Pet Food Labeling Laws: 3 Trendy Claims That Could Land You in Hot Water

Making claims about your kibble is no time to get creative. It’s a fine balance creating attractive packaging without misleading consumers – or raising red flags for regulators.

Pet food consumers know their brands well. All it takes is one glance to recognize the familiar hue, eye-catching graphic or snappy slogan that hooked them in the first place. Instinctively, they trust the label to represent what’s inside the bag. And in bearing this responsibility, pet food brands know that when it comes to packaging, creativity must be tempered by authenticity.

Before a pet food can be released to the market, its packaging must be reviewed by state regulators – of which there are, you guessed it, 50—each with potentially unique interpretations of state and federal guidelines. And each with the power to delay your go-to-market date with requests for claim validation, or, worse, to slow or stop your product release with a request for new product claims altogether. How can this process be navigated in a way that sidesteps complications and keeps your timeline intact?

Unlike other industries where buzz words can stand alone with little risk of liability, any verbiage on pet food labels must be read as literal claims – no hyperbole allowed. Be prepared to provide documentation for every element of your packaging (i.e., words, graphics, etc.) to substantiate its truth.

Here are three of the biggest trends in pet food labeling, and how to substantiate your claims to avoid unnecessary risk or delays.

Made in America

As attractive as it might be to consumers, there are a host of legal landmines surrounding the phrase “Made in the USA.” The Federal Trade Commission requires that “all or virtually all” of a product bearing this labeling originate from the United States, meaning “all significant parts and processing that go into the product must be of U.S. origin,” or “the product should contain no — or negligible — foreign content,” leaving its interpretation largely up to regulators. Adding to this, many wonder if state and federal law will follow the lead of California’s standard, which imposes a stricter, more explicit definition to crack down on false advertising.

For pet food brands who worry that their product may fail to meet this standard – now or in the future – creative but truthful workarounds can still leave a positive impression on consumers. For instance, if imported vitamins, minerals or ingredients are of concern, statements like “Made in America with domestic and imported ingredients” or “Crafted” or “Cooked” in the USA may be more prudent alternatives.

All-Natural and Grain-Free

Following a suit of recent human nutrition trends, many pet food consumers are applying the same standards for what they consider to be “healthier” formulations in the pet food aisle. Achieving a true “all-natural” recipe in pet food is difficult to accomplish, with added preservatives and synthesized vitamins enhancing many formulations. As an alternative, many brands opt to include “with added vitamins and minerals” beneath the claim for transparency.  

Similarly, you may find a smaller percentage of packages claiming to be grain- or -gluten-free than expected. To comply fully with this statement, none of the ingredients used in the formula may contain grains or gluten, and products should be manufactured in a facility that does not manufacture grain products or that has been specifically sanitized for this purpose prior to its production run. It can be done, but it is neither easy or cheap. For these reasons, retailers often opt for the label “gluten-free ingredients” instead.

Clean Ingredients

Savvy pet food consumers aren’t just scoping out what’s on the front of the bag; they are looking at the fine print on the back as well. This has led to many pet food brands’ desire for limited ingredient lists and “cleaner” formulations. Although it might be impossible to rid your recipe of components with scientific-sounding names, one workaround is to place the layman’s term (e.g., “vitamin b12”) in parentheses following its actual chemical name. Another consideration is to design pet food recipes that feature appealing primary ingredients – that is, those that show up first on the list.

Keep in mind, if you want to call out an ingredient in your pet food dinner product name, FDA pet food standards require that it make up a certain percentage of the total recipe, depending on the formulation and verbiage used. While leading with your protein may be your instinct, delivering on this can pack a mean punch to your budget. Instead, many pet food brands incorporate a superfood in combination with the protein to temper their expenses and enhance nutritional value while formulating an attractive product name. For example, while “New Zealand lamb dinner” might be your first choice, “Lamb and sweet potato dinner” delivers that feel-good vibe at a fraction of the cost.

Conclusion

As novel recipes and exotic ingredients infiltrate the pet food aisle, outstanding packaging will become increasingly important for brands to retain a competitive edge. But no matter how flashy, the label must remain representative of the product it’s describing. If blueberries aren’t a primary ingredient in your formulation, regulators won’t like seeing a picture of them on your bag. If your formulation includes ingredients known to fight kidney disease but you haven’t conducted an actual study or feeding trial with your final product, then stick with a statement such as “helps support healthy kidney function” – and be prepared to defend your claim if requested.

Bottom line: if something feels like it might be misleading or false, then chances are at least 1 of the 50 state regulators will ask to see documentation. Packaging takes a great amount of effort and cost to produce. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Ensure your recipe can hold up the claims you want to make on the bag. Get it right the first time, so that when your product hits the shelf – on time – its labeling proudly boasts exactly what it is: a smartly formulated, nutrient-packed, safely manufactured crowd-pleaser.

–Steve Mills, Senior Vice President of Customer Brands, American Nutrition