Pet Food: What You See May Not Be What You Get

Many regulations exist for pet foods, but some recent research questions whether such regulations are adequately protective against pet food mislabeling. A study, conducted at Chapman University’s Food Science Program, suggests that pet food mislabeling is relatively common.

The researchers evaluated 52 commercial pet foods and treats marketed for dogs and cats. They used DNA analysis to look for eight meat species (beef, goat, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, goose, and horse) within each product. They then determined if the protein species identified within each product matched up with the species identified on the product label.


Here’s what the Chapman University researchers learned. Of the 52 products tested 20 were mislabeled. Thirteen contained meat from a species not listed on the label, four lacked one or more meats listed on the label, and three had both problems. One wet cat food product contained a non-specific meat ingredient that could not be clearly identified.

Chicken was the most common meat species identified, followed by pork, beef, turkey, and lamb, respectively. Goose was the least common species, and none of the products tested contained horsemeat.

Of the 20 mislabeled products, seven were cat foods and 13 were dog foods. Pork was the most common undeclared species (existed in the product, but not on the label) and occurred in seven out of 52 samples.

This study did not look into why some pet foods are mislabeled or where in the manufacturing chain of events the errors are arising. Perhaps the problem occurs within the factory itself. Perhaps it originates from the source of meat products delivered to the factory from who knows where.

By the way, the various brands of pet foods and treats included in the study have not been revealed.

Questioning the results

Pat Tovey, director of technology and regulatory compliance for the Pet Food Institute, has questioned the Chapman University results based in part on his belief that pet food companies would never risk their reputations by committing fraud. Tovey has stated,

Our member companies want to comply with the regulations, and we feel that it’s important and companies feel it’s important that customers buying the products get what they’re paying for.

Tovey has theorized that small amounts of protein in a product would be sufficient to comply with FDA standards yet be too small to be detected by the methods used in the study. For example, beef needs to make up only three percent of a pet food labeled as “with beef” to comply with AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards.

While Mr. Tovey’s theory sounds logical, it is likely not applicable. Tara Okuma, one of the Chapman University researchers, stated that there was a one percent minimum detection limit for turkey in two of the three products in which turkey meat was on the label, but was undetected in the food product.

Additionally, beef was listed on the label, but was not detected in four products. In three of these products, beef was listed as the first or second ingredient suggesting that detection should have been possible if the species was indeed present.

Why is this important?

Does it really matter if a pet food label misidentifies the source of protein within the product? After all, isn’t it the amount rather than the type of protein that’s important? (Can you tell that it is difficult for me to play devil’s advocate here?)

There are a few reasons the results of the Chapman University matter to me. To begin with, the results beg one to wonder if misidentification of the source of protein within a pet food product is only the tip of the iceberg. What other label inaccuracies might be flying “under the radar” that just might adversely impact the health of the dog or cat consuming the product?

Secondly, food allergies are a relatively common occurrence amongst dogs and cats, and proteins are the most commonly incriminated cause. For example, a dog that is allergic to beef might do fine eating a purely lamb or turkey based diet. Someone who purchases a “hypoallergenic” or “novel protein” diet for their allergic pet has the right to feel confident that the product’s protein labeling is accurate.

Lastly, pet lovers who spend beaucoup bucks on high quality nutrition for their four-legged family members are entitled to product label transparency. What they are seeing on the product label is exactly what they should be getting.

What is your reaction to this news?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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6 Comments on “Pet Food: What You See May Not Be What You Get

  1. After reading this article, is makes me sick to think that we are
    feeding our pets QUALITY, EXPENSIVE food and I am reading that is
    false??? Are the foods in question in your book???? I would like to know in
    the event I am using one of those foods, and one of the reasons, I am having to take my dogs to the vet for urinary issues, for too much
    crystals in the urine stemming from the food…. is there any where we can read who is doing the underhand mfg. of these foods………or give out foods
    that are safe! How do they get past the food and drug company???? why are they not given a hefty fine!!

  2. Sadly, it doesn’t much surprise me. I’d be more worried about the things the study didn’t test for, things that definitely shouldn’t make their way into food.

  3. What is the point of the study if you don’t reveal the brands?

  4. I was recently shocked that a well known “better” dog food was also a tad deceitful with what was on the label and what was actually in the food. Am beginning to get serious about either “home cooking” or going home made raw for my dog. That way I KNOW what’s in my dog food. Apparently even the better pet foods aren’t all that worried about their reputations. If it weren’t for the recent very public mud slinging and court actions, we would never have known what was going on. Sigh.

  5. Considering how many unsafe and downright harmful ingredients are added to “people” food, this does not surprise me at all. Food regulations are a joke. Many of these companies only care about the bottom dollar, not at all about the welfare of the animals. Sad but true. They should be held accountable for all of the ingredients included in their food. How many poor innocent animals suffered from this, all due to greed?

  6. Well, this is sobering. My cat lived with kidney disease for several years; restricting the phosphorous levels in his diet was very important to me. After looking at many, many food labels I noticed that products with certain proteins had higher phosphorous levels. It would just break my heart to think that my diligence could have been for naught, especially if it shortened his life at all. I hope that some changes are made soon about the veracity of food labels.