What does clean label mean in the pet food industry?

Simple isn’t easy when it comes to stable, safe, nutritionally complete pet foods, and the term "clean label" has a lot of different definitions to pet food customers.

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The complexity of defining “clean label” from both an industry perspective and a consumer perspective touches on a lot of different pet food issues. (vlbv | shutterstock.com)
The complexity of defining “clean label” from both an industry perspective and a consumer perspective touches on a lot of different pet food issues. (vlbv | shutterstock.com)

What exactly does clean label mean? In short, it is a catchphrase, message, position or goal. It is most certainly not a regulated, legal, defined or qualified claim. Said another way, it depends on who you ask — it is purely subjective.

Clean label is often associated with terms like genuine, authentic, transparent, identity preserved, organic, natural, unprocessed, minimally processed and many others. Journalists and marketers in the human foods and nutrition trade promote it as simple, short ingredient statements with ingredient names that are easy to pronounce. (Read into that “no chemicals.”) This started in the human food industry in the 1980s and pet food has been moving in parallel for about as long.

“Clean label” and pet food

We could consider that this journey for pet food started with the first so-called premium products, which touted that they did not contain any artificial colors or flavors. In the 1990s, there was a shift from synthetic to natural preservatives. Then there were the foods which stated they contained no fillers, followed closely by the avoidance claims for “no corn, wheat or soy.” Now that has morphed into the grain-free diets, limited-ingredient diets, ingredient exclusion diets and human-grade ingredients.

We stopped using vitamin K3 because someone claimed it was toxic to babies, beet pulp became controversial because someone thought it caused red color in white dogs and we can’t use grapes because they are supposedly toxic. Pet foods are made with holistic, novel, organic and non-GMO ingredients, as well.

More recently, the minimally processed raw, refrigerated and freeze-dried foods have been gaining significant market share. More extreme products that avoid rendered protein meals or those that contain no synthetic vitamins and minerals have begun to make an entrance, as well. All of this could be considered as the transition to clean label.  

The multiple facets of “clean label”

We also have stakeholders and critics attempting to hold us accountable for environmental, safety and health concerns. We are being warned of heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and pharmaceuticals in pet foods. Special interest groups are suggesting that pet food is a major contributor to global warming and encouraging us to be socially responsible by shifting to more vegetable-based proteins (in lieu of animal proteins) to diminish our carbon footprint. This too is a form of clean label.

Lest we not forget, the container or package is also part of this clean label effort. Artwork, post-consumer waste materials and even transparent packaging all add to the perception of clean label. Additionally, the messages on the front and details on the back of the package communicate a conformance to clean label. Because consumers have a dizzying array of choices today, they often rely on visual cues found on the package to make quick judgements. Conveying a clean label aids their decision making.

Challenges for the pet food industry

Clearly, there is a broad spectrum to what clean label could be. While this movement is real, the challenges for the food processing industry are significant and they stand juxtaposed to our efforts to provide economical, safe, convenient, nutritionally complete, shelf-stable products that master issues with seasonality and consistency while still providing variety, flavor and consumer appeal. The solution has required a wide array of technologies in processing, food chemistry and agronomic practices. Unfortunately, some of these are now being questioned so new ones are needed.

This push in pet food for shorter, simpler, socially responsible ingredient composition that is minimally processed is a complicated undertaking. To rephrase…simple is not easy. If we are to produce foods for our pets in this modern food supply chain where we acquire agricultural commodities that have inherent variability and convert them to a consistent composition and nutritional value; take ingredients that may contain background levels of pathogens and render them “safe”; make foods that contain vital but inherently labile nutrients and assure they meet target levels weeks and months after manufacture; and put those products in packages that can be handled mechanically, survive the rigors of transportation and be moved by the distributor, retailor and purchaser without so much as a tear, spill, or blemish, we will need more new technology. Cutting-edge technology. Perhaps let’s call it “Clean Label Technology.”

In short, the romantic idea of food that was harvested yesterday, landing in the bowl tomorrow, and doing so in a convenient, wholesome and unaltered state is unlikely to happen for most busy pet owners unless they want to dedicate much more time and effort to growing, gathering and preparing food by their own hand for each of their animals. That is not practical for most of us, but it does not mean that as an industry we should not be challenged to do better, to offer options/choices and/or to consider new and different ways. Some might find it frustrating, but from a new product development perspective it is a rather fun prospect. It needs real effort and validation.

It all comes down to raw material inputs. What consumers don’t always get is that in pet foods that are complete and nutritionally balanced, we are ethically bound to the long ingredient list to meet all the vitamin and mineral requirements and depend on some form of preservation and cooking process to make the product safe. Of course, we have options around some things, but these usually involve more inconsistent ingredients, expensive and complicated packaging and/or increased costs without improving the nutritional or caloric benefit of the food for the animal. This is a fascinating area that will no doubt continue to drive innovation, differentiation and new product development in the pet food industry for years to come.  


The clean label pet food series

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