Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates the ingredients that can be used in both animal and pet foods in the U.S. They determine which ingredients can or cannot be used to make a food and they may also restrict the amount of a particular ingredient. AAFCO also provides uniformity in labeling so consumers have a standard whereby they can compare products. For example, AAFCO regulates what’s included in the guaranteed analysis, the order in which ingredients are listed, label content/layout and marketing/product claims. AAFCO also provides a minimum standard of nutrients that every food must meet. For example, AAFCO has determined that the minimum protein for maintaining the health of an adult cat is 26% protein and the minimum protein necessary for the healthy growth of a kitten to be 30% protein. These minimums are established by feeding 8 cats these and other nutrient minimums for 26 weeks. If, at the end of the 26 week trial, the cats pass a set of blood tests and health evaluations; the minimum nutrient level is set. AAFCO is not making a claim that 30% protein is optimal for kitten growth, they are only stating that testing has shown it to be the bare minimum to maintain the kitten’s growth and health.
What AAFCO does not do is approve any pet food on the market. AAFCO is only concerned that companies follow a uniform set of guidelines and that no food falls below the minimum or maximum standards they have determined for each animal.
AAFCO does have a set of testing protocols they have developed for many animals; for cats it is called the Minimum Feeding Protocol for Providing a Growth/Adult Claim for a Cat Food. Basically, if at the end of a 26 week feeding trial, the researcher must certify that the eight cats have not, on average, lost more than 15% body weight, show no sign of clinical/pathological/nutritional deficiency or excess and pass the blood test/medical exam. The food is then deemed to have passed the AAFCO feeding trial.
With a successful feeding trial, the company could now claim on their label: This product meets the criteria for all life stages as substantiated by completion of the appropriate AAFCO-recognized animal feeding protocol(s).
If a company chooses not to do the feeding trial then the company could claim on their label: This product meets the criteria for all life stages established by an AAFCO-recognized nutrient profile.
Most every cat food on the market will meet the minimum standards set by AAFCO. Most companies will easily exceed these minimums: just try finding a kitten food with only 30% protein. So no matter the food you chose, it will most likely exceed the minimum standards set by AAFCO.
If you want to determine the most accurate assessment of your individual cat’s health while feeding a particular food, take them to the vet for a physical exam that includes blood and urine panels. Most vets will perform these tests routinely and they are generally more extensive than the tests required in the AAFCO feeding trial. Cats respond differently to various foods and the only way to know how your cat is doing on a specific food is to do your own testing. No one food can meet the needs of every type of cat or the multitude of medical conditions that individual cats may develop.
The bottom line is AAFCO does not determine what ingredients or nutrient profile is best for your cat; they only determine what will maintain a cat’s health for 26 weeks. The assumption is made that continued health will remain the same for the remaining years of your cat’s life.
Many of the companies that have passed the AAFCO feeding trials are also the same companies producing foods with high starch/carbohydrate content. They also often use plant proteins that are harder for your cat to digest. Is 26 weeks long enough to determine if your cat is going to do well on a food for the rest of its life? When choosing a food, AAFCO standards should not be your primary criteria. Look for foods that are less than 6% digestible carbs, at least 50% protein, 22-27% fat and contain no grains, plant proteins or fillers.
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