But Labels don’t lie, Surely?

Updated on October 27, 2021

Labels Don’t Lie, Surely?

AAFCO has created standard definitions of some commonly used pet food proteins (echoed in our local legislation). Some of these definitions are listed below. These definitions are not very “appetizing”, but suffice it to say that the more processed and less specific the protein source, the less appealing it is, right?

  • Beef – is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered cattle and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.
  • Chicken – the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of chicken or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
  • Lamb Meal – the rendered product from lamb tissues, exclusive of blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.
  • Turkey Meal – the ground clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of turkey or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
  • Meat By-Products – the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves.
  • Poultry By-Product Meal – consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices.

Named Meat and Fish Proteins

Real named proteins, like beef, salmon, and chicken and not “meat”, “poultry”, or “fish”, are the least processed of all the proteins and the ones that EVERYONE recommend are the first ingredient in your pet’s feed (McKibble and McCan), right? Some of the more common named animal proteins include:


Meal is essentially product that has been ground up and has its water removed. The result is a highly concentrated, albeit processed source of protein. We liken “meal” to the condensed food that astronauts used to eat on space flights- a temporary solution to their nutrition problem when they had no access to whole foods. In pet feed, meal can be used to increase the amount and percentage of protein in a pet feed (on paper at least). Although not necessarily “bad”, meals are more processed than the proteins themselves, right?

  • Animal Digest: Materials which result from chemical or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and non-decomposed animals.
  • Meat Meal/Bone Meal: Parts from mammals that are rejected for human consumption. To prevent the condemned meat from being used for human consumption, government regulations require that meat must be sent to a rendering facility. Carcasses are denatured using toxic chemicals such as carbolic acid or creosote. According to US federal meat inspection regulations, fuel oil, kerosene, crude carbolic acid and citronella are the approved denaturing materials.

Rendering facilities are not government controlled. Any animal carcasses can be rendered for the pet food industry including those of cats and dogs.


By-product is essentially the scraps that are left on the animal carcass after all the meat is stripped away. This is the lowest quality protein choice available because you don’t know what you are feeding your pet, right? Further, the by-product can be relatively indigestible, so the protein that your pet really needs simply passes through their digestive system and ends up as waste.

Unnamed Proteins

Unnamed proteins, like “meat”, “animal”, “poultry”, and “fish” are often used as meal, by product, or fat sources. Does your pet feed contain any of these? These designations are so vague you don’t know what the ingredient is. Even worse – unnamed protein by product! For example, “animal by product” or “animal by product meal”.

Act 36 of 1947, Regulations R. 1087, Clause 22, sub-clause 2 (l,ii) states “The feed ingredients shall be described by internationally recognized specific names. However, categories grouping several feed ingredients may be used, as set out in Table 13. In that case the indication of the specific name of the feed ingredient may be replaced by the name of the category to which the feed ingredient belongs. Use of one of these two forms of declaration shall exclude the use of the other, save where one of the feed ingredients belongs to none of the categories which has been defined. In that case, the feed ingredient, designated by its specific name, shall be mentioned in order of importance by mass in relation to the categories; and” Table 13: Categories of Ingredients which may be indicated in place of Individual Ingredients for Pet Food

  • Meat and animal derivatives: All the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcass or parts of the carcass of warm-blooded animals;
  • Milk and milk derivatives: All milk products, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and derivatives from the processing thereof;
  • Eggs and egg derivatives: All egg products fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment and derivatives from the processing thereof;
  • Oils and Fats: All animal and vegetable oils and fats;
  • Yeasts: All yeasts, the cells of which have been killed and dried;
  • Fish and fish derivatives: Fish or parts of fish, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and derivatives from the processing thereof;
  • Cereals: All types of cereal, regardless of their presentation, or products made from the starch endosperm;
  • Cereal By-Products: By products resulting from the treatment of cereals.;
  • Vegetables: All types of vegetables and legumes, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment;
  • Derivatives of vegetable origin: Derivatives resulting from the treatment of vegetable products, in particular cereals, vegetables, legumes and oil;
  • Vegetable Protein Extracts: All products of vegetable origin in which the proteins have been concentrated by an adequate process to contain at least 50 % crude protein, as related to the dry matter, and which may be restructured (textured);
  • Minerals: All inorganic substances suitable for pet food, macro and trace substances;
  • Various Sugars: All types of sugars;
  • Fruit: All types of fruit, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment;
  • Nuts: All kernels from shells;
  • Seeds: All types of seeds as such or roughly crushed;
  • Algae: Algae, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment;
  • Molluscs and crustaceans: All types of molluscs, crustaceans, shellfish, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and their processing derivatives;
  • Insects: All types of insects and their stages of development;
  • Bakery Products: All bread, cakes, biscuits and pasta products

What Act 36 of 1947, Regulations R. 1087, Clause 22, sub-clause 2 (l,ii) provide the manufacturer is leeway to minimize the number of ingredients listed. It essentially provides the manufacturer the ability to “under-declare” ingredients to their benefit.

Act 36 of 1947, Regulations R. 1087, Clause 22, sub-clause 2 (j) states ” Where “X” in subparagraph (g) above refers to the meat of an animal, the meat used for the purposes of making such a meat claim may include all parts of that species except-” added blood; bone and bone meal; bone fraction of fresh materials which consist of fleshy or other moist material with associated bone; bone contents of meat and bone meals; bone content of poultry carcasses; bone component of poultry meals; meals/greaves from knackers; claws; hair; horns; hide (except pork rind); feathers; teeth; hooves; the content proportion of intestines; added fat.

Canned pet foods usually begin with low-grade meat trimmings that are reconstituted into pieces that look like chunks of meat. This requires suspending meat particles in gels, heating them so they coagulate into chunks, or using extruded vegetable protein to simulate meat. Some ‘premium’ or ‘superpremium’ pet foods contain actual chunks of meat, but many do not”

— Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim: Feed Your Pet Right, p. 60, (2010)

What Were You Looking For?

It’s important to understand how nutritional value of a food can be affected by the source of the ingredients used. Probably the most important nutritional component the consumer looks for is “protein”, but labels can be misleading. A protein biological value (referring to the nitrogen balance index) depends on the food’s unique composition of amino acids: the “building blocks” the body uses to repair tissue. On this scale, the egg is the most useful protein (100 scale); while, for example, wheat gluten (a common source of protein in pet food) is 40 scale.

Moreover, the digestibility of a protein (the extent to which the gastrointestinal tract can absorb it) affects its usefulness and should be considered when comparing products. Additionally, prolonged high temperatures used to sterilize putrefied ingredients can de-structure and denature the bioavailability of proteins and oxidize (destroy) vitamins; and is a contributing factor in the necessity for employing a legion of chemists to add back a brew of compensating – but nearly invariably artificial – nutrient supplements.

But the consumer examining the label of a dog food for information would be under-informed. Almost invariably, the designation is crude protein, referring to ingredients in their original (and pre-rendered) state, and with little or no information about the source of that protein.

Many dry foods are built upon multiple sources of low biological proteins that are combined to reach a threshold value that would ordinarily be present in higher quality sources.

The use of grains or “by-products” in pet feed can help to artificially boost the appearance of protein levels, while providing relatively little usable nourishment (bio-availability) for your dog. Adding to the confusion for the pet parent, that pre-rendered state includes moisture which is extracted during processing, and we must remember that on the label, ingredients are listed in order of weight: a teaspoon of dried “meat by-products” will weigh more than a teaspoon of “fresh” meat or even dry chemicals. With that leverage, much can be accomplished on a label to deceive the customer as to what is in the bag. So too, pet parents are generally unaware that once moisture is eliminated, the dried rendered ingredients yield a concentrated protein product which can boost protein levels to a deceptive level.

If a dog feed contains grains, it’s important to understand that the “crude protein” percentage in the guaranteed analysis on the package label includes both animal and plant protein (example: soy, a well-documented endocrine disruptor); and manufacturers aren’t required to reveal how much protein is derived from animals versus plants. Since plant proteins are less expensive than meat proteins, pet feed manufacturers seize this legal definition, to increase profit margins. However, many grains, particularly those high in lectins (proteins that bind to carbohydrates), can contribute to “leaky gut syndrome” by binding to receptor sites on the dog’s intestinal mucosal cells, thereby interfering with the absorption of nutrients across the intestinal wall, supporting negative autoimmune and inflammatory effects.