Anyone who considers his or her pet a part of the family knows how hard it is to pick a good pet food from the overstocked displays at their favorite neighborhood or online pet supply store. At first glance, it seems like one has a myriad of great choices—that is, until you actually read the fine print and begin to understand what label terms mean and wonder which claims to trust.
If you’re reading this, you probably know about the benefits of organic products (e.g., healthier, more nutrient-dense, less agricultural and other synthetic chemical residues and toxins), and it’s likely that you restrict your survey of various products to organic pet foods. Nevertheless, it’s probably difficult for you to discriminate between marketing fiction and labeling facts, even in this pet food category. Such confusion is understandable, given the general lack of regulations that allows the abuse of descriptive terms for pet food ingredients in general and organic pet food ingredients in particular.
Currently in the pet food industry, only USDA certified organic claims are regulated and enforced by U.S. law. All other non-certified organic claims are not regulated or enforced by the U.S. government and therefore may or may not be true, as they have not been verified by an unbiased third-party. As a State compliance officer at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) wrote in 2008: “It is buyer beware of any pet food product that does not show that it is certified by one of the National Organic Program (NOP) certification agents.”
At present, USDA organic certification for pet foods follows the NOP standards set for human food products. However, new organic pet food policies are being developed which will likely—and unfortunately— water down these standards to the point where they will be not much better than those set for organic livestock feeds, setting the bar very low indeed.
Specifically, these new standards will probably allow the inclusion of more synthetics in USDA certified organic pet foods than are currently permitted in the so-called ‘National List’ of allowed non-organic ingredients and manufacturing processes (details of may be viewed at (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5068682&acct=nopgeninfo)
The organic certification process
The organic certification process for a given organic pet food manufacturer includes a review of all products made by that company, organic certificates for every ingredient used, and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) statements for every ingredient used, where applicable, as well as regularly scheduled inspections of the production facility.
Organic certification and ingredients
All ingredients included in any USDA certified organic pet food must be fully traceable back to their origins. This is critically important in any cases of pet food recalls that may arise. This requirement automatically prohibits the use of any ill-defined pet food ingredients, such as so-called ‘rendered’ ingredients, fish meals, or generic animal fats which can’t even be traced to individual source species, let alone their origins.
Organic certification verifies pet food claims
Organic certification through an unbiased USDA-accredited certifying agency is also the consumer’s best assurance that all ingredients are fully disclosed and that the manufacturing site is free of the toxic chemicals that are commonly used in both non-certified organic pet food and human food manufacturing facilities alike. In general, this certification is the only credible verification for the claims that are often made by pet food companies (i.e., ‘organic,’ ‘antibiotic-free,’ ‘hormone-free,’ ‘no GMOs,’ ‘no by-products,’ etc.).
The future of the organic certification standards for pet foods
Although some less desirable synthetic ingredients will probably be included in the ‘National List’ that is now being developed in connection with the planned organic pet food policies, both current and future standards will guarantee that claims made about USDA certified organic pet foods are true. Fortunately, pet food manufacturers will be able to choose not to include any synthetic ingredients, even if they will be allowed to do so under the law. Exclusion of such ingredients will certainly be another worthwhile label claim to look out for in the future.
Categories of certified organic pet food products
Use of the USDA organic seal is reserved for certified organic products containing at least 95% of certified organic ingredients; conventional ingredients cannot be used in this class of USDA certified organic products if organic versions are currently available. Pet food products that contain at least 70%, but less than 95%, organic ingredients cannot display the USDA organic seal; however, they can carry the label, ‘made with organic ingredients’ and, as in the case of products containing more than 95% organic ingredients, they must disclose the organic certifier which assured that the listed organic ingredients are indeed organic and that the chosen processing methods comply with current standards, as well as that the products do not contain any GMO ingredients. Among the better known of these organic certifiers are Quality Assurance International (QAI), California Certified Organic Famers (CCOF), and Oregon Tilth (OTCO).
Certified organic pet foods are also ”green”
USDA certified organic pet foods are not only healthier and intrinsically safer for your pet, they are also the only ones that are currently considered to be ‘green,’ i.e., supportive of sustainable and ecologically balanced manufacturing practices. A Green Seal certifying agent confirmed in May 2008 that, “USDA organic certification is the best and most credible label for pet and human food products, also in respect to any green claims.” Green Seal is a third-party certifier that uses stringent processes to verify green claims. Due to the availability of a rigorous organic certification process through the USDA, Green Seal currently does not have any standards, either in place now or planned for the future, to certify food products for both humans and pets.
What does this all mean for consumers and the pet food industry?
So, the next time, you’re looking for a good pet food product for your animal companion, play it safe and choose one that’s USDA certified organic. Not only will you support your pet’s health, you’ll also help protect the health of our environment. Moreover, when you make this choice, you won’t be supporting unethical pet food manufacturers that routinely use false claims to the maximum extent allowed by law to push sales of their inferior products.
P.S.: An OTA (Organic Trade Association) or Green America (formerly ‘Coop America’) membership does not guarantee that a given pet food is either USDA certified organic or green.
P.P.S.: Onesta Organics is the first both certified organic and ”green approved” (i.e., approved by Green America, formerly ”Coop America”) pet food manufacturer in the USA.