, in small amounts, is the best thing a cat carer can give their cat. A mixture of good quality wet food (complete) as the main bulk of the cats diet plus a small complimentary handful of ‘complete’ high end kibble with plenty of fresh water should ensure your cat has a happy, balanced and fun diet.