I’m never sure what I’m getting when I read pet food labels. What does it really mean when the label says a food is "natural" or "organic"?

It sounds great when your dog’s or cat’s food is described as "natural" or "organic," doesn’t it? It’s easy to imagine happy cows and chickens being raised sustainably on Farmer Jan’s property. But the real definitions of those terms don’t have anything to do with how farm animals are raised or the quality of the food.

In the eyes of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the term "natural" does not have an official definition. It simply means that a pet food does not contain artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a trade organization that develops nutrient standards and ingredient definitions for pet foods, says a "natural" food or ingredient is one that is made only from plant, animal or mined sources and is not produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process. Foods described as natural may not contain anything artificial, except in amounts that might occur unavoidably during manufacture. The AAFCO says the term "natural" should be used only to describe products when all of the ingredients — not counting chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients — meet this definition.

In addition, no rules govern the use of the word "organic" on pet food labels. The term "organic" refers to the conditions under which plants were grown or animals were raised. Typically, foods that claim to be organic may not contain ingredients that are genetically engineered or produced using sludge or irradiation, or that contain certain synthetic substances. They must also be free of sulfites, nitrates and nitrites. Products labeled "organic" cannot contain non-organic ingredients if organic sources are available.

It’s great to look for foods that meet the ideals you desire in your pet’s diet, but feeding an "organic" or "natural" diet is no guarantee against contamination. If you really want to know exactly what is in your pet’s food, the best strategy is to reach out to the manufacturer — contact information is required to be on the label — and ask exactly what is meant by the terms "natural" or "organic."

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