As we get ready to celebrate America’s birthday we may wonder what “made in the USA” really means when it comes to the products we buy for our families and out pets. These days in the world of pet food manufacturing, the phrase “made in the USA,” can mean a lot of things, and not necessarily what you thought.
What Can Go Wrong with Pet Food
The concern about where pet food ingredients come from after the melamine crisis of 2005/2006 is still front and center in many pet parents’ minds. That particular incident was due to an unscrupulous Chinese company trying to make their wheat gluten look more pure by adding the plastic product melamine, which contains lots of nitrogen -- creating something that looked like a high protein product based on the current methods by which protein sources are assessed. As you may know, this caused acute kidney problems in many dogs and cats. This incident made ingredient sourcing a big issue for United States manufacturers of commercial pet food, and a big issue for lots of pet parents.
What is unfortunate is that the actual phrase “made in the USA,” means very little when marketing a pet food. Nearly all of the dog and cat foods you can find in the grocery or pet store are made in the USA since importing and exporting is a difficult venue. (Recent trade changes have made it very difficult to import dog and cat food from Europe or elsewhere.) There is some importation and exportation of dog food, but it becomes a costly endeavor for the companies and the consumers. If you’re interested in whether the food is made in the US, then you are probably more interested in whether all the ingredients are “sourced in the USA” or "sourced with USA ingredients."
Made in USA vs. Sourced in the USA
Sourcing of ingredients means that the poultry meal, ground rice, or other ingredient was actually grown and produced on American soil. Some manufacturers do this, however many of the cheaper sources of ingredients are over-seas, meaning it takes a lot of fore-thought and expense on the part of the company to get this done and to find a reliable and constant source of that ingredient. One of the major problems in ensuring that this policy is continuously used by a company is that they will have to be willing to spend extra money to make their pet food if their supplier is short on a certain supply, like lamb meal for example. About two years ago local lamb supply was short so many manufacturers had to purchase lamb from Australia or New Zealand. These types of commodity issues do occur.
If a company is committed to making a product that is “sourced with USA ingredients” then they will have to have a back-up vendor or two that they can go to so that their formulation will not change if a supplier is short on an ingredient. Though this does not happen often, pet food formulations may change a little bit. For example, you may have seen a slightly different color to your pet food from batch to batch. Don’t get worried, often this is just normal variation, particularly when an ingredient supplier changes even if it’s a similar lamb meal or barley.
In all reality, the claim of “sourced in the USA” may become a thing of the past. As companies merge internationally and fewer factories around the world make certain things like vitamins and minerals, we are getting to a point where certain nutrients may only be made in other countries. For example, if a weight maintenance diet were to add carnitine, because this particular nutrient can only be sourced over-seas now, the food would by necessity not be all sourced in the US.
As of today both vitamin C and taurine are not made in the United States by any suppliers for vitamin and mineral pre-mixes that are used for pet foods. More and more often we vets are hearing about shortages of certain vitamins for medical or feed purposes since there are only a handful of manufacturers in the world today. If you are concerned about whether vitamins and minerals are being sources over-seas then call the food manufacturer to check on how their ingredients are sourced.
The Bottom Line
Thankfully, many of the most important ingredients in pet foods, what you normally see as the top 7 or 8 ingredients (the meats, fats, and grains) can faithfully be sourced in the USA.
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This article was written by PetCareRx Consulting Nutritionist Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine. The information contained, however, is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian.