What is the role of regulators in pet food marketing claims?
Around 1450 in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg mastered the revolutionary movable-type printing press, allowing the creation of identical copies at low cost. It was a groundbreaking development, letting merchants pass out brochures and fliers to potential customers.
By the late 1890s, the word “marketing” entered the English lexicon, defined in part as “the promotion … of a product …” And soon after, President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 into law, prohibiting interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods and drugs, including products for animals.
Considering the long history of marketing and pet food regulations, and given the current array of pet foods on store shelves, what is the appropriate regulatory role for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in the oversight of marketing claims on pet food labels?
AAFCO and pet food marketing
The AAFCO Official Publication (OP) includes model regulations for pet food with requirements for descriptive terms (e.g., “light,” “lean” and “low”) for calories, fat and carbohydrates. AAFCO-approved guidelines are available for dental-related claims and “human grade” claims. The OP also supports and recommends the therapeutic guidelines set out in the Food and Drug Compliance Policy Guide sec. 690.150 for therapeutic diets to cure, mitigate, treat and prevent diseases.
Should AAFCO develop descriptive terms for the nutrient content in pet foods? The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) thinks not.
The AAFCO model regulations for pet food clearly support the use of the name of a vitamin or a mineral in a brand or product name. If a manufacturer chooses to market a product in response to current consumer trends, they have the ability to do so, even if there is no scientific basis for the trend, so long as it meets AAFCO’s nutritional adequacy statements for the intended use and is truthful and not misleading.
AAFCO’s ‘controlled copper’ label claim
It has been a short five years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) response to the perception that dogs were succumbing to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a disease with a known genetic predisposition, due to their diets, which caused public fear about feeding diets containing legumes and “boutique” animal proteins. Many dog owners became unnecessarily alarmed, and ingredient companies and pet food manufacturers were vilified with no basis in science to support the frenzy of misinformation. AAFCO rightfully did not engage in the issue, and manufacturers who chose to develop marketing claims based on protein sources were free to do so within the existing regulatory structure.
Why does AAFCO now feel the need to develop a “controlled copper” label claim following a spate of publicity, with many similarities to the DCM debacle, based on weak science about copper-associated hepatopathy (CAH) in dogs? If pet food manufacturers choose to market their dog foods based on copper content, then the current AAFCO model regulations for pet food and specialty pet food clearly spell out the steps they should take.
Developing an AAFCO-approved “controlled copper” marketing claim in response to the opinion of a small group of veterinarians is an unnecessary and even misleading regulatory step. Especially lacking a clear association between dietary copper and the incidence of CAH. Dogs that are truly suffering from CAH should be under the care of a licensed veterinarian, given that the disease can only be diagnosed through histologic analysis of a liver biopsy sample and quantitative assessment of hepatic copper concentrations. Unlike pet obesity, which an owner can easily self-diagnose, or dental health with proven response to dietary changes, the diagnosis and treatment of CAH is complex, does not have a confirmed dietary component and requires veterinary expertise.
Companies that choose to include marketing statements about copper content are free to do so today if the food meets the AAFCO requirement for copper. If consumers are interested in the amount of copper in their dogs’ diets, manufacturers can meet that demand and include the information on labels using the existing regulations. Nearly 600 years of marketing confirms that will happen.
A visit to the food aisle in a pet store can be a confusing experience for pet owners trying to make the best choices for their animals’ diets with hundreds of options for all life stages, sizes and even breeds of dogs and cats. It certainly shouldn’t be confounded by unnecessary AAFCO engagement in the approval of marketing claims.
AAFCO had an appropriate response during the height of the DCM turmoil; let’s hope they show comparable thoughtfulness in response to the current pressures around copper.
Briefly: Top 5 takeaways
1. AFIA does not believe that AAFCO should develop descriptive terms for the nutrient content in pet foods.
2. AAFCO model regulations for pet food clearly support the use of the name of a vitamin or a mineral in a brand or product name.
3. If pet food manufacturers choose to market their dog foods based on copper content, current AAFCO model regulations for pet food and specialty pet food spell out the steps they should take.
4. Developing an AAFCO-approved “controlled copper” marketing claim in response to the opinion of a small group of veterinarians is an unnecessary and even misleading regulatory step.
5. If consumers are interested in the amount of copper in their dogs’ diets, manufacturers can meet that demand and include the information on labels using existing regulations.