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Should ingredients from China be in “Made in the USA” pet food?

Ask any pet food consumer today, if they think that ingredients from China should be allowed in pet food labeled Made in the USA, and their answer would likely be a resounding, “Hell, no!”

American consumers are more sensitive than ever to claims that a product is made in America. That’s because of American’s fear of foreign ingredients is grounded in a long and tragic history of horrifying cases of food fraud; starting with the poisoning of hundreds, if not thousands, of American pets following the Chinese melamine contamination of ingredients used in pet food in 2007. Around the same time, dogs began to suffer from an unknown illness linked to jerky treats imported from China.

And the problem continues today, dogs continue to die from some, as yet unnamed, toxin in treats imported from China. As unbelievable as it would seem to anyone who the suffered the loss of a pet due to a suspected imported food or treat, there are still some pet food manufacturers who still import jerky treats, poultry, pork, vitamin and mineral premixes and a multitude of other ingredients for making pet food.

Are consumers being deceived?

The difference today is, because of the well publicized problems with foreign imports, that some pet food companies – instead of being honest about where they get their ingredients – are deliberately deceiving consumers about the true origin of some of their ingredients by slapping American flags and USA made slogans on nearly every pet product they bring to market.

The problem is, that most consumers believe that products made in America, are made using ingredients that were made, grown and harvested in America too. They believe that because, not only are they trusting, but they believe in the American legal system that exists to protect them from deceptive marketing practices.

But, just as there are a multitude of strict Federal and State laws governing deceptive Made in the USA claims, there are also plenty of pet food companies whose only motivation is to increase profit at any expense by skillfully skirting those laws.

Who’s in charge of protecting consumers?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has jurisdiction to act against deceptive acts and practices over any US. origin claim, such as Made in USA, that is expressly or implicitly conveyed in product labeling or advertising.

As the FTC advises, US. origin claims can be conveyed not only by statements regarding the domestic origin of products, but through the use of “U.S. symbols, geographic references, or other symbols or statements that suggest a connection between the product and domestic origin (e.g., U.S. flags, outlines of U.S. maps, patriotic symbols, etc.). A U.S. origin claim, like any other objective advertising claim, must be truthful and substantiated.

In order to make an unqualified U.S. origin claim, the FTC has long held that companies “must possess and rely upon a reasonable basis that the product is in fact all or virtually all made in the United States” and that “[T]he product should contain no – or negligible – foreign content.

For pet food manufacturers, this will generally require them to know not only the origin of the ingredients they acquire to make finished product, but also the origin of the sub-components of those ingredients.

How essential are vitamins and minerals in pet food?

But what happens when the food has a trace amount of foreign ingredients, such as vitamins and minerals? The FTC has never defined what “all or mostly all” made in the U.S. means, but what they consider is, not only the final cost of producing the product (including the ingredients, packaging, and processing), but whether those foreign ingredients and processing are significant to the final product and their importance to its function.

I would argue that with regard to pet food vitamins and minerals are not only significant, but essential to the final product.

Consider: in order for a pet food to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profiles, it must contain every nutrient listed in the profile at the specified level. To have “complete and balanced” in the nutritional adequacy statement, a dog or cat food must either meet one of the Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles established by AAFCO.

Therefore, while the cost of the vitamins and minerals may be small relative to overall manufacturing costs, if it is integral to the function of the product, it may be significant enough to negate a claim of Made in the USA.

Why do pet food companies fudge Made in the USA claims?

Sourcing every single last ingredient from the US can be challenging for manufacturers who rely on cheap vitamin and mineral premixes. Therefore, I suggest, if US sourced vitamins poses such a prohibitive cost, they may wish to reconsider making any unqualified claims, and just stick with the much safer alternative: the qualified claim (such as “Made in the USA with vitamins and minerals sourced from China”).

What should consumers do about questionable claims?

Did you know, that for the FTC to investigate a potential concern regarding food labels, a complaint must be filed? Therefore, if you find a questionable USA claim on a pet food (including the packaging, the labels, brochures, or on the manufacturer’s website), the FTC would like to hear from you.

The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. So, make them earn their pay and file a complaint with the FTC or to get more information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). If you suspect noncompliance, you may file a complaint online with the FTC Complaint Assistant at or send an e-mail to MUSA@ftc.gov.

More resources for consumers faced with iffy claims

If you know about import or export fraud, file a complaint with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They handle country of origin laws (completely unrelated to Made in the USA claims).

You also can contact your state attorney general to report a company. The state attorney general is the chief legal advisor to the state government and the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Find your state’s attorney general can be found by clicking on their photo and it will take directly to your state attorney general’s web page where there will be a link to file a complaint.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and advisor to AAFCO. Help support her work by making a donation today.

Comments (15) Write a comment

  1. I feed my dog a product that includes salmon. I discovered that it came FROM THE OCEAN. It wasn’t “grown in the USA”, it grew IN THE OCEAN. But then I figured, that’s where fish come from, right? And, I found out that most of the lamb and venison in dog food comes from New Zealand. But that’s a “first world” country, so I figure that’s nothing to be concerned about, either.

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  2. The manufacturers also get higher prices for Made in USA and country of origin US labelled food. The laws and interpretations of those laws are unfortunately going in the wrong direction, leaving consumers hanging without much recourse. All manufacturers retain legal teams who advise them on how far they can push the laws without going over the line and ultimately defend their unscrupulous claims from any sort of consequence other than the informed consumer boycotting their products.

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    • I think their lawyers might want to read the FTC Act more carefully, because if a part or an ingredient is essential to its function (such as vitamins and minerals in a complete and balanced AAFCO approved diet), the law states, that those parts that are significant to the function of the product must come from the US.

      I also think that if consumers complained to the FTC, more action would be taken. The FTC only acts when a possible violation is brought to their attention by either a consumer or a competitor. Then, perhaps pf companies wouldn’t play so fast and loose with the law – if they knew they could get busted by the FTC.

      So, if you found a suspected violation – report it! https://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/submit-consumer-complaint-ftc

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  3. There is no confusion here on the part of manufacturers. This is not a new point in history. China is about the only place that makes bulk additives… that came about as a financial process, with US and other companies developing their sourcing process to getting things cheap. The Chinese industry was built that way, it didn’t present itself autonomously to the global market.

    You correctly state that “… pet food vitamins and minerals are not only significant, but essential to the final product.” Yes, essential: owing to modern sourcing protocols, which mean that all the garbage that is used needs to be incinerated and processed to obliterate contaminants… and those vitamin premixes are essential to replace what is being lost during that process. Pet food manufacturers take out the good stuff… and then have to use premix to put it back in to meet stated nutritional levels. And if they cared at all about consumers, a US-based industry would have come to being to satisfy this need.

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    • I was being kind – using the word “confused,” I don’t want to get sued too!

      You are absolutely correct about China cornering the market on cheap bulk additives, although vitamins and minerals are available in the US, they are just a lot more expensive.

      I think my argument is a good one, and hopefully lawyers out there will agree that “complete and balanced” pet food cannot be sold without the required vitamins and minerals, and that they are essential to the product’s function, therefore making a claim that the product is “Made in the USA” is false and misleading if they source them from overseas.

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      • Yes, US sourced additives are just more expensive. That’s just it. The whole game wrapped up in a few words. Integrity and safety be damned. I wish you were heading up the FDA so that we could look forward to some enforcement and real-world analysis of current manufacturing process.

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        • And my point is – if they want to make the claim they are going to have to buy the more expensive ingredients. Period. Otherwise don’t try and bs consumers. Another period.

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  4. No food made for dogs in the USA should EVER be made in China.. I do not buy any products made in China…

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  5. All of the verbal legalities have NO place in daily “real” life. Just as we are allowed to mark a shirt “made in the USA” if a button is sewn on it by a machine in the USA…so we have the legal right to confound the public with lies concerning animal foods and human foods!! If something is really “made in the USA” it is safe to say that consumers are assuming the ingredients are locally sourced…you are right Mollie Morrissette…we must not allow this!! Protection of the producers and misguiding the consumers is absolutely immoral!

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    • Interesting you should point out the clothing issue – there is a major lawsuit that was just settled on about just that subject (it’s jeans actually), they sued because the zipper, button and other parts were from another country they cannot be labeled as “Made in the USA”: “...thanks to an until-recently obscure California statute that declares it a deceptive practice for a product to be labeled “Made in USA” if even the smallest component of the product is manufactured abroad.

      The case was settled after they couldn’t get the case dismissed.

      The defendants had argued that California’s “Made in USA” statute is preempted by the Federal Trade Commission Act; the FTC employs a looser standard when it evaluates “Made in USA” claims for deception, allowing patriotic labeling so long as “all or virtually all” of a product is made domestically. The district court rejected that argument. Although acknowledging the disparity between the California and FTC standards, the court held that the two standards did not conflict and that Nordstrom could comply with both laws by using qualifying language on its “Made in USA” label for products sold in California.

      Unfortunately, the California law was just amended to align it more with the FTC Act. More on that later – in another post…

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  6. There needs to be a new, official designation which some do indicate on their bags of treats and food already but not certified I don’t think, Made and sourced in USA” or Made in USA of US ingredients only. It would distinguish them then from only Made in the USA

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    • The problem that manufacturers don’t realize is that Made in the USA is supposed to mean just that: “all or virtually all” ingredients. It is an unqualified claim. A qualified claim is “Made in the USA with vitamins from China” or a similar type of disclaimer. They should just use those and not try to deceive consumers with a perfectly good law. And it would be if consumers complained to the FTC.

      California had a truly 100% ONLY “Made in the USA” claims law (which superseded the FTC’s law), but sadly, it just got amended (watered-down) to include 5% ingredients (or parts) of foreign origin or 10% part foreign origin if the manufacturer shows they cannot buy it domestically (not just “sourced” in the US from an importer, but actually made, grown – created from scratch – in the US).

      Sad too, because so many of those Made in the USA pet food class actions were filed in California.

      Now, whether the courts will uphold the former (un-watered down) version of the California law, remains to be seen. Many are watching these class actions to see how the judges intemperate them.

      Fingers crossed!

      Reply

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