There was a point in time — long, long ago admittedly — when you could be assured of the quality and provenance of every ingredient on your plate, perhaps because you’d grown it yourself or bought it off a trusted neighbor.
In today’s industrialized world, in which much of our food is made in factories far, far away, it’s harder to have that same level of confidence about your dinner. Thankfully, several organizations are dedicated to maintaining the quality of the food supply.
AAFCO is a major example in the pet food and animal feed sector. Many parents will be familiar with the name already, even if only having seen it in passing, but what is their job exactly?
First things first, what does AAFCO stand for?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials. As the name suggests, it’s an organization for state and federal employees who enforce animal-feed regulations. Its number also includes veterinarians and scientists.
Basically, if your job involves deciding what can or cannot go inside pet food, you can become a member. It’s important to point out it’s a voluntary and nonprofit organization.
When did it start?
Way back in 1909. It was initially set up to help make the trade of animal feed and pet food between states a lot easier.
To do this, it wrote draft regulations relating to the industry that states could adopt, so commerce could flow seamlessly between different territories.
What does the organization do today?
AAFCO continues this role of standardizing the production of pet food and has picked up a few new responsibilities in the century-and-a-bit since its formation.
For example, the group plays an integral role in setting the nutritional requirements that pet food needs to meet. These are based on the latest findings in nutrition science.
Pet food manufacturers can test their food in a laboratory against AAFCO’s nutrient profiles (which include required ingredients and nutrient levels). The next step is a feeding trial and if the results of both procedures are positive, they can print that the recipes meet AAFCO’s standards on the label.
This usually reads as “(Name of food) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for (nutrient profile).”
Currently, there are three nutrient profiles: All Life Stages, for pets at every age; Growth and Reproduction, suitable for expectant mothers and newborn puppies; and Adult Maintenance, for grown-up canines.
Any product that doesn’t meet AAFCO’s standards will be labeled as for ‘intermittent or supplemental feedings only’.
As well as providing these nutritional benchmarks for manufacturers to aim for, AAFCO also plays a crucial role when it comes to defining ingredients.
The organization maintains a database of ingredients commonly found in pet food that anybody can consult (there’s also a large and very heavy print version!), all with the aim of demystifying often-bamboozling ingredient lists on the back of the packaging. Readers will find the exact definition, intended effects and recommended quantities.
If a manufacturer comes up with a new ingredient in its products, this can go through AAFCO’s process to make it onto the list. This takes around two years and involves an expert panel comprising vets, academics and scientists evaluating submitted research.
In addition, AAFCO also provides standards for pet food labels. This includes correctly formatted ingredients, nutrient percentages and quantities, as well as feeding directions, manufacturer contact details and the aforementioned AAFCO nutrient profile.
What does AAFCO not do?
Just as important as knowing what AAFCO does is knowing what it doesn’t do.
For starters, it doesn’t test the quality of pet food. When a manufacturer wants to meet AAFCO’s nutrient profiles or submit a new ingredient for consideration on the database, the company itself must get a third party to complete the scientific testing. AAFCO will provide laboratory guidelines for them to follow, but its main job is to look over the results.
Likewise, AAFCO isn’t a regulatory body and has no power over pet food manufacturers — it’s all voluntary, remember.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a much more powerful role to play when it comes to ensuring pet food has no harmful contents, has been prepared in sanitary conditions and doesn’t have untrue claims on the packaging.
So why do pet food manufacturers bother with AAFCO?
Over the course of its existence, the organization has become a generally trusted name in the industry, backed up by a knowledgeable and influential membership, and has shaped a great deal of the legislation surrounding pet food.
So, when a manufacturer can display AAFCO’s nutrient profile approval on its pet food packaging, it’s a clear sign to consumers that the company is invested in the quality of the product.
Similarly, if the producer of a new ingredient can get it onto AAFCO’s database, this will go a long way to boosting its reputation and maybe even put it on the radar of other pet food manufacturers.
Does AAFCO ever come under criticism?
Like all long-running organizations, it does so occasionally.
One recent example was when AAFCO released a Common Food Index, a list of familiar ingredients that can be used in pet food without needing legal definitions — this features mostly fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
It has been pointed out that the minimum quality of these common foods isn’t stated. One company might be using, say, fresh broccoli in their recipes while another could be using rotting broccoli unable to be sold to humans.
This goes against AAFCO’s overall aim of providing greater standardization and transparency.
AAFCO, in our view, isn’t perfect and should always be open to criticism. However, it’s worth remembering two things.
One, it’s a voluntary organization with no legal powers, so its potential for doing good is limited. And secondly, if it didn’t exist, things would be a lot worse for dogs and dog parents.