Decoding Tricky Pet-Food Product Names

By Margaret VanEchaute

Manufacturers often embellish the names of pet food products in ways that emphasize particular ingredients, as most consumers make purchases based on what they know their pets already enjoy. But have you ever wondered just how much chicken is really in that can of “Chicken Formula Cat Food”? As it turns out, even minor changes in the wording of a product can drastically affect the quantity and quality of the food you’re buying. Here are a few rules set in place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to help youdecode what’s really in that bag of pet food.

The 95-Percent Rule: If a product names an ingredient in the title, like “Beef for Dogs” or “Salmon Cat Food,” the product must contain at least 95 percent of this named ingredient, not counting water added for processing. Because ingredients must be listed by weight, “beef” or “salmon” should be the first ingredient listed in these examples. If the product names a combination of ingredients, the two together must represent 95 percent of the total weight, and there must be more of the first ingredient than the second—a product couldn’t be named “Chicken and Tuna Cat Food” if there was more tuna than chicken. This rule applies only to ingredients of animal origin; vegetables and grains do not apply.

The 3-Percent or “With” Rule: Devised primarily to allow companies to point out the presence of minor ingredients that weren’t added in sufficient-enough quantities to merit a “dinner” claim, these ingredients must comprise at least 3 percent of the total weight. For example, “Chicken Formula Cat Food” with a starburst that says “With Cheese” must contain at least 3-percent cheese. It is extremely important to pay attention to the wording when you see the word “with” in product names. “Chicken Cat Food” could be easily confused with a product labeled “Cat Food with Chicken.” Whereas the first must contain 95-percent chicken, the latter need only contain 3 percent.

The “Flavor” Rule: In this rule, specific percentages are not required, but the named flavor must be easily detectable. The key to understanding this rule is that while “Chicken Flavored Cat Food” may taste like chicken to your pets, there might not be any true chicken in the product. Instead, chicken meal, by-products, digests, stocks, or broths may be the source of the flavor. Have more pet food ingredient questions? Visit fda.gov for more information about how to read pet food ingredient lists. And always remember that there is more to good pet nutrition than just reading labels—check with your vet for pet-specific feeding advice.

The 25-Percent Rule: But suppose the label reads “Beef Dinner for Dogs.” If a word like “dinner,” “platter,” “formula,” or “entrée” is used, the named ingredient need only comprise 25 percent of the total product, again not counting added water, but less than 95 percent. This rule can be tricky because in many cases, the named ingredient is not the primary ingredient. “Beef Dinner for Dogs” may indeed be 25-percent beef, but the rest of the product could very well be composed of other ingredients you may not wish to feed your pet. Always check the list of ingredients before purchasing “dinner” items to make sure your ingredient of choice is listed first, not third, fourth, or fifth.