What Does AAFCO Approved Dog Food Mean?
AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials . This organization has been around since 1909. They are a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. They are probably best-known for providing the nutritional adequacy statements on pet food labels but they also monitor feed for livestock, write definitions for animal feed ingredients, provide guidelines for feed testing and nutrient profiles, and other things related to animal feeds. Although AAFCO is a voluntary membership organization, if they didn’t exist the pet food industry would be snarled with 50 sets of divergent state regulations in conflict with federal regulations.
AAFCO approval means that a food is complete and balanced nutritionally for a dog’s particular life stage.
In order for a dog food (or any pet food) to be “AAFCO approved,” the food has to meet the requirements for one of AAFCO’s life stages. The life stages include: Adult Maintenance; Growth; Gestation/Lactation; and All Life Stages. There is also an approval for “Intermittent Feeding” when a food is intended to be fed for a special nutritional or dietary need with the involvement of a vet. Products that are conspicuously identified as a snack, treat, or supplement don’t have to have AAFCO approval.
Earning AAFCO approval
A food can earn AAFCO approval in one of three ways. The company can choose to use animal feeding trials. This means that a minimum of eight animals are fed the food being tested exclusively for 26 weeks. Water is available at all times. During this time they are examined regularly by a veterinarian. They must pass a physical exam before the trials begin. They are weighed and they have blood tests. Six of the eight dogs must complete the test in good physical shape. No dog is allowed to lose more than 15 percent of its starting body weight. Otherwise, the food fails the test.
When a food passes the AAFCO feeding trials you will see something like this on the dog food label: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ABC Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for (appropriate life stage).”
The other way a food can become AAFCO approved is by submitting an acceptable nutrient profile of the dog food. Nutrient profiles are much more precise than the guaranteed analysis that you find on the food label. They require quite a bit of chemical testing of the food and are somewhat expensive for companies – though not as expensive as a feeding trial. (Pet food manufacturers have to pay for their own tests or nutrient profiles to try to earn AAFCO approval. AAFCO merely provides the protocol the companies are supposed to follow and approves or denies the food.) If a food submits a nutrient profile that is approved by AAFCO you will see a statement like this one on the pet food label: “ABC Dog Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for (appropriate life stage).”
The drawback with nutrient profiles is that, while they give a precise look at the chemical analysis of the food, the food hasn’t actually been fed to a dog. In theory the food might be very healthy, for example, but dogs might hate the taste of it. Or a dog that eats it on a long-term basis might not thrive for some reason that doesn’t show up in the chemical analysis. Many people feel that foods that pass AAFCO feeding trials are preferable to foods that pass with nutrient profiles. However, in most cases, only the very large pet food corporations can really afford to conduct feeding trials because of the cost involved. Smaller and newer pet food companies usually opt for gaining AAFCO approval by using nutrient profiles, for better or worse. In some cases these foods don’t always live up to their hype.
There is one other way a food can gain AAFCO approval but you rarely see it on a pet food label. A company can pass AAFCO by claiming that a food is comparable to another food that has already passed AAFCO. In this case the label would say: “ABC Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for (appropriate life stage) and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.” This is not the same as a company claiming that some of its other products in the same pet food line have passed AAFCO because a similar product already passed. Pet food companies are allowed to make that claim. This particular AAFCO statement would apply to a company making a claim about a product from another company. Again, you don’t see this particular nutritional adequacy claim very often.
As you can imagine, there are countless ins and outs relating to AAFCO and what is required on pet food labels. The more you know, the better you will be able to choose a food wisely for your dog.