In her profile, Dr. Heidi Junger, owner of Onesta Organics, explains what organic pet food is and why it's worth it for your pet, and offers tips on ingredients to look for when you are in search of the best food for your pet.
Q: What requirements does pet food need to meet to become certified organic?
A: Organic certification of pet foods currently¹ follows exactly the same requirements and standards as those established for organic human foods by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Only pet food products that contain at least 95% of organic ingredients² can display the USDA organic seal and show the ‘certified organic’ statement. These products also need to disclose the name of the USDA-accredited certifying agent. Organic (or ‘certified organic’ – see below) pet foods may not contain conventionally grown ingredients if organic versions are available, nor may they contain any genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients.
Products that contain a minimum of 70%, but less than 95%, organic ingredients³ cannot display the USDA organic seal and cannot be marketed as ‘certified organic’ but may carry a ‘made with organic’ claim. However, even these ‘made with organic’ products need to disclose the name of the organic certifying agent on the packaging; the organic ingredients used in such products are declared on the ingredient panel.
Products labeled as ‘(certified) organic’ or ‘made with organic ingredients’ can not include ingredients that are genetically engineered, produced using sewage sludge or irradiation, synthetic substances that are not on the USDA National List of allowed substances, cannot contain sulfites, nitrates or nitrites, or include both organic and non-organic forms of the same ingredients.
A USDA-accredited certification agent inspects all records (e.g., all ingredients, production processes used, cleaning, sanitation, and pest control measures) as well as the manufacturing and storage facilities. The manufacturing and ingredient and product storage facilities must necessarily be free of toxins (e.g., no toxic cleaning or pest control chemicals, no fumigation with pesticides, etc). Finally, the packaging of certified organic pet foods must be approved by a USDA-accredited organic certification agent to verify that ‘organic’ and other claims made are truthful.
1. Currently, new organic standards—for pet foods—are being developed. These standards will most likely allow the inclusion of more synthetic substances than are currently allowed for organic human and pet foods.
2. The remainder may be non-synthetic substances that cannot be certified organic, such as fish or salt, or synthetic substances included on the National List.
3. The remainder may be non-organic agricultural ingredients, non-synthetic substances or synthetic substances that are included on the USDA National List.
Q: Why should you care whether your pet's food is organic or not?
A: Organic pet foods are safer than conventional versions of the same foods because they: 1) are less contaminated with toxins such as those found in synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge or synthetic pesticides; 2) never contain GMOs which have been shown to both cause health problems and negatively impact the environment; 3) are free of synthetics, such as antibiotics or hormones, which can be used to produce conventional animal-based ingredients; and 4) contain ingredients that are fully traceable to their origins.
Increasing numbers of studies also show that organic ingredients are healthier than their conventional counterparts because they contain higher levels of healthful nutrients. Furthermore, organic agriculture is more sustainable and safer for the environment than conventional agriculture.
Green Seal considers “Organic certification as the most credible label for human and pet foods, also in respect to any green claims.” This is because organic certification is presently the only pet food claim that is regulated and enforced by the Federal government. Certified organic pet food manufacturers are currently under greater scrutiny (e.g., at least one yearly inspection and full disclosure of records, including the organic and non-GMO status of each ingredient used) by government agencies than conventional human food processing plants.
Q: Is organic pet food available for all kinds of pets (i.e: dogs, cats, birds, fish, etc.) or just some?
A: In theory, certified organic pet foods could be available for all kinds of pets. However, overwhelmingly, it is consumer demand that determines which organic food products manufacturers are offering. Presently, although the largest number of organic pet food choices is offered for dogs and cats, there are also organic commercial foods available for birds and small mammals.
Q: Is organic pet food widely available? If not, where are the best places to find it?
A: Yes, organic pet food products are widely available. Certified organic brands are available in natural food stores, conventional grocery stores, ‘brick-and-mortar’ pet supply stores, and through many online pet supply websites.
Q: What should consumers look for to be sure that the pet food they are buying is, indeed, organic?
A: Consumers should look for the the name of the certifying agency, the USDA organic seal, and/or the certified organic claim on the label of the pet food package. These are three easy, telltale indications that a pet food product is USDA certified organic.
Unlike other claims, such as ‘natural,’ ‘holistic,’ ‘premium,’ etc., certified organic pet food claims are regulated and enforced by the Federal government. Remember that non-certified organic pet food claims are not regulated or enforced by the government. This means that pet food manufacturers can market their products as ‘organic’ even though no unbiased party has verified that any of the ingredients used are indeed organic, GMO-free, free of antibiotics or hormones, etc., or that production follows the NOP regulations in any way. In the absence of the ‘certified organic’ statement and a USDA organic seal (their abuse is punishable by heavy fines), the term ‘organic’ is currently used very liberally in the pet food industry. As a result, there are many misleading marketing materials, including ads and website content. in which the term ‘organic’ is used for pet food products that aren’t certified organic at all. In this respect, deceptive online content is particularly widespread. Remarkably—and unfortunately—this is perfectly legal.
Consumers should really be aware of this legal loophole. As one State compliance officer at CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) states: “It is buyer beware of any pet food product that does not show that it is certified by one of the NOP certification agents.”
Although USDA NOP rules define pet foods with a minimum of 95% of organic ingredients as ‘organic’, most manufacturers of such pet food products also use the ‘certified organic’ statement to assure consumers that their organic claim is justifiable. Again, as long as you see the name of the certifying agent, the certified organic claim, and/or the USDA organic seal(at least on the label where they need to be disclosed by law), you are indeed looking at a certified organic pet food product. If you are in doubt about a product you see online, you can always request a copy of the manufacturer’s organic certificate, which indicates which pet food products are indeed certified organic.
Q: What are some of the key ingredients pet owners should look for when buying pet food (i.e.: for their dog or cat)?
A: 1. Always consider if a product contains ingredients that are species-appropriate. For example, cats are obligate carnivores. Dogs are omnivores, but evolved on diets high in animal protein. Disproportionate and widespread use of grains may be one of the major reasons that many cats and dogs develop allergies or food sensitivities. Unfortunately, a large number of food products for these animals contain large amounts of grains; this is something that consumers should watch for when choosing foods and treats for their animals.
2. Steer clear of products that contain ingredients that are not human-grade. This is especially important if the product is not USDA certified organic, as organic certification precludes the use of ingredients that can’t be traced back to their source (e.g., so-called ‘animal byproducts’ or ‘rendered meats’ can originate from a number of sources and animal products, none of which can be traced to source in case of a problem).
3. Look past the front label. The term “natural,” as it appears on many pet food labels, only means that the product contains the actual ingredient, and not a synthetic version. Thus, a product claiming that it is “made with natural chicken” may contain little more than 3% chicken, which could have been raised with the use of antibiotics and genetically engineered feed. Ingredient panels must at least list their ingredients in descending order of quantity. Reading the ingredients panel will let you know which ingredients are most prevalent in the product.
4. Look out for products that are overly processed, or those that contain so-called ‘refined’ ingredients. Refined ingredients, such as refined grain flours (which are often marketed as ‘grains’), are stripped of many of their nutrients; removal of nutrients makes the remaining bulk of these ingredients nutritionally inadequate (e.g., high in calories, low in fiber and nutrients, or simply more allergenic). Most pet foods are baked, cooked, or extruded at high temperatures, processes that destroy a good many nutrients and may make other ingredients unhealthy (e.g., many fats and oils are unstable at high temperature). We recommend pet foods made from whole food ingredients that have been minimally processed. It is worth noting that some manufacturers use previously cooked ingredients (mostly meat and fish) in their dehydrated pet food products.
5. Stay away from ingredients that are obviously unhealthy. This includes sweeteners, such as honey, which have no business being part of a pet’s staple diet; such ingredients only contribute to the explosion of pathologies in our pet population that were all but unknown just a few short decades ago (e.g., obesity, diabetes, arthritis. cancer).
About Heidi Junger
Dr. Heidi Junger earned her diploma degree (Dipl.rer.nat.) and Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Her theses focused on the interdependence of different feeding strategies of animals and the morphology of their digestive and nervous systems.
Dr. Junger spent almost two decades as a postgraduate researcher in biology and animal physiology, with more than 10 years at the University of California, San Diego, CA.
In 2005, Dr. Junger founded her pet food company, Onesta Organics, in San Diego. The company is family-owned and operated and production is not outsourced to a contracted third party. Dr. Junger developed the first commercially available certified organic, raw dehydrated whole food products for small mammals (the so-called ‘pocket pets,’ such as chinchillas, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice and rats) and subsequently raw dehydrated, certified organic whole food-based treats for dogs and cats.