New Standards Announced for Human Grade Cat Food

But are there practical implications for how you choose your pet’s meals?


On its homepage recently, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) announced that there are new guidelines for pet food labeled “human grade.” Do they appreciably alter the guidelines already established? More importantly, is human grade pet food better for your cat than other cat food? For some perspective, we spoke with Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® Cailin Heinze, VMD. Dr. Heinze is a member of our
Editorial Board.

Tufts Catnip: How will human grade cat food be different now that new standards have been put into place?

Cailin Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVIM: The most obvious changes seem to be related not to the food itself but to the documentation a pet food manufacturer has to have on hand to verify that it has produced human grade pet food according to the already-existing standards.

Catnip: What are the standards for human grade pet food?

Dr. Heinze: To be marketed as “human grade,” a pet food must be stored, handled, processed, and transported according to the federal laws applying to human food versus the standards for pet food. That does not mean that pet food that isn’t labeled human grade is less nutritious or has weak quality control.

In fact, there is overlap between guidelines for pet food and guidelines for people food. But the rules are not the same. For instance, meat for human consumption must be inspected by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Pet food does not share this requirement, although many pet food manufacturers do source their meat from USDA-inspected plants. Pet food manufacturers often purchase the parts of the animals that are less commonly eaten by people. These include organ meats and parts with a high bone-to-meat ratio, for example, poultry backs and necks.

Also, unlike human food, pet food can use rendered meat meal. Rendering is a type of processing during which meat, organs, and bones are cooked down into a dry powder with much of the fat removed. This “meal” is easy to ship and is often used to make dry pet foods.

It’s important to point out that organ meats and other animal parts that are not pleasing to people can be healthful for cats and good sources of essential nutrients, including protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. They taste good to cats, too.

Catnip: Still, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about pet food. For example, some consumers have an idea that in the parallel food systems for people and for cats, pet food comes from the fur of animals. Some may think that the animals used for pet foods are diseased. They also believe that people food, subject to the rules for a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, has to be safer and more optimal.

Dr. Heinze: Fur and feathers are expressly excluded from the definitions of various meat and poultry pet food ingredients, so they can’t legally be included in those ingredients. Also, as I stated above, much of the meat in pet food likely has come through a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse even though legally it doesn’t have to. Think of large pet food manufacturers and how many thousands of pounds of meat they must use in their products. That meat is going to have to come from the human food chain to be consistently available at appropriate quality. We are not at the point yet of raising and slaughtering cows, pigs, and fowl specifically for pet food.

Catnip: But do pet food manufacturers adhere to AAFCO’s laws about how food has to be handled and processed and about the cleanliness of pet food manufacturing plants?

Dr. Heinze: AAFCO does not make laws. When it comes to pet food, states do. But AAFCO’s standards, or guidelines, are then used by states to enact legislation. A plurality of states take a cut-and-paste approach, just plunking AAFCO guidelines, or standards, into their own legal system. A few states might go above and beyond what AAFCO recommends, making the legal regulations more stringent. What pet food companies typically do is manufacture their food according to the law of the state that has the strictest legislation. That way, they won’t run afoul of any state’s rules on that matter. It’s akin to California’s emissions laws. They are more stringent than emissions laws in other states, and they are what car manufacturers use when designing automobiles.

Catnip: That’s good to know. But while reputable pet food manufacturers follow the laws on cat food production, aren’t people still giving their cats the edge if they choose human grade cat food over other cat food even though it tends to be more expensive? You did say that meat used for cats is healthful and that all pet foods must comply with various standards for handling and shipping, but if it’s human grade, doesn’t that provide some extra insurance?

Dr. Heinze: No. The only thing “human grade” means with any certainty is that the cat food will be more expensive. It’s all about which laws were followed, not about health. Ingredients allowed in cat food that isn’t labeled “human grade” are not by definition inferior for feline health and wellbeing. And they are not unsafe for cats because of the way they are handled and processed.

“Human grade” was only made up as a term to make pet food sound good to consumers. The term caught on in pet food marketing, so AAFCO had to define it and start providing model regulations to protect consumers. It’s absolutely possible for there to be a really poorly formulated “human grade” pet food that does not have the right balance of nutrients and could cause health issues. The term “human grade” on a label does not reflect nutrient concentrations or nutritional balance.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here