How to Read and Understand (Reptile) Food Labels
You’ve probably heard quite a few things from the media about pet food labels over the last decade, which isn’t surprising since this topic has gained serious momentum over the last few years. From claims on pet food packaging, to ingredients, to sourcing – there’s multiple articles, social posts, blogs, vlogs, and maybe even tik-toks about it (okay, I admit, I don’t actually know what tik-tok is but I know that it’s popular…). But it’s all focused on pet food, not specialty pet food. So, what’s the difference?
Animals are classified into a few different categories including livestock, pets, and specialty pets. Most people are familiar with livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.), but they typically consider a “specialty pet” to be a “pet.” However, specialty pets are AAFCO-defined as any animal that lives in a cage or tank (i.e. reptiles, amphibians, birds, ornamental fish, and small mammals) while pets are AAFCO-defined as dogs and cats. The biggest difference between food labels for pets and specialty pets is that there are less requirements for specialty pets (because, in general, we know less about them than dogs and cats).
AAFCO refers to the Association of American Feed Controls Officials.This is a non-governing body that makes recommendations for animal feed and pet food, including species-specific guaranteed analyses of nutrients and labeling requirements. Their recommendations have been adopted all, or in part, by many states as state law.
So the next time you stop by the pet store or visit a website to purchase your reptile’s food, take a look at the label and consider the following:
- Remember that every part of that food product – from the food itself to each color on the label – is part of what you’re paying for. Because they’re not paying a higher price themselves at the printer’s, companies that use less color on a label tend to be able to sell that product for a lesser price than companies that use more color on the label of a similarly-formulated food. The takeaway message is to not judge a less-expensive food product as “less-healthy” for your pet just based on price. You may just be paying more for ink with the more-expensive product!
- There are up to 9 key pieces of information to look for on a reptile food product label. If any of the required pieces are missing, that company isn’t following FDA and/or state regulations for specialty pet food labeling. The takeaway message is to understand what information the reptile food company is required to provide to you on the label, and consider if you want to give a company your business that chooses not to be transparent in the way the law requires. Identify these pieces of information on your reptile’s food product label:
- Product name (and Brand name, if applicable)
- Species the product is intended for (i.e. bearded dragon, iguana, aquatic turtle)
- Quantity statement (how much food is in the container, by weight)
- Guaranteed analysis (must include minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude fiber and maximum moisture content)
- List of ingredients (in descending order)
- Purpose or nutritional adequacy statement (this typically tells which life stage the product is best suited for; may not always be applicable for reptile foods)
- Feeding directions
- Name and address of the person or company responsible for the product (most often the manufacturer)
- Ingredients are listed in descending order, so the first listed ingredient is present in that food product in the greatest quantity (or of equal quantity to the next listed ingredient). Companies take advantage of having ingredients in their products in minute amounts, just to be able to state on the label that it “includes XYZ!”. So be aware if a label calls out an ingredient, and check to see where that ingredient falls in the ingredient list. If it’s halfway or more through the list, it’s most likely present in a very small amount. The takeaway message is that this marketing technique often leads to a more expensive product, but you may only be paying more for an ingredient that is 3% of the product. Take a look at some of the regulations on how companies can legally market ingredients that are in your reptile’s food product:
- 95% Rule – If a product is labeled as “[Ingredient] Reptile Food,” that means that the named ingredient is at least 95% of the product. These products will typically have a shorter ingredient list since 95% of the ingredients is one single item. Example: “Alfalfa Tortoise Food.”
- 25% Rule – If a product is labeled with one of the following descriptors: entree, recipe, dinner, formula, or platter, as in “[Ingredient] Reptile Recipe,” this means that the named ingredient is at least 25% of the product. The reason for the difference, according to AAFCO, is that a descriptor word (aside from “food”) implies a larger mix of ingredients. Example: “Alfalfa Tortoise Recipe.”
- 3% or “With” Rule – If a product is labeled as “Reptile Food with [Ingredient],” this means that the named ingredient is at least 3% of the product (so it would show up in the latter part of the ingredient list). Example: “Tortoise Food with Alfalfa.”
Note that the difference between these food product names is easy to overlook or may be assumed to mean the same things, but it can make a huge difference in how much you pay for the product and what you’re actually getting.Some companies are planning on this!
These label parts are only a few of the regulations out there. Companies have to be vigilant about EVERY part of their label, even including the font size they use for certain claims! In general, reputable companies are going to follow these regulations to the best of their abilities (hey, mistakes happen!), while untrustworthy companies are going to try to get away with as little expense as possible, even if that means omitting label information.
As always, if you have any questions about this topic, contact us here or at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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