chicken pet food ingredients

Playing Chicken With Dog Food Label Ingredients

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you ran out of dog food. You rush to the closest retailer to buy some more and find yourself standing in front of two bags of commercially prepared pet foods. Now you need to make a choice.

You pick up those two bags of food – they can either be kibble or raw – they can even be cans. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you should read the label. And on that label, you might see that the first ingredient on bag #1 is chicken and first ingredient on bag #2 is chicken by-products.

You investigate the label a bit more and see that the bag containing chicken claims to be from USDA inspected facilities. The bag containing chicken by-products claims to be from USDA inspected and approved animals. Which one would you choose?

It’s a no-brainer, right?

I bet you’d choose chicken over chicken by-products. You’ve taken the time to not only read the label, but to educate yourself on pet food choices. With social media and Google at your fingertips, you feel pretty prepared to read pet food labels.

After all, by-products are usually the leftover doodoo that we humans don’t want to eat, so why would you feed this ingredient to your dog?

Well, what if told you that those chicken by-products might be a way safer ingredient than the chicken?

Would you think I was crazy?

Here is some information about by-products from Pedigree.com: “Animal by-products are excellent sources of protein and essential vitamins and minerals for pets…The use of by-products not only provides the essential nutrients that dogs need, but they are also a sustainable source of quality protein to ensure the human food chain is not negatively impacted.”

But no, I’m not an employee of Pedigree and I don’t think this tells the whole story on by-products either.

Let me explain what I accidentally stumbled upon.

As a pet nutrition blogger, I have a ton of books. One day, when I retire from this gig, I’ll probably open up a used bookstore, sell all those books, and use the proceeds to move to a nice tropical island. One of my go-to guides that I’m not letting go of any time soon however, is the book of AAFCO Ingredient Definitions.

I know; it’s not very exciting reading, but this is the bible of the pet food industry! It’s the essential guide to “what they allow” and “what they don’t allow” pet food manufacturers to say and do. I study it religiously!

So the ingredients in commercial pet foods are governed by AAFCO model regulations. The ingredients must be listed on the label and, more importantly, every ingredient on the label must conform to a specific AAFCO definition.

Now back to the original dilemma: which bag to choose? Do you want to feed your dog chicken or chicken by-products?

Let’s see what AAFCO would say.

In the AAFCO definition book, chicken falls under poultry:

Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin, with or without bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails.

Now, let’s take a look at chicken by-products, which also fall under poultry:

Poultry by-products must consist of non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice.

Now read those definitions again, and this time read between the lines.

At first I missed it. But if you look closer into the chicken by-products definition, you see two words that are missing from the poultry definition. Two words that might make you think twice about the bag you choose. What two words am I taking about?

“Slaughtered Poultry”Chicken meat dog food

The definition of chicken in pet food, according to the AAFCO guidelines, states that it doesn’t need to come from slaughtered animals.

What does that mean?

If the chickens aren’t slaughtered, then the manufacturer could use dead chickens that have either been euthanized or have already died from a myriad of diseases down on the factory farm.

Whether you’re buying commercially prepared raw, commercially prepared kibble, canned, dehydrated, or even locally prepared raw pet foods, if the label says chicken, it could be from dead or diseased chickens. But for chicken by-products, the AAFCO definition requires that the sourcing must be from slaughtered animals!

What a loophole!

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, now you have something else to worry about when choosing pet foods.

Of course I’m not saying chicken by-products are better than chicken. But take another look at the two hypothetical bags of food you’re still holding up.

The bag with the chicken says, “from USDA inspected facilities”, while the bag with the chicken by-products says, “from USDA inspected and approved animals.”

So, what does “approved animals” mean anyway?

USDA inspected facilities is a fancy term used to impress you. But it really means nothing because chickens banned for use in human food can still come from USDA inspected facilities. But, if the animal passes the inspection and is approved, then it’s much more likely that the chicken wasn’t a rotten, decomposing carcass. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what you want to feed your dog; isn’t that why you’re reading the label in the first place?

I’m not saying that by-products are necessarily a good thing to feed your dog. What I’m saying is: pay attention to the fine print. All of it. Or, better yet, call your pet food manufacturer and ask if the meat they’re putting in their pet foods are USDA inspected – and approved.