AAFCO eyes updates to pet food labeling requirements

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AAFCO eyes updates to pet food labeling requirements

Jim Bolton is director of research and development at American Nutrition.

Nutritional information on human food packaging has been closely regulated for years, and with food trends for dogs and cats mimicking those of their owners, it was only a matter of time before pet food product packaging came under renewed scrutiny as well.

Nutritionally speaking, humans have very different daily requirements than dogs and cats (gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and low-carb kibble are hardly apples to apples). So, how does the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) plan to account for these differences while providing pet parents with the transparent and familiar packaging they crave? Let’s take a closer look.

Low carb claims
AAFCO’s 2018 mid-year meeting brought with it the news that, after many rounds of proposals, regulations would now allow dog and cat food labels to bear carbohydrate-related claims — that meet certain requirements. However, the term “low carb” has been barred, as no standard has been set to define “low” for cats and dogs, nor is there consensus regarding carbohydrates’ effects on their health.

What is permitted are comparative claims, such as “25 percent less carbs than” another product. While this change represents an important opportunity to appeal to health-conscious pet parents, retailers should tread carefully. Making claims against a competing product could land you in hot water if that brand changes its formulation, thereby invalidating your already-shelved product’s packaging. Instead, stick to comparisons with products you can control such as by offering a low-carb take on a popular product in your own pet food line.

Simplified nutrition facts
AAFCO is looking at other ways pet food packaging can become more consumer-friendly. The Pet Food Label Modernization workgroup was formed in 2016 to review and modernize the required pet food labeling information and format.

Near the top of this workgroup’s current priority list is developing a standardized Nutrition Facts box that visually mimics that of human food products and replaces the current guaranteed analysis and calorie content statement. A potential complication is the issue of recommended daily allowance (RDA), which should be established in order for calories and other units to be communicated on a per-serving basis, similar to human food products.

Currently, serving sizes are governed by the weight of the pet, the life stage of the pet and the pet’s activity level — none of which are applied in today’s human nutritional panel. However, if these hurdles can be cleared, providing a standardized nutritional information panel would help consumers more easily compare products and find the best fit for their pet’s particular needs. Likewise, should this proposal come to pass, pet food brands would want to assess their formulations to ensure this panel optimally positions their offering against competing products.

At-a-glance categorization
The back of the bag certainly received ample attention at the mid-year meeting, but it seems the face of pet food packages may be getting a revamp as well.

AAFCO is considering the introduction of a front-of-pack graphic that would indicate the specific life stage(s) and size(s) for which a given complete and balanced pet food is formulated. Additional graphics would be developed for treats, supplements, etc., as well as those for use under veterinary supervision. The appearance, size and placement would be standardized by packaging size and type.

Advocates are eager to provide pet parents with this pertinent information at first glance rather than in the more understated nutritional adequacy statement we have today. If these changes are carried out, they could impact pet parents’ purchasing habits and prompt both a potential reorganization of the pet food aisle and a rethinking of how best to diversify your private pet food program.

What’s next
Working groups are also in early discussions about how to improve safe food handling and feeding directions on pet food packaging. Additionally, there is a push from some regulators to simplify the ingredients list to replace chemical-sounding names with their common counterparts; however, opponents fear this may result in labeling that is more consumer-friendly but less accurate. Reconciling this with current FDA requirements also presents a roadblock.

All of the above proposals have yet to gain official consensus, but working groups will be gathering consumer feedback and/or developing regulatory language in order to gain momentum toward implementation. It would take several rounds of approvals and the course of years for these regulations to be enacted. However, retailers would be wise to keep their ears open and grab a seat at the table if they can.

As pet food packaging and labeling becomes more transparent to pet parents, so, too, will our manufacturing processes. The closer you can align your operations with consumer expectations — whether required by regulation or not — the greater the edge you will have in tomorrow’s pet food market.  

About the author: Jim Bolton is the director of research and development at American Nutrition, a pet food and treat manufacturing company in Ogden, Utah. With a master’s degree in food technology and science from the University of Tennessee and an extensive career in research and development, Bolton has four patents and several more pending.

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