Animal Welfare and Pet Food: What it really means
In feeding our pets, most of us would like to offer food made from animals that are humanely raised, pasture-raised, or otherwise treated well. Since these definitions are not regulated pet food brands are able to make claims about the nature of their product without having to prove or define what it means. In other words, if this claim is not accompanied by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) or Certified Humane label, it may simply be a marketing gimmick.
So, what do those labels mean, and how does a consumer know what they are actually buying? When it comes to animal welfare claims, the GAP and Certified Humane organizations provide third-party audits to independently certify both small and large farms to indicate their level of animal welfare to the consumer. In this discussion we’ll focus mostly on GAP certification as this is what most consumers are familiar with. We’ll cover Certified Humane another time.
GAP certification audits, if passed, assign a level of certification based on how the animals are raised, what they are fed, access to water, access to outdoors and how the animal was slaughtered — just to name a few. (Figure 1). All GAP farms are required to be audited at least every 15 months to maintain certification. Standards for all animals can be accessed here.
Levels of GAP Certification
The base GAP certification provides a vastly different environment to the 5 and 5+ levels of certification. If you look at the different levels of GAP certification for chicken, you see that level 1 does not require the chickens to have outdoor/natural light access and requires minimal space. Does that sound similar to a ‘factory farm’? It does when you consider that a Level 5 and 5+ chicken requires daily access to pasture from 4 weeks of age and the pasture to maintain 75+% vegetative cover (Figure 2). Both of these levels are GAP certified – but they mean very different things. Another example would include “free range” chickens without the GAP certification are just allowed to have access to the outdoors, but the quality, time and size of outdoor space access is not defined per the USDA. Products labeled “free range” with the GAP certification would have to be GAP 3 or above in order to make that claim.
Figure 1: Date accessed: April 13, 2021: https://globalanimalpartnership.org/standards/
Pet Food Marketing Tricks
It is clear that unless you are aware of the various definitions of GAP certification, the labeling can be a bit ambiguous. This is further complicated by pet food companies claiming GAP or Certified Humane standards on their social media pages, advertising, literature and/or websites – without the labels on their packaging. Deceptive to the consumer and retailer? You bet! Even compiling examples for this article, I found several instances of companies claiming GAP certification for all of their products — when the GAP label cannot be found anywhere on their product packaging! Which begs the question: what level of GAP? One company went as far as to say:
“All of our livestock is under the Global Animal Partnership – a RARE standard to have in the pet food industry …. We believe that all animals should be able to live in their natural environments and be able to express themselves freely and eat their native diets.”
In this instance, the GAP label is found nowhere on any of these companies’ products, which means the retailer or consumer cannot determine what level of GAP certification each of their formulas meets. This statement on their social media implies that GAP certification means that all livestock have access to their natural environments (e.g. outdoor space, green pasture etc.). Remember when I said base certification and level 5 are not the same thing? In this case, not all levels of GAP certification require such ‘natural environments.’ (Figure 2) In other words, unless the GAP label can be found on the individual product packaging there are no guarantees that the product inside the package meets any GAP standard, never mind a 5 or 5+.
Figure 2: Date accessed: April 13, 2021: https://globalanimalpartnership.org/standards/chicken/
No Label on Package = No Guarantee!
From these two figures above, we can see that GAP labeling offers vastly different levels of certification and they are not the same. To put it in layman’s terms, Base Level 1 is really no different than many of the factory farms that we traditionally think of — many of which can achieve varying levels of GAP certification. On the other hand, the Level 5 and 5+ certifications offer the animals a very different living environment and total life experience than Level 1. When it comes to human food, we see the higher levels more often than pet food, but not regularly. The higher levels of GAP certification are much less common. Due to the care and cost involved with these levels, these products are more costly. Even Whole Foods – who sell GAP certified in their Meat Department offers base to 5+ products – do not commit to a certain level of GAP certified products. This is likely due to cost and availability of such higher-certified products.
Human v. Pet Food Supply
If higher levels of GAP certified products are not widely available and affordable in the human food supply, you’re probably wondering if the same is true for pet food. You would be correct if you assumed that level 4, 5, or 5+ meat products are rarely found in pet food. Not only is steady supply a problem for the mass production of pet food, but the cost of these products is also largely prohibitive to the consumer by the time the pet food products reached our shelves. At the time of this article, we were able to find GAP 4 beef in a small sampling of pet food products, and one GAP 4 lamb kibble – but at a high cost. At a price of approximately $90 USD for 24lbs of kibble, most consumers are likely to go with freeze-dried or raw options instead. (This product becomes even less attractive when you learn that the lamb is also coupled with whitefish meal and herring meal).
We do however see some use of GAP Base Certification through Level 3 is used more commonly because these are generally not difficult standards for many farms to meet. Even so, these are certainly on the higher end of the price spectrum for pet foods. Unfortunately, unless you know what the certification levels mean, this type of labeling system can be deceptive for the consumer because they believe they are purchasing a better product than the packages or brands without that label or claim. The fact is that a pet food without a GAP label may be just as good or better than the brands that do. Before you venture out to purchase pet foods that are GAP certified, it may be best to check what the levels of certification mean for that particular protein here: https://globalanimalpartnership.org/standards/.
Food Safety & GAP Certification
At the end of the day, the consumer has become interested in animal welfare practices and responsible sourcing of ingredients – and rightfully so. Pet food manufacturers know this and have tailored their marketing practices to make the consumer believe their company is transparent, responsible and sustainable – when this isn’t always true. For instance, GAP certification can provide information about the welfare and care of the animals used to produce the product. What these certifications DO NOT provide is any level of quality guarantee or assurance for nutrition or food safety – regardless of what pet food companies claim in marketing.
GAP labels do not negate the need for pet food companies to conduct a full nutritional analysis, digestibility study and test and hold practices for the final products. These labels can help consumers delineate those who truly care about animal welfare and responsible sourcing from the animals they use to make their food. That said, are companies putting the end-user (the pet) at health risk if they are not using basic validation and food safety testing of their final product? You bet! So, what do I mean?
The time has come for retailers and pet parents to demand transparency when it comes to pet food. Ask pet food companies to show you the data for the nutrient analysis on their finished products and what the levels of digestibility are for protein, fat, energy and total digestibility (four different values). Pet food companies should also be able to tell you if they ‘test and hold’ their products for pathogens and contaminants before they make their way into the marketplace and are fed to your pet. Most consumers don’t know that the deadliest pet food recalls would have been prevented if companies had these basic food safety practices in place. Most don’t, including some of the most popular brands and raw pet food brands. For more on this topic click here.
Nicole is the founder & owner of award-winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, in Connecticut. She is also the Founder & CEO of Undogmatic Inc. Her undergraduate and graduate education includes biology, chemistry, business and nutrition. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading international figures in the human and pet health industry. She regularly lectures at national conferences, including federal, state, and municipal K9 events. Her current research involves identifying pathogenic risk factors and transmission among raw fed pets through a comprehensive worldwide survey.