Understanding Regulations Affecting Pet Foods

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Beyond concerns about product safety per se, the relatively extensive (in fact, only 1% of pet food product on the market was affected) recall of pet foods in 2007 has resulted in increased public scrutiny of all aspects of the government’s oversight of these products in the United States. Many presume the pet food industry to be free from government control, ie, essentially “self-regulated.” However, such a presumption would not be correct. While recent federal legislation may change some aspects of regulation over the next few years, an understanding of who regulates pet foods and the basic rules governing the manufacture, labeling, and distribution of pet foods as they exist today is necessary to appreciate the extensive controls that are placed on the industry.

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Regulatory Agencies and Stakeholder Groups

Many agencies are involved in the regulation of pet foods. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Department of Health and Human Services has jurisdiction over all animal feeds in interstate commerce (including products imported into the US) under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (FFDCA). Animal feed encompasses complete and balanced pet foods, treats, edible chews, dietary supplements, and ingredients intended to be added to pet foods. This also includes pet products containing meat or poultry ingredients. This is different from regulation of foods intended for human consumption, where meat and poultry products are overseen by an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under FFDCA, pet foods may not be adulterated or misbranded. Adulteration may include the presence of a chemical, physical, or microbiological contaminant or inclusion of an ingredient that is not sanctioned for use in the food. By law, all pet food ingredients must be GRAS (generally recognized as safe) substances or approved food additives. GRAS substances include those expressly codified in the regulations, but in many cases, also include those that have demonstrated safety though their long histories of use in foods or feeds. Ingredients that do not meet this burden must be found acceptable by FDA (often in conjunction with AAFCO, see below) before inclusion in formulations. Misbranding includes failure to label the product in accordance with the regulations as well as false or misleading claims. Foods not in compliance due to either misbranding or adulteration are subject to several enforcement measures, including physical seizure of the violative product, injunction against the manufacturer or distributor, or in the most egregious cases, criminal charges. Unlike many human food products, most states also have authority over pet foods when distributed in their respective jurisdictions. Each enforces its own set of laws and regulations pertaining to animal feeds if not pet foods specifically. In addition to corrective measures similar to that of FDA, most also require registration of products, licensure of the manufacturer or distributor, or both. Strong state oversight of pet foods may stem from the historical fact that animal feeds, including livestock feeds, are typically very regional, if not local in distribution. Regardless, compliance with 50 different sets of rules may prove difficult for products in interstate distribution. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) was formed in 1909 to help achieve uniformity in animal feed regulation among the individual states. AAFCO is a private organization, but its members comprise solely representatives from state, federal (including FDA), or foreign (eg, Canada, Costa Rica) government agencies with authority to regulate animal feeds in their respective jurisdictions. One of the functions of AAFCO is to publish a Model Bill and associated model regulations, ingredient definitions, and other guidance and policies that represent a consensus of opinion among its members as to what is appropriate for the regulation of animal feed and pet food. These AAFCO documents have no authority in and of themselves. However, states are free to adopt and incorporate these models in whole or in part into their own laws and regulations, in which case they are enforceable by that state. While not all states have adopted the AAFCO models, enough states do so that they effectively have nationwide impact. A common misconception about AAFCO is that it is a trade association, and/or a “puppet of industry.” However, anyone who has attended an AAFCO meeting knows this is not true. While AAFCO is a private body with no government authority, all members of AAFCO must be state, federal, or foreign government employees, and only members can hold office or vote on matters brought before the Association. Therefore, all actions taken by AAFCO are from the point of view of regulators, not industry. This is not to say that the animal feed and pet food industries have no role in AAFCO. A number of trade associations frequently attend AAFCO functions, and representatives from those groups are often asked to serve as advisors for various committees, task forces, or working groups within AAFCO. Again, though, while these associations may voice their opinions in AAFCO deliberations, they have no voting power, and all final decisions are made by government personnel. Trade associations are not the only groups represented at AAFCO functions. Rather, groups representing consumer and veterinary interests are also free to attend and participate in discussions. A Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition frequently attends AAFCO meetings and serves as an advisor for a number of committees and working groups on behalf of the College. Representatives from the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association have participated in AAFCO. On the consumer side, representatives from the Animal Protection Institute, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and most recently, Defend Our Pets, have attended AAFCO meetings and voiced their concerns to the membership. There is considerable cooperative interaction between FDA, AAFCO, and individual states. FDA is a member of AAFCO and has voting representatives in most, if not all, AAFCO committees. FDA also serves as a resource for AAFCO matters pertaining to scientific, technical, and nutritional issues, including AAFCO’s ingredient definition process (a rigorous albeit informal means of sanctioning new ingredients for use in animal feed). FDA frequently supplies support to individual states in their enforcement actions against violative products. Other federal agencies with tangential impact on pet food regulation include the USDA and the Federal Trade Commission. While USDA does not have direct authority over animal feeds containing meat and poultry products, it does conduct a voluntary inspection program for some types of dog and cat foods. A product meeting the criteria of the program may bear a “USDA inspected” shield on its labeling. Whereas FDA regulates the content of labels and “labeling” (which includes brochures, displays, and other point-of-sale items), Federal Trade Commission has authority over print and electronic advertising of pet foods. Past reference to the National Research Council (NRC) on pet food labels has left a false impression with some that it is a government agency. Rather, it is a private organization, but its mandate is to advise the US Government on matters relating to science. It does this by convening panels of experts in a field of study to make recommendations on matters of interest to the government. Among its other functions, it publishes a series of periodically updated reports on nutrient requirements of domestic animals. NRC reports were used as the recognized authority for substantiation of nutritional adequacy of dog and cat foods until the early-to-mid 1990s, when the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles were developed to serve that function. A revised NRC Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats was published in 2006. While it is unlikely to replace the existing AAFCO Profiles, its recommendations are likely to weigh heavy as AAFCO considers its current review and revision of the Profiles. Also, NRC recommendations are used by FDA in helping to determine compliance with agency policies regarding nutritional supplements for pets. Publication of a new NRC report on the safety of dietary supplements in horses, dogs, and cats is anticipated in 2008.