Ethically Made Pet Food

Which brands deliver complete nutrition AND ethical values?


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc (Hons)

All over Australia, pet owners are clueing into the fact that pet food manufacturers often lack transparency about their recipes, ingredient sourcing, fishing practices, and production animal welfare standards. Ethically sourced, sustainable pet food brands are on the rise; offering a feel-good and ecofriendly alternative to traditional 'science' based brands.

Pets need balanced diets. In general, ethical standards and balanced nutrition don't always go hand in hand. Vets in particular can be wary of 'new age' brands which focus on natural, sustainable, or eco-friendly values, but don't quite hit the mark in terms of balanced nutrition. It's all well and good to promote sustainable values, but if a pet food isn't balanced, your pet's health may suffer in the long term.

So, how do we find the perfect balance between 'complete and balanced nutrition' to appease your vet, and 'transparent recipes and ethical sourcing'?


What Constitutes "Good" Nutrition?

Ethical Values: Which brands are best?

What constitutes 'good' nutrition?

Let's first talk about what constitutes a good and trustworthy pet food in general. If you can learn to assess whether a pet food is good quality, you can judge for yourself whether a diet will be safe to feed to your pet.

The WSAVA provides a series of recommended questions for pet owners in deciding whether a pet food is balanced and reputable. We've sorted through these questions below and categorised them into umbrella topics.

1. Ingredients

Many pet owners will look first at the ingredient list to assess the quality of a pet food. While ingredients listings don't provide us with a measure of the nutrient content of the food, they can provide some insight into its potential quality and are a good place to start.

a) Transparent Ingredients: Specific Ingredient Names

Be wary of labels that are not totally transparent about which meat protein they use. A key red flag is the term "and/or". For example, if the ingredients read "meat and meat by-products (beef, poultry and/or lamb)" this means that the manufacturer can use any of those three proteins, either by themselves OR a combination of two OR all three.

As a method of cost-cutting, many cheaper pet food brands opportunistically source ingredients based on availability at the time of manufacture. This is particularly dangerous for dogs with food allergies who need to avoid certain ingredients. On the other hand, high quality pet foods always stick to the same recipe, with the same quantity of each ingredient. This makes for an honest recipe with no surprises, and is particularly important for dogs with food allergies.

b) The Order of Ingredients

It is always important to check the ingredients on the back of your bag of food and the order in which they appear. The order will tell you the proportion of each of the ingredients in descending order (by weight prior to cooking). This means that at the time of manufacture, the first ingredient in the list contributed the largest amount and the last ingredient contributed the least.

Winners: Top Picks for Ingredient Transparency

However, the ingredient name does not detail its nutritional quality, its digestibility, or the bioavailability of its nutrients. The most important thing is that the final product (formulated by experts) is tested to ensure that the nutritional requirements of your pet are met. Which brings us to our next point...

2. Complete and Balanced Nutrients

It's important to remember that while the ingredients used in your pet's food certainly matter, it's the nutrients contained within these ingredients that your pet will use to fuel their body. Think of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, fibre, and water as being like the 'building blocks' of ingredients.

It may sound obvious, but not every pet food is formulated to be complete and balanced in line with international guidelines. Your pet should be fed a complete and balanced diet which provides all nutrients essential in the correct amounts for their species and life stage. Under this topic, there are a number of questions you should ask.

a) Is the food balanced in line with AAFCO feeding trials?

There are international guidelines set out for pet food manufacturers which detail minimum levels of nutrients for each lifestage. The most widely used guidelines are those set out by AAFCO (which stands for Association of American Feed Control Officials). Always look at the label of your pet's food to check it contains an AAFCO statement. But also keep in mind note that these are guidelines only, and usually only detail 'minimum' requirements.

b) If the food is complete and balanced, how did the company determine this?

Rather than simply meeting AAFCO requirements, many higher-end premium pet food brands conduct laboratory analyses and feeding studies to determine the optimum levels of nutrients in their food, as well as regular batch testing to ensure consistency. (So, it's not just the high quality food you pay a little more for - it's the extra attention to safety standards too!)

c) Who formulates the diet, and what are their qualifications?

Any reputable pet food company will provide transparency around the expert who formulated their diets. Appropriate qualifications are either a PhD in animal nutrition or board-certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN). While not often listed on the label, this information should be available on the website of any good pet food brand.

Winners: Top Picks for Balanced Nutrients

Transparent Sourcing and Ethical Standards

We've discussed what constitutes a good pet food in terms of ingredients and nutritional value. But what constitutes an ethical brand?

1. Production Animal Welfare Standards

photo by mali maeder from Pexels

As a pet parent, no doubt, you're an animal lover. Pet lovers are more likely to select free range eggs and humanely raised meat when given the option - and one study also found that pet owners are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan.

It makes sense, therefore, that most pet owners will also select a pet food brand that ensures humane production animal welfare if given the choice. But until now, it has generally been difficult - if not impossible - to find a pet food company which prioritses or even mentions the welfare of meat production animals.

Winners: Top Picks for Production Animal Welfare

1. Open Farm - New to the Australian market, this ethical brand ensures that all meat and animal products are sourced in line with Certified Humane Standards. This means that every partner farm supplying Open Farm is individually selected, audited and certified in humane animal care by leading third party, non-profit organisations.

2. Orijen - this brand only selects free run chicken, duck, turkey, and humanely raised pork and beef.

3. K9 Natural and Feline Natural - this excellent NZ brand uses only free range, grass fed and grass finished lamb and beef, and all meats are free from antibiotics and hormones.

4. Ziwi Peak - source from New Zealand farms adhering to year-round, free-pasture, grass-feeding. Approved farms don't use antibiotics, growth promotants or hormones.

2. Sustainable Fishing Practices

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Most premium pet foods use fish in at least some of their recipes. Packed full of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, fish is not only highly palatable, but also nutritionally beneficial for pets with itchy or dry skin. However, as wonderful as fish protein may be to eat, the destructive impact of overfishing is one of the greatest threats to the ocean - and consequently our entire planet - that exists today.

Fortunately, pet food manufacturers can choose to source fish in a 'catch of the season' method, in line with third party humane organisation such as Ocean Wise or Seafood Watch Standards. These organisations detail which fish species are in abundance and which are threatened, season by season, so that fish species can be sourced accordingly.

Which pet food complies with sustainable fishing practices? Again, Open Farm hits the mark, stating that 'Our fish is exclusively ocean caught using sustainable fishing practices in accordance with Ocean Wise and Seafood Watch standards.' In this regard, we hope that more pet food companies will follow their lead!

Shop Sustainably Fished Pet Food Now

3. Traceable Sourcing

Most pet food brands these days are open about where their food is made. And we're pleased to say that there are many Australian-made brands available these days (yay, Aussie!).

But it can be a little harder to find out where the individual ingredients in the recipe have been sourced from, particularly at a regional level. We've called out a few brands below which go the extra mile to ensure complete transparency and traceability from 'paddock to plate' (or 'farm to fork'!).

1. Open Farm - yes, again, we're calling out this ethical gem of a brand. Going above and beyond in this field also, Open Farm has a traceability feature on their website which allows customers to input a lot code from their packaging and read about where each ingredient was sourced from within that individual bag. Check out the traceability feature here.

2. Orijen - this brand is very transparent in showcasing where each of the wholefood ingredients have been sourced from. Their website highlights a number of individual farms from which they source pork, free run chicken and duck, turkey, fish, whole vegetables and fruit, and botanicals. Check out this feature here.

3. K9 and Feline Natural - all wholefood ingredients are sourced in New Zealand, are of human-grade quality and can be traced from the farm if requested.

4. Ziwi Peak - only source from humane, ethical and sustainably managed local farms that exceed the strict New Zealand government regulatory standards.

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