“Complete and balanced” are two very important words to veterinarians, pet food makers, pet owners, and, ultimately, pets.
Stamped on a package, the words assure consumers and vets that the food inside provides the right nutrients, in the right proportions, to sustain the life and health of a pet. But the complete and balanced claim has rested on standards that are recognized by many veterinary and pet food professionals as deeply flawed.
In March, The Farmer’s Dog announced the first results of our long-term, ongoing nutrition tests and feeding trial. Our tests exceeded industry standards in several important ways, and the results show that our food is nutritionally complete and balanced, bioavailable, and that dogs thrive while eating it.
In other words, the results prove what the health of our customers’ dogs have shown for the last six years.
The current standards and the AAFCO feeding trial
Pet owners may be familiar with AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, from seeing it on their pet food’s label. It’s a private, voluntary-membership organization in North America that deals with animal-feed rules, including those for pet food. The organization itself has no regulatory authority, but it does set standards for the nutritional adequacy of pet food.
According to the FDA, for a pet food to make the claim of “complete and balanced,” it must meet one of three standards:
Nutrient profiles: The food must meet one of the nutrient profiles established by AAFCO for a given life stage.
AAFCO’s nutrient profiles list acceptable levels of protein, fat and nutrient content of pet foods. Foods can be considered “complete and balanced” if they contain nutrient levels within those parameters. But the source or quality of nutrients, and whether they are bioavailable to your dog, are not stipulated by AAFCO. As far as demonstrating that its food is up to standard, per AAFCO rules, a pet food company simply needs to have a notarized affidavit that SAYS the product meets the nutrient levels, and keep a copy of that document.
AAFCO feeding trial The AAFCO feeding trial, until now considered the gold standard in nutritional verification, works as follows:
At least eight dogs, each at least one year of age, are tested; only six need to complete the trial.
The dog food being tested must keep six out of the eight apparently healthy dogs alive for six months. Dogs must not lose more than 15% of their initial body weight, and the average of four certain blood values must fall within acceptable levels. The test fails if dogs show signs of nutritional deficiency or toxicity. The blood values tested are: Hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin.
Most pet food companies use tests conducted in a lab environment, using confined, purpose-bred dogs (typically a single breed, and usually beagles).
The “family clause” There’s a third way that a pet food product can earn the AAFCO complete and balanced designation—something called the “family rule.” Via this loophole, pet foods that have NOT completed a feeding trial but that are nutritionally similar to those in the same product family that have passed a trial can also meet the standard.
The shortcomings of current testing methodology
Many vets and canine nutrition experts acknowledge that the standard AAFCO trial has significant limitations as a true measure of the long-term safety and nutritional quality of a dog’s diet.
The tests are applied to a small number of dogs of a single breed, and conducted in a closed laboratory kennel setting. Most significantly, the testing time frame is likely too narrow to show, meaningfully, whether the food meets the requirements to sustain good health. Nutritional deficiencies and other health indicators can take longer to develop than a six month trial period. According to two prominent veterinarians and board-certified veterinary nutritionists, the guidelines that govern AAFCO trials “may be insufficient to detect inadequate mineral or vitamin intake because it can take longer than the study period to deplete reserves and/or to cause measurable changes.”
Creating a better test
The Farmer’s Dog fresh food was formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists to be 100% complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards. We meet those standards using clean, human-grade ingredients, compared to traditional pet foods which fall under the regulatory framework of “feed,” and are made using feed-grade ingredients, and preservatives. That difference, and the quality of our nutrition, have always been manifest in the health of our customers’ dogs, and the willingness of veterinary professionals to recommend our food.
However, we wanted to find a more rigorous, and ethical way to test our food, and to demonstrate that it was complete and balanced, and bioavailable (that is, that the nutrients were being used by dogs’ bodies and contributing to their good health).
So we conducted a feeding trial that surpassed existing standards in terms of the number and variety of dogs tested, the blood values tested, and the duration of the trial. Importantly, our methodology also took into account the overall well-being of the dogs involved.
How it worked
The 10 dogs who participated in our feeding trial represented a mix of ages, sizes, and breeds, from purebred dogs including Australian shepherds, Rottweilers, and French bulldogs, to mixed-breed dogs.
The trial ran from March 2014 to March 2020 during which time the participating dogs were fed The Farmer’s Dog recipes exclusively. The dogs in our study participated for a minimum of one year, and up to a full six years.
The dogs in the trial were, and are, pets; they lived normal lives, at home with their families.
In addition to testing the four blood values used in AAFCO trials, we completed a full blood panel for all participating dogs that measured 49 blood values. Each dog also received a full medical exam by Lisa Lippman, DVM, that showed they were all healthy.
Why our test is a better measure of nutritional quality
The duration of our test shows, more realistically, the long-term impact of our food. Feeding the same thing to a dog over one, two, or six years is a better indicator of its impact on health than feeding that food for six months.
The at-home trial also took into account real, daily life for a dog. While eating The Farmer’s Dog food exclusively as their main diet, the dogs also went about their normal lives, getting occasional treats and doing the other things dogs do. “We didn’t compare them to dogs living in kennels; that is not real life,” says The Farmer’s Dog co-founder, Brett Podolsky.
Simply, test results proved our food is complete and balanced, and bioavailable. The blood work, and medical exam, indicated that all participating dogs were (and are) healthy, and their nutrient levels met AAFCO guidelines.
“We wanted to definitively prove that our food was complete, balanced, and bioavailable,” says Podolsky. “You can demonstrate that your food is complete and balanced by having it tested in a lab, but that test doesn’t reflect the bioavailability of the food tested. We proved through lab testing that the food is complete and balanced, and we proved through blood testing that the food is also bioavailable. So the dogs are getting all the nutrients they need, and that dog owners and vets expect, from the food.”