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Reading Pet Food Labels: It’s Not So Simple Anymore

Dec 23, 2014 02:26PM ● By Rob Freeman

When we think of fresh or simple food, we likely picture apples directly from the tree, or milk from the milkman, or something else obtained from a smaller and simpler type of business without too many choices that could overwhelm us. Nowadays, we live in the world of big, with large superstore chains and supersized supermarkets that offer tons of commercialized choices representing a large number of brands from other large conglomerate companies through giant distribution networks. It’s hard to tell how long it might take for a product to get from a large manufacturer through its large distribution channels to a large nationwide superstore chain location.

Pet food is going through that same world of big right now. Two nationwide U.S. superstore chains make up a majority of pet food sales, according to a study featured by market research firm IBIS World ( At the same time, four large companies make up more than 80 percent of the $21 billion U.S. pet food market. The names are familiar: Mars, Nestle/Purina, Del Monte and Proctor and Gamble (P&G). Since this study was done, Mars has purchased many of P&G’s pet brands, making Colgate Palmolive the new number four.

Fresh or natural is hard to perceive here, especially with all of the product recalls that have taken place since 2009. There have been more than 100 announcements for multiple recalled pet lines since then, according to the Dog Food Advisor website ( It’s hard to know what to do when a product is recalled and to know which batch came from where.

It is not only the very big companies that have felt the recall pain recently. Other firms making high-quality natural food have been hit by quality issue recalls recently that are certainly not fresh or healthy. These can be tracked on the Internet.

There is a lot of industry discussion about what comprises “natural” pet food. According to data from GfK MRI (, a pet retail research company, between January 2014 and August 2014, 79 percent of all new pet food items introduced to market were marketed in the natural category. According to a Pet MD ( article, “What is Natural Pet Food Really?” natural pet food is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) this way: “The use of the term ‘natural’ on the label is false and misleading if any chemically synthesized ingredients are present in the product.” It goes on to say, “The committee, however, suggested that an exception be made for synthetic vitamin and mineral additives, as long as the product is not used as a dietary supplement.”

It is not very clear what is natural, but neither is it clear what is “fresh”. So, when it comes to purchasing anything natural or fresh, let the buyer beware. Read the labels and ask questions. Who makes this brand? Where is it made? Which plant? Has this company ever had a recall? What keeps this food fresh while it is traveling from the manufacturer to the consumer and waiting along the way to be purchased or moved again?

Some store chains have very long shelf life requirements, and some products are able to handle those requirements better than others. Do they use more fillers or preservatives, and is that good for our pets? In this new world of big, pet food consumers have to be more attentive and interrogative than ever, because it is important and their pets can’t ask.

Rob Freeman is the owner of Northshore Pet Chef, a local company specializing in delivering fresh pet food and healthy pet solutions. For more information, call 847-920-4738, email [email protected] or visit