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Humans aren’t the only ones eating organically. As mentioned a new niche market has evolved out of the organic food industry, one that’s tailored especially to pets. Over the past few years, consumers have been buying organic pet food in record amounts. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic pet food sales accounted fora nearly 50 percent growth in sales from the previous years. That’s nearly three times the growth rate of organic food for people within the same time period!
“People are becoming more and more aware that feeding their pet regular pet food is kind like eating McDonalds every day,” said a retail sales associate.
He also reports that organic pet food brands have been increasing in popularity at his store, despite its cost. Organic pet food can fetch a premium over conventional pet food. “I tell them you’ll save yourself money at the vet later,” he said.
And one vet also mentioned more of his clients are showing an interest in organic pet food.
“It’s a small percentage, but I’ve noticed an increase,” he said. “Human organic foods are gaining in popularity because of the way they’re grown and because they’re not mass produced. Some people are transposing that to pet foods for their pets.”
Both retailer and vet hit upon two major reasons why people buy organic products: health and environmental concerns. For example, organic chicken cannot be given antibiotics, which many argue is better for both the environment and health.
Until recently, the definition of “organic” was unregulated by the federal government. In 2002 the USDA launched the National Organic Program (NOP), which set the bar for organic foods.
Consumers rely on several agencies to regulate organic pet food, one of which is the NOP. According to the NOP, the following standards apply to all organic foods, including pet food:
“100 percent organic” pet food must contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
“Organic” pet food must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
“Made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Products containing less that 70 percent organic ingredients are not allowed to use the label “organic,” but can specify the specific ingredients that are produced organically. “Natural” pet foods lack a definition at this time. “Natural” and “organic” are not synonymous, according to the NOP Web site.
Is organic overrated? Here’s where it gets interesting.
Animals require complete and balanced foods, which do not necessarily need to be organic, according to Professor Sarah Abood, a specialist in veterinary nutrition at Michigan State University.
“Animals have requirements for nutrients, not ingredients–and the source of those nutrients doesn’t matter,” Abood said.
Despite the praises many pet owners sing about organic pet food, Abood says there is no conclusive scientific data that definitely fingers organic as the superior pet food.
A scientific article published in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society entitled “Nutritional quality of organic food: Shades of grey or shades of green?” echoes her opinion. It stated that there are only a limited number of studies that have compared organically-grown and conventionally-grown crops, and fewer that have compared animal products. Overall: Nothing conclusive can be said about organic versus conventional pet food.
“Organic is not necessarily better from a nutritional standpoint,” Abood added.
But it might be superior from a taste standpoint because some brands use human-grade ingredients.
That vet, through his years of working as a veterinarian, found organic pet foods to be more palatable to animals. “If an animal is finicky, I’ll say ‘Try this brand with human-grade ingredients,'” he said. “It’s more money, but more tasty.”
Pet food that has human-grade ingredients is subject to USDA regulation, similar to certified organic. With no known scientific data supporting organic pet food, feeding pets organic food might just be a choice pet owners make.
“People focusing on ingredients usually have very strong feelings about what they put in their mouths,” Abood said.
The veterinarian, said sometimes pets have a medical condition, such as a food allergy, and would benefit from an organic diet. But otherwise, he also feels feeding organic pet food is voluntary. “I don’t think there’s a huge advantage. It’s more of a personal preference, I think that may have to do with the fact that pets are now more part of the family than before, when the pet was just a pet.” He added that he sometimes recommends organic diets to clients who live an organic lifestyle, “If that’s something you do for yourself, you look into [organic pet food] for your pet,”
So what’s a pet owner to do?
With hundreds of pet food products available, there is a simple way for pet owners to assess the quality of their pet food.
The best way to judge a pet food, organic or not, is by using the standards developed by the American Association of Feed Control Officials, the regulatory body that monitors the pet-food industry. Look for the AAFCO feeding claim on the back of the product near the nutrition information. This claim is the “good housekeeping seal of approval,” according to Abood, and will vouch that the product has met certain AAFCO criteria for specific life stages in animals’ lives.
Pet food companies are not required to test the food before it hits the market. If consumers don’t see an AAFCO claim, they should call the company and ask if the product was tested before it was shipped to stores.
When it comes to organic pet food, it seems to be a matter of the owner’s personal beliefs. And budget. So far as the experts know, it seems Fido will be just as happy and healthy eating organic or conventional pet food.