23rd Sep 2008

Organic Claims in the Pet Food Industry – True or False?

The pet food marketplace is flooded with all kinds of organic claims. Which of these claims are true and which are false? The answer is easy and really boils down to this simple fact: only USDA certified organic claims are substantiated and regulated by law. Period. Any organic claims that don’t carry the weight of USDA certification cannot be verified by a third party and therefore may or may not be true.

“The term ‘USDA certified organic’ is regulated and enforced by the Federal Government. Pet food companies that submit their products to organic certification by the USDA must follow a mandatory standard for organics which is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. A USDA-accredited third party must verify that a certified organic product contains at least 95% organic ingredients, and that the product is free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, antibiotics, or other synthetic chemicals that are not permitted for use in organic products. The use of non-certified ingredients is restricted to the few cases where certain certified organic ingredients are not available (e.g., calcium carbonate, which is used as a preservative). Organic certification guarantees that an ingredient or product has been grown or processed according to USDA regulations, which expressly outlaw the use of toxins, including many pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers such as sewage sludge. Notwithstanding any statements to the contrary (which pop up in print media from time to time), the very same stringent organic standards that apply to certified organic foods for human consumption also apply to certified organic pet food; no distinctions, or exceptions, are made between the ingredients and manufacture of USDA certified organic dog food and any food product you or I may consume that is designated USDA certified organic.

USDA organic certification is indicated by the familiar USDA organic seal, as well as by the name of a USDA-accredited organic certifying agency, on the packaging of a given product. If organic ingredients comprise 70% or more of a product, a manufacturer can label that product, ‘made with xxx organic ingredient(s).’ Although this product cannot display the USDA organic seal, the name of the organic certifying agency which scrutinized the company’s organic claims must be disclosed clearly and visibly.

Why do some companies voluntarily comply with the USDA organic program while other companies don”t? Some pet food companies comply with the National Organic Program (NOP) standards to indicate to customers that their organic products are verifiably organic. The USDA seal and the name of an independent organic certifying agency verify that organic claims are true and substantiated by more than simply the word of the manufacturer.

Why don”t all pet food manufacturer which use organic claims to describe their food products bother with USDA organic certification? In most instances, such manufacturers simply wouldn’t be able to satisfy the USDA’s stringent standards for organic certification. In some cases, they might be using little or no certified organic ingredients in their products; in other instances, they might use GMO ingredients or ingredients which contain antibiotics or hormones. Additionally, their ”handling plan,” how they manufacture their products, may not comply with the strictly non-toxic specifications set forth in the NOP standards. And, although organically produced ingredients may cost more than their non-organic counterparts, let me assure you that the financial costs associated with USDA organic certification are not beyond the reach of any company that has a serious advertising budget. Cost is probably the least likely reason why some companies that make organic claims are not USDA certified organic and therefore not subject to third party quality assurance. Let’s face it: hammering claims of organic status into peoples” heads repeatedly is a very cost effective selling strategy; as in politics, even the most egregious and bald-faced lies start to ring true if they’re repeated incessantly enough.

Why would a pet food company make a false organic claim? Well, clearly to make more money. Certified organic ingredients, and the products made from them, are more expensive than conventional varieties. Claiming to a largely ignorant public that something is organic and that there is no real difference between products described as organic and those described as certified organic can increase a company’s profits; such a company can easily undercut manufacturers selling legitimately USDA certified organic products. Generally, the law fails to regulate or prosecute false organic claims in the pet food industry, and many companies unscrupulously use this giant legal loophole in crafting unethical marketing strategies. Where great profits are at stake, such pet food companies couldn’t care less about misleading consumers or, unfortunately, manufacturing products that might negatively affect the health of pets down the line.

Misuse of the claim of organic certification is punishable by Federal law, so this claim is rarely abused. We know of one instance in which a particular pet food manufacturer falsely claimed their products were USDA certified organic; interesting, and in relatively short order, this company disappeared from the organic pet food marketplace.

What are the advantages of USDA certified organic pet food products?
For one thing, we believe that USDA certified organic pet food products, including the pet food products offered by our company, Onesta Organics (www.onestaorganics.com), are safer and healthier than their conventional counterparts. Moreover, these products are manufactured using environmentally friendly and or sustainable agricultural practices. Compared to their conventional counterparts, USDA certified organic food products contain significantly greater amounts of nutrients, but no GMOs and effectively no pesticide residues or other agricultural toxins. Certified organic products are generally healthier for you, your pet, and the environment than conventional varieties. As in the case of the term natural, the term ‘organic may be used without any requirement of third party verification. These terms are not regulated either by the USDA or any other government agency. This general lack of regulation leaves both terms up for grabs in the aggressive world of media marketing. Claims of ‘organic,’ even in combination with statements that a given pet food product is GMO-, antibiotic-, or hormone-free, or are produced using sustainable practices, are not subject to regulation and are often abused shamelessly. Since GMO-, antibiotic-, and hormone-free claims are clearly associated with legitimate certified organic products, their unsubstantiated use is often part of a compelling and effective marketing strategy aimed at consumers who are unaware of the lack of regulation and the misleading use of terminology.

Organic practices clearly have a positive impact on both the environment and the health of humans and their pets. Fortunately, many individuals and companies have recognized the importance of low-impact practices in maintaining our own good health and that of our pets and the planet.

Pet food companies that abuse the terms natural, organic, or sustainable are compromising the integrity of the NOP and are confounding the efforts of the green movement, among others. Although consumer protection should ideally be the responsibility of the Federal government, much of the actual education of consumers is currently left to a small minority of responsible companies which feel ethically bound to do the right thing for the benefit of pets and the world that we, humans and animals alike, share.

As one State compliance officer at CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) once noted ”… It is ‘buyer be ware’ of any pet food product that does not show that it is certified by one of the NOP certification agents”

1 NOP: www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0
2 OTA: http://www.ota.com/organic.html

One Response to “Organic Claims in the Pet Food Industry – True or False?”

  1. Buddies Says:

    I guess it’s down to how much you trust the manufacturer – it seems that if someone is keen to flout the rules they will get round it somehow. People need to learn how read the small print in the labels.