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By-Products, What are They?

By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

By-Products, What are They? -- By Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D.

The companion animal and pet food industry the world over owes its very existence to the use of by-products from the human food processing chain. Without by-products, our pets would not receive the level of nutrition they enjoy today. The food would simply be too expensive and only the wealthiest individuals could afford to own pets. Before going further, we need to understand what by-products are, where they come from and how they are used to make healthful, nutritionally balanced, complete foods for our closest companions – our pets.

By-products, as a category, are not only misunderstood by most pet food consumers, but by most sales and marketing personnel within the pet food industry. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is used to confuse consumers. Why would any pet food company want to confuse or mislead consumers when it comes to ingredients? The only reason is to try to give their own products a competitive edge over other products by making misleading claims concerning their product attributes. The use of the words such as ‘tastier’, ‘more appealing’, ‘safer’, or ‘no by-products’ are often used. Some companies base their entire marketing strategy on making by-products sound or appear unappealing at best, or, even worse, dangerous!

Regulatory Requirements

The fact is, the pet food industry is governed and monitored by the food or agriculture departments within each state. Each state publishes regulations which follow the guidelines of the Association of American Feed Control Officers, known as AAFCO. AAFCO is a regulatory body which is made up of state agriculture officials, who then form the AAFCO Pet Food Committee. Both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are represented on this committee.

Every state requires registration of all animal and pet food products sold within their individual territory. Before selling a food, the regulatory personnel of the state reviews the label for proper format, guarantees, as well as the proper definition of ingredients in the food. It is not only unethical, but illegal to use an ingredient that does not follow AAFCO approved definitions.

By-Products Defined

There are over 700 ingredients defined in the AAFCO manual, more than half of these are various derivatives and forms of vitamins, minerals or amino acids. Of the remaining 200+ actual feed ingredients, there are less than 20 that include the word ‘by-product’ in their name. However, the majority of the ingredients are by definition ‘by-products’. For example, there are 27 different corn or corn-derived products listed in the AAFCO manual, yet none have the word ‘by-product’ in their name. Ingredients such as corn grits, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, corn feed meal, corn bran, and corn cobs are all by-products of the various corn milling operations which make human food products. The official AAFCO definition of ‘by-products’ is: “…Secondary products produced in addition to the principal products.” Lamb meal, chicken meal, chicken, chicken by-products, fish meal, chicken fat, beef tallow, beet pulp, dehydrated cheese, brewers yeast, along with over 100 additional ingredients are all by-products. All are produced from the human food processing chain. No matter what other pet food manufacturers, sales people or advertising brochures might claim, almost all of the ingredients used in their foods are by-products and are not meant for human consumption!

Chicken, chicken meal, chicken by-products and chicken by-product meal are all by-products which come from plants processing chickens for human consumption. Chicken is defined as the clean combination of flesh and skin, with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts or whole carcasses of chicken or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. It should be suitable for use in animal feed”. Chicken meal is the rendered (cooking to remove water and fat from fresh meats) dried meal from flesh, skin and parts such as bruised legs, thighs, breasts and whole deboned carcases of chickens, all of these different ingredients are defined by FDA and AAFCO as, “not for human consumption”. On the other hand, chicken by product meal is the rendered, dry product of chicken by-products, such as the intestinal tracts, spleens pancreas, livers, gizzards and hearts. All of these come from the same production plants at the same time as the chicken parts listed above, which go into chicken meal.

By definition, both chicken and chicken meal that is used in pet foods are by-products, even though these ingredients may come from a human food processing plant and technically were at one time human grade food. No pet food company uses the whole chicken or the chicken parts intended for human consumption in their food. Why? COST! I Human grade food will cost 5 to 20 times more than “not for human consumption” food. Does this mean that by-products are not safe or possibly dangerous for our pets? NO!! All fresh meats, animal by-products, fats and even cereal grains must be further processed and handled in such a manner as to prevent them from spoiling. Drying, cooking, freezing, canning or adding antioxidants are all methods used to preserve the nutritional quality of various ingredients.

By-Product Grades

Poultry, by definition, may include chicken, turkey and geese. In the U.S., most processing plants can only handle either chicken or turkey, due to the size differences of the birds. Poultry processing plants are required to separate the feathers and the blood from the other by-products. In addition, many of these plants further separate the heads and feet from the internal organs and “not for human consumption” meat. The reason is two-fold. First, the chicken and turkey feet can be exported to Asian countries as a ‘delicacy food’ for human consumption, even though in the U.S. chicken feet are not recognized for authorized by the FDA to be sold for human consumption. Secondly, since the introduction of super-premium dry pet foods in the mid-70’s, manufacturers of super-premium pet foods demand a super-premium grade of poultry or chicken by-product meal. These higher-grade meals generally have higher nutrient levels and improved nutrient digestibility. To make these higher-grade meals, it is necessary to omit the heads, feet and birds that died prior to processing. Though the heads and feet do contain a great deal of protein and fat, they also contain a great deal of connective tissue, which is poorly digested by most carnivores. Totally Ferret® uses only super premium grades of chicken by-product meal in all our foods. As stated above, this increases the overall nutrient quantity and quality of the food, compared to the less expensive, lower grade products, even those that claim to use chicken meal rather than chicken by-product meal.

Those lower quality grade chicken and chicken by-product meals may contain heads and feet, along with the connective tissue left on the deboned chicken carcass. These parts reduce the digestible nutrients and may lack the balance of the essential amino acids necessary for proper nutrition for carnivore pets like the ferret. The super-premium quality chicken by-product meals used in Totally Ferret® do contain the intestinal tract and internal organs, as described above, because it provides the very highest nutritional quality for carnivores. Unfortunately, some of the American public, from an aesthetic point of view, may not like the idea of using chicken by-products, such as guts, hearts, livers, etc., in pet foods. But from a nutritional point, it is one of the best sources of nutrients for carnivore pets.

To Summarize

It is unfortunate that certain companies try to make themselves and their products sound better than they are by attempting to make others sound bad through negative advertising. This type of misleading and untrue advertising, however, is alive and well in the pet food industry.

Performance Foods, Inc., makers of Totally Ferret®, is committed to making the best, most nutritionally complete ferret food on the market. We use quality chicken by-product meal, eggs and liver meal as our major sources of protein and all are by-products. We hope you will by our foods based on the premise of quality nutrition for your ferrets, but let your ferrets be the judge. How they look, feel and act are the true measure of quality, not marketing or sales hype.

Thomas R. Willard, Ph.D. is an international consultant, speaker and nutritionist. He is the founder and president of Performance Foods, Inc. Dr. Willard holds a degree in Animal Science plus a doctorate in Animal Nutrition and Bio-chemistry. He has over 30 years of hands-on experience within the pet food industry. He has been actively working with ferret nutritional research since 1992, and has written many published articles.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the July /August 2000 issue of "The F.A.I.R. Report".[/intlink]