Calorie counts on pet food labels? Fat chance!

If there’s an issue that riles me up in the already frustrating realm of animal nutrition, it’s the sad state of affairs vis-à-vis the calorie counts on the side of a bag, can or pouch of pet food.

Despite the fact that more than 50% of dogs and cats in the US are considered overweight or obese, only a small handful of pet food manufacturers offer calorie counts for their foods. That's because the FDA doesn’t require that pet food manufacturers publish this information on the side of the packaging, their website, or anywhere else, for that matter.

This policy comes at the vigorous behest of the Pet Food Institute (the pet food industry’s leading trade group), which actively heaps scorn on the ostensibly onerous requirement for a simple “calorie per cup” line item on the label.

Which, of course, seems not only at odds with the pet food industry’s claims to serve pet health above all else, but somewhat self-serving, to boot. More so when you consider the super-sized feeding recommendations on the back of the bag or can. 

I mean, I know they don’t pull those feeding stats out of a hat, but one-size-fits-all is NOT the way to feed anything, much less an already too-fat pet. They should at least WARN you to reduce the volume if she blimps up, right?

But then, that would be asking too much of an industry that, by all accounts, seems to be A-OK with excess pet poundage. Indeed, they’ve not just road-blocked calorie labeling, they’ve also made a near national sport of obesity by building out whole lines of pet food brands designed to address weight loss (largely ineffectually, I might add).

But back to the calorie counts on pet food labels:

Calorie counts became a significant issue back in 2008 when Congress ordered the FDA to work with state regulators and the industry to develop national standards for pet food processing and labeling (this was in the wake of 2007’s massive pet food recall).

At the time, the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) was the lone voice [at a poorly publicized hearing] calling for calorie counts on pet food labels. Given the low turnout and dearth of non-economically invested votes, industry won out and calorie counts never made the list of requisite label items.

Sad thing is, it’s the increasingly higher calorie counts our pet foods are carrying per cup –– along with the trend towards “treat”-ing pets –– that are largely responsible for weight gains. (This, according to pet nutrition experts like Marion Nestle.)

Sure, pets are more sedentary than ever, but that’s nothing too new. Rather, what’s changed dramatically over the past decade or two of spiking pet obesity rates has been the proliferation of low-residue, high-calorie pet foods (designed largely for smaller poops and grain-free designation) along with all those irresistible little treats you can pick up almost anywhere and feed thirty-two of before you’ve even served breakfast.

Case in point: A recent review of the calorie counts per cup of dog food (a survey undertaken by myself and a couple of interns I hired for the job) revealed that the highest calories-per-cup count (among more than 500 dry dog food formulas) came in at 586, the lowest at 275 (not even a weight loss diet).

So it is that an unsuspecting pet owner could easily find himself feeding foods with twice the calories as the brand he used to feed and never know it until the ballooning thing happens (and it would).

Pet food manufacturers argue that feeding recommendations listed on the packaging forestall such disasters. Calorie counts would therefore be an unnecessarily expensive redundancy they shouldn’t be forced to endure. Yet feeding recommendations –– even if they did precisely predict an animal’s needed caloric intake (a rarity, I’d say) –– are voluntary, too.

OK so our pets may not absolutely require calorie counts on the side of the bag, can or pouch. But their people do. Pet owners need this information to help them make good feeding decisions on behalf of their pets.  Without it, we’re all at the mercy of the pet food industry’s marketing savvy, sway with the FDA, and self-policed stats.

Overall, the lack of transparency on this subject is deplorable. Much more so given the epidemic of obesity our pets are suffering. If this industry were truly committed to, as it claims, “promoting the overall care and well-being of pets,” it would’ve offered calorie counts on labels long ago.

As the industry’s collective degree of reticence on this point reveals, they have little to gain from helping pets shed pounds. But here’s where I’ll counter: They have everything to lose should the public finally connect their stingy way with their label’s real estate with the pain and suffering of overweight and obese pets everywhere.


Pic: "Dog played with his food" by BuzzFarmers' Photostream on Flickr.