Dog Food Ingredients A to Z: USDA and other Label Nuances

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USDA LabelWe continue our Dog Food Ingredients A to Z series with the letter “U”. In reality, there are not a lot of ingredients that start with the letter U.  We decided on “USDA”, which in itself is not an ingredient, but is an adjective uses in some rare cases to describe a protein used in the food.  For example, you might see USDA Beef or USDA Chicken as an ingredient.


There are a whole set of dog food label terms that can be confusing, if not misleading.  Learning which of these actually mean something and which are simply marketing ploys can help a pet owner determine if they need to reconsider their food choices.


Dog food nutritional guidelines

Pet food label guidelines are defined by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a non-government, self regulatory organization.  However, AAFCO has no official regulatory power to enforce food or labeling compliance. Regulation is done at the state level.  Here is a passage taken from the AAFCO site:

AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way.

AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.

It is the state feed control official’s responsibility in regulating pet food to ensure that the laws and rules established for the protection of companion animals and their custodians are complied with so that only unadulterated, correctly and uniformly labeled pet food products are distributed in the marketplace and a structure for orderly commerce.


The above does not suggest that AAFCO guidelines are toothless.  Rather, it means that the guidelines developed by AAFCO are enforced and regulated by the states.


USDA and other confusing dog food label terms


USDA and Human Grade Ingredients

The use of USDA before a named meat is not a common practice.  The use of USDA to describe an ingredient is meant to suggest that it is USDA inspected which could mean that it was sourced from a USDA inspected facility.  AAFCO does not offer an opinion on the rules for labeling foods in this way.


Even if an ingredient is sourced from a USDA  inspected plant, that does not imply that the food is “human grade”.  Here is a snippet from AAFCO”s statement on human grade labeling:

A claim that something is “human-grade” or “human-quality” implies that the article being referred to is “edible” for people in legally defined terms. The terms “human grade” or “human quality” have no legal definition. …….. Thus, for all practical purposes, the term “human grade” represents the product to be human edible.  For a product to be human edible, all ingredients in the product must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food.  If these conditions exist, then human-grade claims may be made. If these conditions do not exist, then making an unqualified claim about ingredients being human grade misbrands the product.



The term “natural” is often used on pet food labels, although that term does not have an official definition according to the FDA. AAFCO has developed a feed term definition for what types of ingredients can be considered “natural” and “Guidelines for Natural Claims” for pet foods.  For the most part, “natural” can be defined as a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product, except for vitamins, minerals, and other trace ingredients.

Companies can “stretch” this definition and have the word “natural” printed on their labels thanks to the part of the regulation that allows the term “natural” to be used to describe a specific ingredient, provided that the term refers only to that ingredient and not the product as a whole.

In summary, “natural” does not mean that the dog food is minimally processed, nor does the term indicate anything about the quality of the ingredients other than the fact that they’re not chemically synthesized.



According to the FDA, “organic” refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised and there are no official rules governing the labeling of organic foods for pets at this time.  However, the USDA does have labeling standards for using the term “organic” on human food and pet food companies should abide by these rules when using the term organic.

Pet foods meeting the human standard may display the USDA organic seal with the following restrictions/rules:


“Organic”: If the food is made up of 100% organic ingredients, the label may display the official USDA organic seal.  The USDA organic seal can also be used if at least 95% of the content is organic by weight, excluding salt and water.

“Made with Organic”: If at least 70% of the pet food content is organic.  Can cite up to three specific ingredients or classes of ingredients on the front panel as being organic.  Cannot use the USDA official organic seal.

Ingredient specific label only:  If less than 70% of the content is organic only those organic ingredients may be listed and only on the ingredients panel with no mention of ‘organic’ elsewhere on the product.  These foods cannot display the USDA official organic seal.


Premium/ Holistic

Pet food labels including the terms “premium”, “super premium”, and holistic are meaningless as there are no AAFCO definitions of what these mean. There’s nothing necessarily bad about these labels, but they can be misleading. In fact, pet foods using these terms are not required to contain any different or higher-quality ingredients than any other complete and balanced pet foods, according to the FDA’s web site.


Grain Free

“Grain free” pet diets are also becoming more common. This is another term that is not regulated by AAFCO, and can have several meanings. The “grain free” designation does not guarantee that the diet is low in carbohydrates. Many of these grain free foods simply substitute other carbohydrate sources such as potato or tapioca for grains.  Make sure to research the foods dry matter macro nutrient profile before assuming that your dog’s grain free food is not full of carbs.


Sources and further reading
image We’re joining the Tasty Tuesday Blog Hop sponsored by Sugar, the Golden Retriever and Kolchak from Kol’s Notes:


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  1. More confusing stuff to dig through. I think it is best to bring someone with a PhD in dog nutrition along when you choose a food! The companies have so many word tricks up their sleeves and it is all just so confusing. We do have our vet friend in Germany that has a PhD in dog nutrition. We usually run stuff by her before buying if we are unsure. Human food is just about confusing as dog food really, but we don’t seem as concerned. Human food is often”mislabeled” or trick labeled as well.
    emma recently posted…Navigating the Dog Food Forest | GBGV | Tasty TuesdayMy Profile

  2. My vet and ma discussed going grain free with us and ma decided that it wasn’t something she wanted to try. The reason is most grain free products have potatoes instead of rice in them. Our vet said that he has seen a increase with dogs in diabetes and other health problems since grain free foods have been growing in popularity. He seems to think this because they are more full of carbs than anything else. He advised me to stay away from Blue Buffalo. He said that seemed to be the one that has been being fed the most.
    The only organic products in this house is the stuff the pawents grew last summer. A small spot in the yard can yield a lot of green beans, tomatoes, and other veggies if planted accordingly. They also plant stuff in pots to grow on the patio.
    This was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing.
    carma Poodale recently posted…Bucket Full of FurMy Profile

  3. Oh my goodness…..I always thought I could read a pet food ingredient label pretty well. But I didn’t realize how much these company’s are allowed to stretch the truth like that. When I see grain free, you think oh that’s great! And your not thinking anything else on the subject.
    I’m glad you shared this post! Thank you very much!
    ((Husky hugz))
    Frum da pack at love is being owned by a husky

  4. Thanks for another important post, things we may not have thought about….

  5. I read somewhere — not sure where — back in December that if the farm bill that the ultra-conservatives in the HOR wrote got passed it would pretty much nullify the “USDA ORGANIC” labelling regulations. I know that A farm bill was passed, but not without a bunch of changes. So, are the labelling regulations still intact? Can we still assume that the “USDA ORGANIC” label on human food actually means the product is at least 95% organic?
    Callie, Shadow, and Ducky’s Mom recently posted…My, How My Golden Girls Have Grown!My Profile

  6. Doesn’t AAFCO have some guidelines for what can be called organic also? Our new blog sponsor has been going through the excruciatingly long process of getting her treats certified USDA organic and she said one of the most difficult parts is that the USDA and pet industry don’t work together in any way so the labeling certifications are separately tedious. She technically can’t even use the word “organic” before any of the ingredients (even if they all are USDA organic sourced) until the treats themselves/her preparation process is certified as well.
    Bethany recently posted…“No” Means “Yes” | Positive Pet Training Blog HopMy Profile

  7. Thank you for this information! I found your blog through Keep The Tail Wagging’s post on picking up dog poop. I’m going to bookmark this so I can come back to it and do more digging through all the reading. I had no idea AAFCO was self-regulated. Eek. :/
    Miranda recently posted…Keeping It Together: 15 minute cleaningMy Profile

  8. Very realistic view on pet food. Thank you for the breakdown. It can definitely be overwhelming as a newer pet parent to decipher everything and make the right decision.
    Beagles and Bargains recently posted…Celebrating the Super Bowl SafelyMy Profile

    • You are welcome. We are working on some new features on dog foods so stay tuned.
      mkob recently posted…Wordless Wednesday 2-4-14My Profile

  9. Jones is all natural and USDA certified, but they’re not 100% organic. They’re pretty up front and honest about it, too. I don’t think they even say “premium” on the label, to avoid making themselves look pretty with a label that’s easy to misconstrue. More of a what you see is what you get kind of brand.

    I love your explanations of the ingredients. Today’s is especially good. Thank you! So much confusion in dog food and treats.
    Flea recently posted…A Bully Bone Giveaway!My Profile

    • Our pleasure Flea. Love the way Jones handles it. Honest and perhaps understated….
      mkob recently posted…Wordless Wednesday 2-4-14My Profile

  10. Lots of information and it can be confusing. Many treats now are promoting their products as USDA Organic. We are 50/50 on organic stuff so its hard to decide. Golden Thanks for sharing. Happy Tasty Tuesday.
    Golden Woofs: Sugar recently posted…Can Dogs Eat Pomegranate?My Profile

    • Organic has advantages for sure, including superior nutritional potency in many cases. That said, I don’t think a dog food needs to have organic ingredients to be a good quality food.
      mkob recently posted…Wordless Wednesday 2-4-14My Profile

  11. I go crazy when I see the “natural label” knowing it means nothing. However, my local super market specifies that their all natural products are produced without antibiotics or hormones. So at least I’ve learned something.

    But that’s a choice that this company makes. It’s not enforced by the USDA.

    Thanks for wading in to explain what all these terms mean. I think many people misunderstand what the various labels mean.
    Pamela recently posted…How Do You Know When It’s Time To Get Another DogMy Profile

    • Agree and many human foods are the same way. Hard to tell what is real and what is marketing.
      mkob recently posted…Wordless Wednesday 2-4-14My Profile

  12. Great post. Unfortunately, “organic,” “natural” and so on have really become marketing terms and most people think that makes a good product. Plus, with so many states feeling the budget squeeze, it’s frightening to think they’re in charge of enforcement 🙁
    Sue at Talking Dogs recently posted…National Weatherman Day | Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

  13. That was a whole lot of great information, thank you for talking about this.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Wordless Wednesday~Fixing Up MKMy Profile

  14. Thanks for the excellent information. 🙂
    2 brown dawgs recently posted…Make A First Aid Kit For Your DogMy Profile

  15. Great information. I guess what it boils down to is that we still need to read the ingredients list, no matter what the front of the bag says?
    Jan K recently posted…Book Reviews by SamanthaMy Profile

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