Do you know how to read a pet food label? What would you think if one of the first ingredients was “chicken by-product” or “chicken meal”? That means it is garbage, right? You may be surprised at what you read in this article. What I’m going to do is explain to you exactly what a by-product is and discuss whether this is a good or bad ingredient to have in food.
Let’s start by defining some common ingredients listed on a pet food ingredient panel - chicken, chicken meal, chicken by-product, and chicken by-product meal.
Here is how AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials) defines these three ingredients:
Chicken: the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of chicken or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
(Translation: Chicken meat, skin and bone)
Chicken Meal: Chicken (see above) which has been ground or otherwise reduced in particle size.
(Translation: Chicken meat skin and bone that is ground into small pieces. Chicken meal is a dry, solid material that can be made into kibble.)
Chicken by-product: the clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.
(Translation: Chicken necks, unborn eggs, feet and organs)
Chicken by-product meal: the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.
(Translation: ground up necks, unborn eggs, feet and organs)
When defined on a pet food label, chicken meal and chicken are exactly the same thing! The difference is in how the product came to the supplier. If the pet food company received the product as wet meat then they can call the ingredient chicken. They then go on to process it into a dry form so that it can be made into kibble. However, if they received the product already processed then it must be called chicken meal.
Here is the thing that shocked me. In my head, I pictured that if a label said “chicken”, then the food contained something pictured on the left: plump, juicy breast meat.
And I pictured that if the label said "chicken meal" it was made with much more inferior stuff like chicken feet, beaks and feathers.
But this is not true! They are exactly the same thing! “Chicken” on a pet food label does not equate to chicken breast. It is the same thing as Chicken meal (combination of flesh, skin and possibly bone, with no feathers, heads, feet or intestines) but the difference is simply that it came to the manufacturer as wet meat.
Added note: A company could decide to include chicken breast in their pet food. If they did so, they could put “chicken breast” on the label. Similarly, some companies will put “fresh chicken” on the label. This simply means that that the chicken came to them fresh and was made into a dry form in their plant. This doesn’t necessarily make it any more nutritious than a food that has “chicken meal” as an ingredient as the chicken meal could have been made from fresh chicken as well.
So, why would a pet food manufacturer choose one product over the other:
|Benefit to Manufacturer||Negative for Manufacturer|
|Chicken Meal||It is less expensive for the manufacturer to receive the ingredient as meal than to transform it into a dry product in their factory. One truckload of chicken meal contains the same amount of food as 5 truckloads of wet chicken. Also, the pet food manufacturer has the added expense of converting the wet chicken into a dry form so that it can be made in to chicken.||The label will contain the ingredient, “chicken meal” which has a bad connotation in the mind of consumers.|
|Fresh Chicken||“Chicken” can be listed as an ingredient which looks better in the eye of the consumer than “chicken meal”.||Increased cost.|
By now we’ve established that chicken meal and chicken are essentially the same thing when seen on a pet food label, but what about chicken by-product? Is it an evil ingredient consisting solely of beaks and feet?
First, let’s establish that chicken by-product and chicken by-product meal are the same thing only the meal is in dried form. (See the above discussion about the difference between chicken and chicken meal). I will simply use the words “chicken by-product” in this discussion but everything mentioned here can be applied to “chicken by-product meal” as well.
The difference between chicken by-product and chicken on a label is that by-product meal can contain chicken feet, undeveloped eggs and cleaned intestines and organs.
So, are these things bad?
We don’t like the idea of eating chicken feet, but really, they are mostly bone with a small amount of muscle covering them. It is good to have a certain amount of bone in dog food. It is important for maintenance of proper calcium and phosphorus levels. There is no difference in the nutritional quality of a chicken foot bone vs a chicken wing or breast bone. In Western culture we tend to think that eating chicken feet is gross, but in many parts of the world, chicken feet are considered a delicacy!
Chicken eggs, intestines and organs all contain great nutrients. (Remember, in order for intestines to be included in the chicken by-product, they must be cleaned so it’s not like the intestines are loaded with feces and bacteria). Other parts that could be included in chicken by-product include organs like liver, kidney and heart. These ingredients are nutritious and tasty for dogs.
It is important to note that the quality of chicken and chicken by-product can vary greatly. This is why it is very difficult, if not impossible to read a pet food label and say if a food is good or not. If I see chicken as an ingredient I have no way of knowing whether that ingredient is mostly meat with a little bit of bone and skin, or is it all skin? If it is chicken by-product is it a healthy mix of liver, heart, flesh and a little bone or is it 90% feet?
A reputable food company will screen their chicken by-product and chicken meal and only accept those ingredients that are high quality. By measuring the ash content they can determine if there is too much bone in the product which can affect the calcium and phosphorus levels of the food. Most reputable food companies will want a particular level of protein to be present in the product which means that there needs to be much more meat than bone.
So, sometimes when a food says “chicken by-product” it can include wonderfully nutritious things and sometimes it can be a mixture of unhelpful and cheap ingredients.
The problem is that the quality of the by-product or by-product meal is not revealed on the label.
I have seen some foods, which are marketed as premium dog foods, that contain ingredients such as “fresh boneless chicken”. Again, it makes you think that the food was made from this:
But really, “fresh boneless chicken” can be used as a marketing ploy. Once again, “chicken” can mean any type of flesh (not necessarily breast or thigh meat), skin and bone. "Boneless" does not always mean "better". A good quality food producer doesn’t mind a small amount of bone in the chicken as this can be important for maintaining calcium and phosphorus levels. Also, “fresh” simply means that it came to the factory direct (not frozen) and was made into dry form at the factory so it could be made into kibble. Fresh doesn’t mean that it contains any more nutrients than frozen or than chicken meal.
In almost every pet food, this is true. If you happen to see “chicken breast” on the list of ingredients then the food does indeed contain chicken breast. But, a bag of dog food with a picture of a nice plump chicken breast on the front will most likely contain chicken that is not breast. It’s a little misleading, isn’t it? When we go to the grocery store and buy boneless, skinless chicken for our human family to eat, then the remainder of the chicken is what gets put into pet food. As described above, a lot of what we don’t eat (such as liver, kidney, heart, neck, bones etc.) is very healthy for dogs.
A good food company will do strict monitoring of the quality of chicken and by-product that comes into their pet food factories. Many companies will do regular testing for salmonella and other contaminants. These products may not have been used in the human market but that doesn’t mean that they are unsafe or unclean. They didn’t get scraped off of the floor in the human grade factory.
(In a future article I will discuss the tactic of pet foods being labelled human grade.)
Did you know that using chicken by-product in pet food is good for the environment! As mentioned above, these parts of the chicken that humans don’t eat contain some great nutrients for dogs. If we didn’t feed these to our pets then this would be wasted food that would mostly be thrown into the trash. If all we fed to our pets were chicken breast and thighs and we wasted the by-products, think of the effect on the environment! Millions of extra chickens would need to be bred and so much food would go to waste!
So what can we learn from all of this? What I learned was that it is virtually impossible for me to read a pet food ingredient list and decide whether the ingredients are going to be good nutrition for my pets. A great food may contain a high quality chicken by-product. But, a poor food could contain a low quality chicken by-product. For both of those foods, what is on the label is simply, "chicken by-product". There is no way that I can read the label to determine which one is better.
As a veterinarian, people ask me every day what the best foods are. I tell them that I see a number of foods that consistently help dogs to have good, healthy looking coats and well formed, regular stools. At this point, the top three that I recommend are Hill’s Foods (including Science Diet), Royal Canin (including VMD and Medi-Cal) and Iams / Eukanuba products.
I hear the cries of the blogosphere already! But these foods are filled with fillers! They only exist to line vet’s pockets! And they contain CORN!
I will address these issues in future articles. I will also talk about whether or not grain free is a good idea, and also whether or not you should feed a high protein food.
I would love to have your comments on this post. I've raised some controversial issues and I'd like to know what you think!
Photo of chicken feet courtesy of doggybytes,flickr.
Post written by Dr. Marie of Ask A Vet Question.
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