Calories to appear on pet food labels

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Calorie counts will soon start appearing on the labels of almost all dog and cat foods and treats, helping pet owners and veterinarians to compare products and determine feeding amounts.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials is adding the new labeling requirement to its 2014 model feed regulations, on a proposal from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Although AAFCO has no regulatory authority, most states follow the model regulations.

“We felt it was very important information for the label, similar to calorie statements on human food labels,” said Dr. David A. Dzanis, ACVN secretary and a regulatory consultant, “one, to address obesity, but that’s not the only issue. I think that information also is important for working dogs, dogs and cats in gestation and lactation, growing puppies and kittens. You need to know the calories in order to make good feeding decisions.”

A 2001 survey by The Ohio State University of 906 dog and cat owners and 106 veterinarians in the Columbus metropolitan area found that 80 percent of the dog and cat owners and 97 percent of the veterinarians said pet food labels would be more useful with information about calories per cup or can.

Currently, the AAFCO model regulations require light or low-calorie pet foods to list calories. In 2005, the ACVN proposed requiring all dog and cat foods to list calories.

In January, AAFCO approved the change. Labels will have to list kilocalories per kilogram of food and kilocalories per a common unit of the food, such as a cup or a can. The labels also will have to specify the method by which the manufacturer determined the calorie content, either by calculation or by a feeding trial.

Some manufacturers voluntarily list calories on pet food labels, but many do not. Dr. Dzanis believes calories on labels will not become widespread for a couple of years. In the interim, pet owners and veterinarians can contact manufacturers for calorie content.

Jan Jarman, co-chair of the AAFCO Pet Food Committee and a commercial feed consultant for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said the new labeling requirement protects consumers by helping them make more meaningful comparisons between foods.

She said the change safeguards animal health by making it easier for pet owners and veterinarians to determine the right amount of food for pets. The change protects industry by leveling the playing field for claims relating to calories.

A working group with regulators and industry representatives developed the new labeling requirement. The group debated the benefits of listing calories versus the cost of changing labels. Jarman said one risk is that consumers might not know how to interpret the information.

“A lot of consumers still need education on that. That’s where veterinarians come in,” Jarman said. “Even with calorie content statements on human food, while I do think people understand what that means, it hasn’t really resulted in a reduction of obesity in the American public.”

The new labeling requirement also covers pet treats. Jarman said products with less than a certain number of calories originally were going to be exempt, but the final thinking was that the common use of treats necessitated calorie information.

States will take time to adopt the new labeling requirement, Jarman said. The AAFCO Pet Food Committee also recommended that states not enforce the regulation for 18 months on new products and for three years on existing products to give companies time to change labels.