What is a “Feed Grade” Pet Food? How Does it Differ From a “Human Grade” pet food? The Answer Will Shock You

What does “feed grade” mean? It’s not something most people think about when buying pet food. But probably the most important thing to know when choosing pet food is the difference between human-grade and feed-grade. Did you know that more than 95% of pet food is feed-grade? 

When you finish reading this article, you’ll know what it is and why you should avoid it like the plague. If knowing – and reading pages – why pet food regulation is such a mess is not your cup of tea, scroll to the bottom, where I cut to the chase and tell you why feed-grade pet food is terrible.

But If the working definition the Centers for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) proposed indicates what we can expect from the brightest minds in government, then we need all the help we can get. Here’s their suggestion:

“CVM – The substance is of an appropriate grade and suitable purity and is prepared and handled as an animal food ingredient.”

Oh boy.

Understanding the differences between federal law and federal compliance policies within three entirely separate governing bodies: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Veterinary Medicine CVM, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) are mind-boggling. But I’m here to break it down and explain why pet food regulation is not just complicated; it’s a mess.

The FDA regulates ingredients used in pet foods by setting maximum and minimum limits on specific nutrients and banning antibiotics and medications. The USDA is responsible for meat quality and decides which animals can be used in pet foods.

Lastly, we have AAFCO, which has its definition of “feed grade.” According to AAFCO:

“Feed Grade: Material that has been determined to be safe, functional and suitable for its intended use in animal food, is handled and labeled appropriately, and conforms to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act unless otherwise expressly permitted by the appropriate state or federal agency (suitable for use in animal feed).”

The problem with AAFCO’s definition is this bit: “unless otherwise expressly permitted by the appropriate state or federal agency.” Because the FDA has enforcement discretion, has written guidance documents, and has compliance policies for the pet food industry, if inedible ingredients are used, the FDA will allow it. The FDA allows for the use of diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter as long as it has been cooked at a temperature to kill bacteria.


Before we start, it helps to know the legal foundation on which all food is based (and that includes food for animals): The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that all animal foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.

Under the FFDCA 201(f), food is defined as articles used for food or drink for man or other animals. Therefore, pet food manufacturing is subject to the FFDC.


Yet, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) states, “animal feeds provide a practical outlet for plant and animal by-products not suitable for human consumption,” a statement contradictory to the regulations of the FFDCA, which apply equally to human and animal foods.

The FDA/CVM believes that as long as pet food is made from diseased animals, it is okay as long as it’s cooked. 

“…Processed pet food, including pet food consisting of material from diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, goes through a kill step, such as heat processing, which is designed to kill harmful bacteria…


…Before processing, these commodities may be considered in violation of 402(a)(5), however, when properly processed in accordance with these regulations, CVM considers canned pet foods, otherwise not in violation of the statute or regulations, to be safe and suitable for consumption by pets regardless of the origin of animal tissues used…


….however, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) is aware of no instances of disease or other hazard occurring from canned packing house offal or the tissues of animals that may have died otherwise than by slaughter.

Even though the FFDCA says one thing, the FDA has these loopholes called ‘Compliance Policies’ that essentially let some pretty awful stuff into pet food.

Example #1: FDA Compliance Policy (675.400 Rendered Animal Feed Ingredients) the agency states:

“No regulatory action will be considered for animal feed ingredients resulting from the ordinary rendering process of industry, including those using animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, provided they are not otherwise in violation of the law.”

Example #2: FDA Compliance Policy (690.300 Canned Pet Food) says:

“Pet food consisting of material from diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, which is in violation of 402(a)(5) will not ordinarily be actionable, if it is not otherwise in violation of the law. It will be considered fit for animal consumption.

Example #3: FDA’s Compliance Policy (675.100 Diversion of Contaminated Food for Animal Use) which states:

“FDA does not object to the diversion to animal feed of human food adulterated with rodent, roach, or bird excreta.

Example #4: FDA Compliance Policy (675.200 Diversion of Adulterated Food to Acceptable Animal Feed Use) states:

The Center will consider the requests for diversion of food considered adulterated for human use in all situations where the diverted food will be acceptable for its intended animal food use. Such situations may include:

a. Pesticide contamination in excess of the permitted tolerance or action level.
b. Pesticide contamination where the pesticide involved is unapproved for use on a food or feed commodity.
c. Contamination by industrial chemicals.
d. Contamination by natural toxicants.
e. Contamination by filth.
f. Microbiological contamination.
g. Over tolerance or unpermitted drug residues.


The answer to “What is Feed Grade?” lies deeply embedded in federal law within the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Code of Federal Regulations.

What is the meaning of “Feed Grade?”

It’s “inedible.”

By definition, any food deemed not fit for human consumption is defined as “inedible:”

“Inedible” is defined by regulation as adulterated, uninspected, or not intended for use as human food…Most “inedible product” generated by retail processing is normally edible product that has been chosen by the establishment to be downgraded to inedible product, mainly because there is no further use for it as an edible product.


True inedible product is that product that has been contaminated or adulterated and therefore is not acceptable as an edible product or as ingredient of an edible product or used to produce and edible product.


An example of true inedible is the fat and meat scraps removed from drains at the end of the processing operations cleaning activities.”


“…hide or skin, hair, horns, teeth, fats, bone, ligaments and cartilage, feet, glands, blood, and lungs. Some inedible offal, along with normally edible offal that has been deemed unsuitable for human consumption, bones from meat processing, and cattle that are unsuitable for human consumption (nonambulatory and other condemned cattle), is rendered for use in the industrial, cosmetic, and feed manufacturing industries.

Alternatively, the USDA defines products “fit for human consumption” to be officially “edible.” These foodstuffs have been processed, inspected, and passed manufacturing regulations (i.e., process control regulations) designed to assure safety for human consumption.


“The regulations require that each condemned carcass, part, or visceral organ be marked with the “U.S. Inspected and Condemned” brand (312.6(a) (5), 381.101). If the condemned product cannot be branded because of its size or texture, it must be placed in a container identified with the words “U.S. Condemned.” Condemned product is to be disposed of by tanking.” (aka rendering)


“…meat, meat by products, poultry, poultry by products, poultry meal that are the “clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals.”



We circle back to the “edible” v. “inedible” terms again. Because “feed grade” by definition is “inedible,” then, obviously, “human grade” is “edible.”

Because AAFCO has no legal definition covering quality standards or grades of ingredients in general, marketing terms such as human-grade will continue to proliferate. They will be used to attempt to identify sources of quality animal tissue ingredients that come from USDA-inspected facilities and have passed USDA inspection for human consumption. Until there are measurable attributes (standards) that describe the value and utility of the product, companies will continue to use these types of terms.


“Because the terms “human grade” and “human quality” have no legal definition – simply means that AAFCO has no requirements regarding them. Claims that the product is “human grade” must be true according criteria spelled out in regulations. If a manufacturer is able to substantiate and verify the claim, it neither untruthful nor misleading and a company has a constitutional right to make truthful statements about the human grade quality of its products on the labels. In order to avoid problems with regulators, a pet food manufacturer should obtain a statement of No Objection from the Federal FDA.”

However, the FDA isn’t going to do that anymore. Recently, the FDA decided not to issue more “Statements of No Objection” or “Letters of No Objection” to pet food companies that make pet food in USDA-registered human food production facilities with human edible ingredients.

For a human grade claim, like any label claim, a manufacturer or distributor should have information to substantiate that the claim is truthful and not misleading. We believe claims that a product is made with human grade ingredients represent the product as a whole to be fit for human consumption…


…In order to substantiate that a human grade claim is truthful and not misleading, a manufacturer or distributor should have information from each of the individual ingredient suppliers that verifies the individual ingredients supplied to the manufacturer are fit for human consumption.


“…This term has no definition in any animal feed regulations. Instead, it is a marketing creation that aims to convince consumers those products so-emblazoned are somehow better than others…”


“…Claims that a product contains or is made from ingredients that are, “human grade,” “human quality,” “people foods,” “ingredients you would eat,” “food(s) that you would feed your family,” or similar claims, are false and misleading unless the entire product, itself, meets the USDA and FDA standards for foods to be edible by humans.

Conversely, the USDA does not recognize the “human grade” claim. Wisely, the USDA defines food as either “edible” or “inedible.”


According to the FDA, the answer is yes. This begs another question: is raw pet food “human food” or “pet food” – or both? The FDA says it should be edible – for humans, that is:

“All meat- and poultry-derived ingredients should be United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)-inspected and passed for human consumption…”


“…Safety: It is unlawful to introduce into interstate commerce any food, including food for pets and for other animals, which is adulterated (Section 301(a) of the FFDCA). Among the circumstances in which a food will be deemed adulterated are when: …(c) it is, in whole or in part, the product of a diseased animal or of an animal that has died otherwise than by slaughter (Section 402(a) of the FFDCA).”


“CVM is aware of the sale of dead, dying, disabled, or diseased (4-D) animals to salvagers for use as animal food. Meat from these carcasses is boned and the meat is packaged or frozen without heat processing. The raw, frozen meat is shipped for use by several industries, including pet food manufacturers, zoos, greyhound kennels, and mink ranches. This meat may present a potential health hazard to the animals that consume it and to the people who handle it.


POLICY: Uncooked meat derived from 4-D animals is adulterated under Section 402(a)(5) of the Act, and its shipment in interstate commerce for animal food use is subject to appropriate regulatory action.”


Q. Can inedible products for pet food be manufactured in the edible product department using the same equipment used for edible products (e.g., oven)?

A. Yes, but with restrictions. Importantly, the following criteria must be met:

“The inedible product must be as specifically provided for in either 9 CFR 314.11 for certain condemned materials, 9 CFR 318.12(a) for other non-human food, or 9 CFR 381.152(a) as approved by the Administrator in specific cases.”


“The establishment must ensure that the equipment, facilities, and utensils are maintained in a sanitary condition in accordance with 9 CFR 416 to prevent the adulteration of edible product (produced for human consumption).”


Should you worry? Theoretically, no. But in the real world, Yes, you should worry. A lot.

The problem is that even though there are plenty of good laws on the books, pet food labels are not a regulatory enforcement priority, so they are seldom acted upon, no matter how untruthful.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC): While the FTC backed out of enforcing pet food labeling in 1999 (they said it was up to the FDA to do that), the states have laws protecting consumers from false advertising. FTC concluded that their guides were no longer needed since Model Pet Food Regulations issued by AAFCO and regulations promulgated by the FDA provide specific guidance to industry members about claims regarding nutrition, ingredients, and product characteristics.

Fair Packaging and Labeling Act: The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act contains additional regulations designed to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling and to help make it possible for consumers to make value comparisons between products. Federal regulations concerning pet food labeling are published in Title 21, part 501 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Did you know that all 50 states have enacted laws regulating false advertising or deceptive marketing, which often include these statutes under the state’s Deceptive or Unfair Trade Practices Act?

So, anyone, no matter where they live in the U.S., can file a complaint. A consumer complaint alleging that a company engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices, such as false or misleading advertising, would be brought under the general consumer protection statutes. You should know that if consumers are fed up with phony food claims, they can, and should, bring it to the attention of their state’s attorney general.

Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act (UDTPA): Twenty states have adopted UDTPA, and under this Act, it is a deceptive trade practice to “represent that goods or services have sponsorship, approval, characteristics, ingredients, uses, benefits, or quantities that they do not have.” Failure to state a “material fact” is considered illegal in only fourteen states. Twenty-eight states include broad provisions against misrepresentation of goods or misleading practices.


Congratulations! You made it this far; that is an accomplishment in and of itself. So, even if you didn’t understand what was written, don’t feel bad; you’re not alone. Now for the winning definition…

“feed grade” ingredients are…drumroll…INEDIBLE!

By law, the definition of feed-grade material is anything not fit for human consumption (i.e., inedible).

Even though the feed ingredient review and approval has become a cumbersome and lengthy fractionated process that lacks transparency and, sometimes, good scientific sense, we will continue to try to convince the industry that they cannot have it both ways. Consumers deserve to know exactly what that means if they want to define feed grade.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, AAFCO has formally defined what “human grade” means. It is defined as: 

“Human Grade: Every ingredient and the resulting product are stored, handled, processed, and transported in a manner that is consistent and compliant with regulations for current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) for human edible foods as specified in 21 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 117.”

dog cat poisoned pets safe food warnings news recalls alerts

Poisoned Pets | Pet Food Safety News remains free (and ad-free) and takes me many, many hours of laborious work to research and write, and thousands of dollars a year to sustain. Help keep Poisoned Pets alive by making a donation. Thank you.




Mollie Morrissette

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

Comments (8) Write a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.