Pet food labels: rules for natural versus organic

While federal and state regulations define the requirements for labeling pet food as organic, but natural pet food labeling lacks that legal clarity.

Tim Wall Headshot Small Headshot
(Andrea Gantz)
(Andrea Gantz)

While federal and state regulations define the requirements for labeling pet food as organic, natural pet food labeling lacks that legal clarity. Both livestock feed and human food federal agencies have a say in organic pet food labeling, as do state legislatures influenced by American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines.

This article is part of a Petfood Industry series that explores labeling issues.

Other articles in the series:

Pet food labels: 3 new product trends at SuperZoo

Pet food labels: 4 popular natural dog, cat food trends

Pet food labels: Made in the USA

Pet food labels: human-grade claim legal guidelines

On the other hand, the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has no official definition of natural human food, much less pet food. To fill the void, USDA offers guidance while the agency works to define natural for pet food labels, and AAFCO published a definition for natural that applies to pet food.

Organic regulations for pet food

Organic human and pet foods remain governed by the same regulations, USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). The federal organic certification program uses third-party inspectors to determine if agricultural operation, including farms growing pet food ingredients, that meet federal regulatory standards. Farms, ranches and other agricultural facilities must maintain or enhance soil and water quality as part of the organic certification process. Meanwhile, those operations must conserve ecosystems and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.

For organic pet food, there are extra regulations. NOP does not supersede state organic livestock feed laws or United States Food and Drug Administration regulations. So, organic pet foods must fully comply with labeling, safety and utility requirements for livestock feed ingredients and feeds, along with organic human food regulations, on multiple levels.

When dealing with this labyrinth of laws, pet food companies may make labeling mistakes. The most common is improper use of term "organic" to describe an ingredient outside of the ingredient list when it does not conform to the  "with organic ___" requirements of the National Organic Program (7 CFR  205), David Dzanis, DVM, PhD, CEO of Regulatory Discretion Inc., told Petfood Industry.

Natural pet food labels relatively unregulated

Compared to organic dog and cat food labels, natural pet food remains loosely legislated and regulated. Federally, natural pet food needs to avoid being false or misleading about what is meant by natural. Otherwise, only state regulations control what can be called natural pet food. For many states, that means following AAFCO guidance for natural pet food.

AAFCO’s definition doesn’t mean natural pet foods are necessarily safer or less processed than products that don’t bear a natural label. Likewise, it doesn’t require pet food to be 100 percent free of synthetic additives, since factory-made vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are allowed.

For natural pet food, Dzanis said the most common error is lack of or incorrect use of the "with added" disclaimer that much accompany natural claims when a pet food contains synthetic trace nutrients.

Natural pet food labeling popular globally

Despite an amorphous definition, natural pet food has become a strong pet food labeling trend in the United States. So much so that GFK business group director Maria Lange called natural pet food the base of the industry, during her presentation at Petfood Forum 2017.

Just as natural is spelled the same in English, Spanish and Portuguese, so too does natural pet food labeling draw attention in Latin America as in Anglophonic lands. In a survey by DSM, Mexican and Brazilian pet owners both said that natural was the top claim they looked for on pet food labeling.

Page 1 of 563
Next Page