Most pet parents who take their pet’s food seriously have some experience with finding some “technically true” marketing claims on the multitude of pet foods available to them. When you start looking for it, it’s easy to read between the lines of “made with real [ingredient]” when you know it’s been processed and stripped of nearly all nutritional value or how a meal that’s “made with organic [ingredient]” can still have other chemical and preservative-laden components. But one claim can be trickier to refute at first glance: “made with human-grade ingredients.”
Similar to the way that a meal that contains organic ingredients at the start may not be a fully organic meal when it’s finished being processed, just because your pet’s food was made with human-grade ingredients doesn’t mean the resulting meal is human-grade. So this week, let’s get into what makes a human-grade meal, what makes it different from feed grade, and why it matters.
What Makes Food Human Grade?
If you’ve only recently encountered the term “human grade,” you’re not alone. It’s specific to the pet food industry, but technically isn’t legally defined—the actual legal term it’s replacing is “edible.” “Edible” is the sort of bland, all-encompassing term for food that most people don’t think about because every food we buy at the grocery store or at a restaurant is deemed edible—why would you think about the alternative?
But there’s a hidden world of food processing and safety measures that goes into making human-grade food. To qualify as “edible” or human grade, every ingredient in a meal must meet certain criteria laid out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that makes it safe for human consumption—such as being free of disease, rot, or infestation, among other disqualifying states. If even one component isn’t considered human grade, the finished product cannot be considered “edible.”
It goes further: not only does the meal need to be composed of 100% edible ingredients, but it needs to be transported, packaged, and handled in accordance with the CFIA’s standards for human-grade food, which is wherein lies the discrepancies with “Made with human-grade ingredients.” Even if a meal contains 100% human-grade ingredients but isn’t transported, packaged, and handled to CFIA’s standards for edible food in addition to being processed in a human-grade facility, then the resulting product will not be considered human-grade.
Why Not Settle for Feed Grade?
There’s a spectrum of feed-grade foods in the pet food industry; some companies may be only using one or two non-edible ingredients, and some may be using almost exclusively feed-grade ingredients.
The problem is it’s not always easy to tell where to draw the line. Some recipes’ primary ingredients are by-products such as chicken meal, made by rendering the leftover chicken carcasses after they’ve been processed for human food; others have ingredients, like tripe, which are great for dogs but aren’t considered edible, human-grade items. Finally, some meals might seem like a quality raw option, but they could be made with what is known in the pet food industry as “the 4D’s”: meat from dying, diseased, disabled, or dead animals—and of course, this wouldn’t be information these companies would readily advertise. When feed-grade meats are separated at the slaughterhouse, they may still look exactly the same as their human-grade counterparts. To avoid confusion further down the line, they’ll be sprayed with a coloured chemical to set them apart. For vegetables, this could include various states of decay or infestation, and feed-grade vitamins and supplements are of lesser quality and aren’t held to the same standards as human supplements.
Proponents of feed-grade food will proclaim that there’s nothing wrong with feeding sub-par ingredients to animals; it has been, after all, the common practice for livestock and most pets for decades. We would argue that the difference here comes down to the intention behind their food: feed-grade food is considered “complete and balanced” for the animals it’s fed to, but it’s only designed to keep them healthy until they can be processed, not necessarily to sustain them for long, healthy lives into old age.
How Will You Know?
If you’re wondering how to be sure you’re getting human-grade food for your pets, first consider how many steps and protocols a company has to adhere to in order to produce a product of that quality. Not only will the price likely reflect that effort (the age-old adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” applies here), but the company producing the food won’t hesitate to let everyone know what they’re doing to produce high-quality pet food.
HACCP is the standard for human food production in Canada, and we believe it should be the standard for our pet’s food, too. Start by looking for a company that uses a HACCP-verified facility and inspected, human-grade ingredients: a 3rd-party audits the facility to let you know they’re doing everything to meet safety standards for processing human food. Remember, however, as we mentioned before: if a human-grade facility doesn’t use human-grade ingredients (or vice versa), the final product is considered feed-grade.
Companies should also be sharing where they’re sourcing their ingredients from, as some countries may have less stringent requirements for how they treat and raise their livestock. Don’t be afraid to do some digging on the web or even call the company if you’re curious about where exactly your pet’s food originated.
The long and short of it is if a company is going above and beyond to offer a human-grade, high-quality product, it would be in their best interest to share their efforts loudly and proudly; if you can’t find confirmation or further details on their quality-related claims, then that should be your first red flag!
The Grey Area for Our Pets
Human and feed grades are important distinctions when it comes to feeding our pets a high-quality diet, but it’s not always so black and white. As we briefly mentioned, just because a food item is classified as human grade—for example, chocolate—doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for our pets. In the same way, there are foods our pets can benefit from but aren’t considered human-grade since they’re not suited for human consumption. The prime example from this category is tripe: raw, unbleached tripe is great for our dogs, but any meal it’s included in won’t be considered human grade unless it is bleached, cooked, and bacteria-free.
While tripe has huge benefits, it also comes with a higher risk of pathogenic bacteria. Look for companies who go into detail about what bacteria they test for, how they test, and how often they test; for tripe, you want to ensure your chosen company is testing their tripe regularly for pathogenic strains of E. coli (not all E. coli is bad or disease inducing!)
Here’s a quick checklist for human-grade versus pet-grade foods—you can find more helpful information like this in our free ebook: Creating a High-Quality Diet for Your Pet’s High-Quality Life!
The Final Grade
After all that, you may think it could be easier to buy raw meat at the grocery store and make it yourself. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, either. Because raw food for our pets is meant to be fed as-is, it should face more stringent safety requirements compared to raw meats in the grocery store, which are produced with the understanding that they will be cooked prior to consumption. Therefore, it is up to the raw pet food manufacturer to ensure that each batch is safe for consumption as-is. When choosing a raw pet food brand, look for food that is made with human-grade inspected ingredients, produced in a human-grade facility, undergoes frequent testing, and has a pathogen control program in place to reduce bacterial risks as much as possible.