Organizations warn against hemp in pet food, livestock feed

AAFCO-led letter cites need for safety studies

Veterinary, feed industry, and animal and public safety leaders are warning against feeding animals hemp products until studies show it’s safe.

In a February letter to agriculture leaders and state policymakers, the Association of American Feed Control Officials and 16 co-signing organizations—including the AVMA—expressed concerns about the risks to animals and trade of feeding animals unproven products containing hemp. Those concerns relate to feeding pets, horses, and livestock hemp and hemp products such as hemp seed and hemp seed oil.

“It is our position that sufficient scientific research to support the safety and utility of hemp in animal feed must be completed prior to any federal or state approval,” the letter states.

Pile of dry hemp seeds and a splash of hemp oil on a white plate
Hemp seed is among the hemp products that have not received federal approval for use in animal food or feed.

A copy of the letter is available in PDF format. The Academy of Veterinary Consultants, American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition, American Association of Bovine Practitioners, and Nutrition Specialty of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine are also among the signing organizations.

The letter expresses three primary concerns: It’s unclear whether farm animals fed hemp-based diets perform as well as animals fed traditional diets, especially as research has yet to fully describe the effects of long-term exposure to cannabinoids including low concentrations of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol. It’s also unclear how much cannabinoids transfer into meat, milk, and eggs of food-producing animals. And any animal feed containing hemp or human food produced by animals fed hemp is subject to federal regulations if it crosses state lines, so those products could be considered adulterated.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized growing hemp in the U.S. by producers who are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state or tribal agencies, but that action did not authorize feeding it to animals. The Food and Drug Administration and AAFCO members decide which proposed ingredients are safe and nutritious for animals.

Yet the AAFCO letter describes an accelerating use of hemp byproducts in animal food since 2018.

Information from state agencies indicates some states already allow hemp products in certain animal foods, and others have started the process of allowing uses in anticipation of federal approval.

Information from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, for example, states that pet food and treats can be made from hemp extract. Guidance from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development states that, while hemp cannot be sold or distributed in commercial feed products, a person can supplement their own pet’s food with hemp or hemp-derived products.

In April 2021, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill that allows inclusion of hemp and hemp derivatives in food for pets, horses, and livestock once the state receives confirmation those ingredients have FDA approval.

The South Carolina Department of Agriculture, however, has had to warn animal feed manufacturers that hemp and cannabidiol remain unapproved for use in animal feed, according to a January 2020 announcement.

“Over the past year, SCDA has been educating store owners that commercial feed products containing hemp and CBD are illegal and should not be sold,” the announcement states.

In September 2021, AAFCO officials called for more research into the safety and nutritional benefits of feeding animals hemp and its byproducts. The organization encouraged the hemp and animal food industries to gather data useful toward defining ingredients and developing standards.

The Hemp Feed Coalition is one of the organizations working to gain federal approval of hemp products and, following AAFCO’s fall 2021 announcement, coalition representatives announced they were working with AAFCO and the FDA as well as supporting scientific studies. Coalition information indicates some farmers, livestock producers, horse owners, and pet owners are already feeding hemp to their animals.

“Our efforts over the past years have included working directly with federal and state regulators to create a path forward for gaining approval of hemp ingredients for inclusion in animal feeds for all species,” the coalition’s announcement states.

The seventeen organizations that sent February’s letter encourage state leaders and hemp proponents to work through the federal regulatory pathways used for all other animal feed ingredients.

“We urge state leaders to support research through universities or private labs so that the safety and utility of hemp can be fully understood before it is allowed for commercial purposes,” the letter states. “We encourage proponents to continue to assemble data, and to work on submitting applications through the established animal feed ingredient review process.”

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.