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Organic Pet Food Overview

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Just as organic food is touted as beneficial to the human diet, organic food can greatly improve the health of your pet. No longer relegated to the aisles of musty health food stores, organic and natural foods, both fresh and packaged, have now gone mainstream and are easily found -- and often prominently displayed -- in the aisles of most supermarkets around the country. Concern over the health effects of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, preservatives, and other food additives has fueled the boom in organic and natural food sales nationwide.

More recently, the same safety concerns that led to this trend in human food have brought about a significant increase in the sale of natural and organic pet foods as well. These concerns were heightened by the recent recall of pet foods that had been tainted with melamine, a plastics additive. Many pet owners who had not yet gone organic were driven by their doubts over the safety of conventional pet foods to consider switching to organic or natural products.

The numbers tell the story

According to the market research firm Packaged Facts, sales of natural pet foods increased by 50 percent from 2006 to 2007. From 2003 through 2007, U.S. sales of natural pet foods have gone from under $500 million to more than $1 billion. Although still constituting a minority of pet food purchases, organic pet foods clearly represent an increasingly attractive choice for millions of pet owners concerned about their pets' health.

'Natural' vs. 'organic'

The terms "natural'' and "organic,'' though often used interchangeably, are not synonyms. To further complicate matters, the use of the two terms, as applied to pet foods, is a legal issue that is complicated enough to make a lawyer's head spin. Interested pet owners should keep the following points in mind:

'Natural' pet foods

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO'), the organization responsible for formulating many of the regulations adopted by the states concerning pet foods and pet food labeling, an ingredient is "natural" if it is derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources and does not have any chemically synthetic additives;

"Natural'' does not mean unprocessed or unrefined. Basically, as long as it comes from nature and not a chemical plant, an ingredient is considered "natural.''

If a pet food is labeled "natural,'' it cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, artificial fats, or any other artificial ingredient.

'Organic' pet foods

Organic foods are a subgroup of natural foods. In other words, all organic foods are natural, but not all natural foods are organic. The term "organic'' has no separate definition as applied to pet foods, as distinct from human foods. To be considered organic, a food must comply with standards established by federal law that are overseen by the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture.

  • Organic foods cannot contain synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, or antibiotics.
  • Some foods are labeled "Certified Organic;'' this means that the ingredients have been verified as organic by an independent certifying organization.
  • A food labeled "organic'' may contain up to 5 percent non-organic ingredients; if the label doesn't say "100% organic,'' you can assume that it isn't.
  • A food labeled "Made With Organic Ingredients'' may contain up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients.

Are natural and organic foods healthier for my pet?

Although the advocates of natural and organic diets swear by them, whether such diets are actually healthier or safer for pets is debatable. The American Veterinary Medical Association has issued the following position: "An organic label in no circumstances implies any assurance of increased food safety.''

Dr. Rebecca Remillard, DVM, staff nutritionist at the Angell Animal Medical Center-Boston, is even more emphatic: "Foods labeled natural or organic do not offer any nutritional advantage.'' She points out that no controlled studies have been carried out comparing the long-term health effects of conventional vs. natural/organic pet foods and that the issue is more a lifestyle issue than a nutritional one.

How to decide

If the lifestyle choice is important to you, don't forget to read the nutritional information on natural or organic pet food labels as carefully as you would that on a conventional pet food. Finally, before making any significant change in your pet's diet, it's best to check with your veterinarian.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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