Contemplating the Concept Of “Human Grade” Pet Foods

Dr. Patty Khuly

Human Grade pet Food
Do you ever wander the aisles of your local pet food store, deep in contemplation? I do. I can’t help but marvel at the miracle of modern pet care and the thousands of products our collective pet obsession has spawned.

Awestruck as I always am in these situations (I don’t go to these places often!), my veterinary side sometimes wins out and I’ll find myself thinking about the many labeling claims made on pet food. Of these, none is more impressive than the term “human grade.”

If you shop thoughtfully for your pets’ food, you may have wondered about this label too. What, exactly, does “human grade” mean? Take a guess; which of the following do you think is meant by “human grade”?

a) The food is tasty enough for humans
b) It’s healthy enough for humans
c) It’s safe enough for humans
d) All of the above
e) None of the above

Yes, the last choice wins, which partially explains why I’ve always thought of “human grade” as a murky designation. It’s even more so given the FDA’s historically lax regulation of pet foods (especially when it comes to safety).

Then there’s the issue of labeling food for humans to consider. When even supermarket fare marketed for human consumption harbors controversy on the labeling of everything from “green,” “sustainable,” “grass fed” and “organic” to “heart healthy,” “low-calorie,” “sugar-free” and “lower fat,” can you blame me for being skeptical? I mean, if a Dorito can be considered “human grade,” the term probably doesn’t mean all that much, right?

All kidding aside, the question remains: what exactly makes a pet food worthy of the “human grade” moniker? So let’s try this again. Is the term “human grade” determined by:

a) The digestibility of the ingredients?
b) The lack of “fillers” and “by-products”?
c) An abundance of laboratory testing for ensured wholesomeness?
d) All of the above
e) None of the above

OK, so that was another trick question. Choice e) wins again.

No, “human grade” doesn’t mean that your pet’s food isn’t full of the standard stuff you might consider “fillers.” It doesn’t say anything about by-products either. And it certainly doesn’t mean it’s automatically better for your pets than any of the other foods out there.

“Human grade” really means that the ingredients were handled in accordance with safety standards the FDA requires for the foods we humans buy at the market. Not only are these foods a) made with human-grade or human-quality ingredients, the finished product itself must be b) made in a production facility that meets all the criteria required for any human food facility.

In other words, that beef carcass that fell off the line and had to get the floor goo washed off it, the “downer” cow that had to be culled because it was probably sick, the goods from the processing plant that failed its recent inspection … all of these are examples of ingredients regularly deemed acceptable for pet food, but which are not suitable for human consumption.

That’s because every ingredient in a product must be edible by people to be eligible for “human grade” status. Then there’s the processing facility itself to consider. If the facility doesn’t meet all the sanitation specifications for facilities that produce food for sale to humans, it can’t label itself “human grade.”

The trouble is that there’s no formal legal definition of the term “human grade.” Despite this hiccup, the FDA is OK with the term’s use on pet foods as long as the food meets other ingredient and processing criteria.

For some consumers that’s great. But for me, human grade isn’t necessarily all it’s chalked up to be. After all, I’ve seen some pretty awful pet food cooked up in human kitchens. I’ve also come across some fantastic fare that couldn’t earn a “human grade” label because there were beaks and feet in there.

Nothing wrong with beaks and feet, I say. After all, if a Frito and a Twinkie can be considered human grade just because the ingredients are roughly edible, I can’t see why anyone should quibble with the nutritional content of feathers. (Not as long as they’re handled with care and included in a formula that’s nutritionally balanced, that is.)

What does get to me, though, is the fact that human-grade sanitation levels aren’t required for all pet food. (Kudos to “human grade” pet foods for that!) After all, when basic sanitation isn’t mandatory it calls into question the safety of pet food in general. And since there’s no due process for assessing the safety of your pet’s food beyond an informal label when human safety standards are met, it casts doubt on the entire system of pet food production…for me, at least.

Wow, that’s a lot of thinking for just one trip down the pet food aisle. I think I need an Oreo now. Or maybe a Ding-Dong …

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