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What’s in a pet food label?

Pet food variety abounds in South Africa, so it is no surprise that not all foods are made equal. To ensure that you are feeding a pet food that is made with integrity and has been duly registered with the authorities, ensure that your chosen brand is a member of the PFI (Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa). These brands have committed to uphold the PFI’s strict code of conduct, to operate in an ethical manner and to always put the wellbeing and safety of the pet first through the manufacturing of safe, nutritious food. It is perhaps the single precaution that you can take to ensure that you are feeding your pets the best that you can afford. Should your brand of choice not be a member of the PFI you should question why they are unwilling to make these commitments and suggest that they align to the PFI’s principles by applying for membership.

More and more pet owners are becoming interested in understanding what they are feeding their pets when opting for a commercially prepared food. Demands for label transparency and formulations that follow human health trends are increasing and knowing where to look on a label can also confirm the brand’s adherence to the legal requirements of registration with Act 36 at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) – proof that the food meets the nutritional requirements of the pet. You should confirm adherence to the law by locating the products “V number” followed by “Act 36 of 1947” printed on the packaging – this serves as proof that the formulation meets the South African regulation in terms of minimum and maximum quantities of each nutrient. This “V number” should accompany the registered holder or company’s details. If you are unable to locate this registration number the product may not legally be sold and it should be reported to Act 36.

The front of pet food packaging will typically include the brand, product-specific information, weight and the product’s strongest claims and should specify the life stage, life style or breed that the food is intended for. In short, it should detail what the product is and detail the strengths of the product (offering further substantiation on the back). Claims are carefully scrutinised at the time of registration with the DAFF to ensure that the relevant proof and documentation exists to support these claims and to ensure that claims are correctly communicated in terms of rules that relate to ingredient content (for example, a brand may make use of the term “rich in” only if the food contains 14% of that specific ingredient or they may state that a food is made “with” an ingredient if there is a minimum of 4% of that ingredient. If it is less than 4% they may only claim that it “contains” the ingredient or is a certain “flavour”, as examples).

The back of the packaging must include 3 distinct bodies of information, namely:

  1. The guaranteed analysis

  2. Ingredients list

  3. Feeding guidelines

Often the unit of measure used is grams per kilogram (which can be divided by 10 to get the percentage) or the percentage figure is specified.

Guaranteed analysis:

  1. This is what the food breaks down to, from a nutrient perspective (i.e. the nutrient levels found in the food).

  2. It specifies the lowest or highest level found in the food and correlates to minimum and maximum levels provided for in the legal requirements of registration.

  3. The top 5 nutrients, which all foods must include, are: protein (for muscle repair), moisture, fat (for energy), fibre and ash (though a scary sounding name, ash is actually derived from bone and correlates to the amount of calcium found in the food). Most economy diets will be made up of these nutrients. Brands differ in the quality of the ingredients that they choose to use and therefore the resultant nutrients that are digested from the food.

  4. It is not compulsory to include all nutrients derived from the ingredients in the guaranteed analysis. However, if a claim is made related to a nutrient, or specific attention is drawn to that nutrient, it must be noted in the guaranteed analysis. This ensures that the product remains true to the guaranteed analysis noted on the packaging.

  5. Generally speaking, the more premium the product, the more you should find in the guaranteed analysis as the longer the list the greater the commitment to the pet in terms of what they will take out of the food.

  6. Sometimes a “typical analysis” will be mentioned, which is the average nutrient level within the packaging, allowing for a 5% deviation


  1. This is the list of ingredients that the manufacturer puts into the food to make up the guaranteed analysis.

  2. Ingredients must be listed in descending order and can be grouped (e.g. a general group called cereals, which allows for deviations in formulations based on availability of products) or will be listed individually.

  3. If you are looking for the individual ingredient list and grouping is used on the product it is best to contact the manufacturer for more detail (have the batch number and best before date handy for easy identification).

Feeding guidelines:

  1. The amount of food that a pet requires each day is based on their individual weight, age and lifestyle.

  2. A guideline is supplied by the manufacturer to guide pet owners in meeting their pet’s individual needs and should be followed to avoid under or over feeding (on some international brands one may even find mention of the food’s energy value, though this is not compulsory in South Africa).

  3. When a range is given one should look to the higher end of the spectrum for more active pets and use the lower end for less active pets.

  4. One should analyse their pet’s condition regularly, to help stay on track and make the necessary adjustments if finding that the pet is too thin (too little food) or overweight / obese (being fed too much).

A final requirement is for the pet food to indicate a period within which the food is safe to consume. This can be done via a best before date or a manufacture date supplemented with an indication of the amount of time that the food is best before.

Now having a better understanding of pet food labels you may wish to change brands. It’s very important that you do a change gradually, slowly decreasing the current food and increasing the new food, to ensure your pet does not suffer any gastrointestinal upsets. The safest choice that you can make is to choose a PFI member brand that suits your budget – in this way you will be feeding the best that you can afford.


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