Do I need to pay more?
Do we need to buy premium pet food? Unless your pet has specific dietary problems, probably not. Any pet food that says it's 'complete and balanced' contains all the required nutrients at appropriate levels for the maintenance of healthy pets.
But if you want what humans think as 'quality' ingredients and nutrient quantities above those recommended by AAFCO, then expect to pay more. "The cheaper ones tend to be less flavoursome, less palatable and probably, on the whole, have less meat products in them," says David Fraser, Professor of Animal Science at Sydney University.
- Premium brands are more likely to claim they use ' real muscle meat', fish or poultry as their main ingredient.
- Some supermarket brands use less muscle meat and make up the balance with meat by-products like organs, blood and bones, which are equally good nutritionally.
- A higher proportion of muscle meat and other expensive ingredients can lead to a reduction in faecal volume as the food is more easily digested. Look for 'real meat'.
The AVA's warning
There's a warning about your pets only on pet mince. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) says meat preserved in sulphur dioxide (preservative 220) has been linked to thiamine deficiencies, which can cause heart disease and blindness if they're the main diet.
All the brands CHOICE found contain sulphur dioxide, even the gourmet ones, so check the label. If you want to supplement your pet's diet with raw meat, use human-grade meat (but not sausage mince, as it's allowed to contain sulphur dioxide).
What about those claims?
The more expensive brands, although not nutritionally necessary for your average pet, do carry some pretty impressive claims.
For example " A complex synergisation of grape and green tea polypenols" and "chronroitin, glucosamine and Omega 3 for joint health" both featured on premium pet foods we looked at. While studies show these nutrients may be beneficial for pets with particular ailments, they're not recognised by AAFCO as essential for pets' normal maintenance.
Manufacturers have to be very careful how they label their products. The Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) works closely with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), and manufacturers must ensure their claims are justifiable.
"If I was going to address a diseased state or talk about altering the physiology of a dog or cat in a significant way, automatically that product has to be registered as a therapeutic good." says a PFIAA spokesperson. Pet food manufacturers avoid having to register their products by claims to the effect of "helps to maintain..." or "helps avoid..."
No Australian standard for processed foods
There's no national standard for processed tinned or dry pet food.
- If pet food's imported, it has to comply with Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) import regulations and must be certified to come from disease-free animals that were inspected before and after slaughter.
- For processed pet food made in Australia, regulations apply at some stages of production, otherwise the industry is largely self-regulated. We hope that with the recent melanine scare in the US, manufacturers will be extra stringent with their own quality control.
- The major manufacturers are members of PFIAA and have to comply with its code of practice and AAFCO standards. Manufacturers who breach the PFIAA code may be referred to the appropriate regulatory authority, such as the APVMA or the ACCC, and/or suspended/expelled from the association.
Standard for pet meat
There's an Australian standard for frozen and fresh pet meat, which was generated by the Primary Industry Ministerial Council's Meat Standards Committee and is enforced by the state's controlling authorities. The standard covers all stages of the pet meat production process to ensure:
- It remains separate to human-grade meat.
- Is hygienically handled.
- Is free from harmful diseases.
When beef may not be beef
Under the Trade Practices Act, pet foods, like any other product, can't make misleading or untrue claims. You can't call a dog roll 'beef' if it doesn't have any beef in it.
But what if it has beef, but just not much? There are no government regulatory guidelines, but PFIAA says its code of practice is based on the best practice and incorporates standards for labelling, marketing, nutrition design and claims. For example, the code stipulates:
- That a 'complete and balanced' or 'nutritionally complete' pet food must meet the minimum recommended nutritive requirements for that species.
- Pet snacks or treats should be labelled as 'complementary pet food' as they're not nutritionally complete.
- Ingredients must be listed in order of descending weight - so the first ingredient is the most plentiful.
Pet food varieties are determined by the amount of varietal meat in the product. The four levels are:
Beef. Beef is the main ingredient.
Beef dinner: It contains at least 25% beef.
With beef. At least 5% of the meat in the product is beef.
Beef flavour. Less than 5% of the meet is beef, or a commercial beef flavour has been used.
See www.pfiaa.com.au for more info.