Vets, canine 'nutritionists', and pet food companies will tell you that raw diets do not meet the established standards for pet nutrition—the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards. AAFCO approval is the "Golden Seal" of quality when it comes to pet foods, and because raw diets do not have this seal of approval, many imply that they are inferior to commercial foods. But what are the AAFCO standards? How did AAFCO come up with these standards? Should they be viewed as the "Golden Seal of Approval?" Is it a valid argument to compare commercial, processed foods and raw foods using these standards?
AAFCO standards and nutrient profiles were established through collaboration between scientific experts in the industry, in academia (such as universities), and in the regulatory commission (National Research Commission, or NRC). These experts looked at the peer-reviewed literature and documented data available to them and then formulated nutrient profiles after collaboration. These nutrient profiles have been updated once and are scheduled to be updated again. At this point I would like to note that Nature's nutritional standards for dogs and cats has not changed within the past several thousand years since the species' existence (hundred thousand and even million years if you include their ancestors).
Some argue that AAFCO profiles are the best there is, but others argue that AAFCO profiles are simply 'better than nothing.' Indeed, the standards can lull people into a false sense of security about the food they feed their pets. They think it is nutritionally complete, when in reality it may not be truly complete. Additionally, AAFCO profiles have not been tested or reproduced (and one of the biggest principles of science is that the method must be reproducible and the results verifiable.). There are no studies that prove "their adequacies or inadequacies" (Quinton Rogers, DVM, PhD, as quoted in "Alternative Feeding Practices" by Susan Wynn. To see the full article, click here.). It is, at best, an educated guess as to what our animals really need, and is based on less-than-scientific principles.
There are several other things wrong with these standards that AAFCO uses to ensure foods are 100% 'complete and balanced.' The standards were developed based on the belief that dogs are omnivores and can be properly maintained on a grain-based diet. They are therefore irrelevant to raw diets. Why? First, to gain nutritional analysis, the food must be chemically denatured, cooked, purified, and otherwise manipulated, meaning that any reading is an inaccurate representation of the raw item. This also means that the interactions between nutrients are overlooked as each nutrient is studied separately rather than in conjunction with the others (and this will be discussed below).
Second, the NRC profiles (which AAFCO used to develop its own profiles) assume 100% bioavailability. However, if a dog is fed as an omnivore, there are good amounts of nutrients unavailable to it that are contained in the indigestible plant matter. Phytates in particular (contained in abundance in grains and soy products—which kibbles often contain in substantial amounts) are well-known for interfering with valuable nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium. Hence, you have to feed more of these nutrients in order for the dog to get the amount it needs; what the dog actually needs and uses is NOT the same amount of nutrient initially added. This results in skewed and biased standards, as they list the initial nutrient amount added, not the amount absorbed. Thus, bioavailability is less than 100%, and the nutrients in the standards are therefore inaccurate representations of what the dog really needs.
There is a third reason why AAFCO standards are useless for raw foods. This deals with the reason the food is raw and not cooked. AAFCO standards are based on cooked or processed foods (processed in order to be evaluated), foods which already have a decreased nutritional value because of being cooked or processed. Cooking denatures proteins and collagen, destroys important nutrients, and generally makes the food less digestible and less bioavailable (the exception being grains and vegetables, which we have already determined should not be given to dogs anyway). This means essential vitamins and minerals must be added back in. But how much? In what amounts? Research has shown that synthetic vitamins do not work with the same efficiency as those found in their natural state (i.e. in raw foods). Additionally, many vitamins and minerals interact with each other both negatively and positively. For example, vitamin C increases the uptake of iron, whereas Vitamin E inhibits the uptake of iron. Vitamin C also lowers zinc and manganese uptake, whereas Vitamin E helps increase zinc and manganese absorption (www.acu-cell.com/nico.html). Commercial pet foods should contain all of these nutrients, but are they contained in the proper amounts? And just what is a 'proper amount'? The difficulties for establishing proper amounts have already been discussed. Do they have methods for monitoring the complex interactions of all these nutrients? Since feeding trials simply look at palatability, survival, and the appearance of health, these complex interactions are ignored. Cooking and processing food also kills enzymes that may help with the digestion of the food and the processing of nutrients, so the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals in cooked foods is further reduced (Lonsdale, T. 2001. Raw Meaty Bones. Chapter 4.).
Let us also look at the actual AAFCO feeding trials themselves. Are these really the 'Golden Seal of Approval' that pet food manufacturers make them out to be? AAFCO feeding trials consist of at least eight dogs being fed the same diet for a mere 26 weeks (approximately six months). During this time, 25% of the dogs (so, two animals) can be removed from the test and the dogs eating the food can lose up to 15% of their weight and condition; the food will still pass the test and be labeled "complete and balanced." But extrapolate these figures to the number of animals eating this food for much longer than 26 weeks and you will have much more of a problem! If a food caused dogs to start losing condition over the 26 week period yet still passed, imagine how many animals would fail to thrive in real life while being fed this food for years?
As long as the remaining dogs in the trial appear healthy and have acceptable weights and certain blood values, the food passes and is considered 'complete and balanced' nutrition for whatever lifestage for which it was tested (puppy, adult maintenance, geriatric, etc.). So it can now be fed to your pet for a period much longer than the six-month test period. However, AAFCO feeding trials were NOT designed to measure the long-term effects of commercial diets. It says so right in their mission statement (Lonsdale, T. 2001. Raw Meaty Bones. pg 216). AAFCO trials were designed to ensure that pet foods were not "harmful to the animal and would support the proposed life stage" (pg 216, Raw Meaty Bones.) for a period of 26 weeks. The AAFCO protocols were NOT designed to "examine nutritional relationships to long-term health or disease prevention" (pg 216). If a dog lives for six months with no noticeable ill effects on a kibble, then the food is considered 100% complete and balanced nutrition, even though long-term nutritional deficiencies may occur several years down the road.
These "complete and balanced" and "not harmful" pet foods can destroy long-term health and cause disease and yet still be marketed as a healthy food for your pet. This has been PROVEN true. An example would be the lamb and rice commercial diets that had met or exceeded the nutrient profiles of AAFCO, and that had passed the AAFCO feeding protocol yet created a taurine deficiency in the dogs that ate them (Torres, C.L.; Backus, R.C.; Fascetti, A.J.; and Rogers, Q.R. Taurine status in normal dogs fed a commercial diet associated with taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. 87 (2003). 359-372.). The dogs suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy; what is particularly distressing is that dogs can synthesize taurine from the readily-available (at least, in raw food) amino acids methionine and cysteine (whereas cats cannot), yet they still developed cardiomyopathy from this AAFCO-approved food! As a result, taurine is added into many commercial diets, but what about the dog owners whose pets became seriously ill and perhaps even died as a result of this oversight? What other "unknown oversights" are waiting to be discovered through more pain and anguish inflicted upon our pets? Other examples of 'oversights' would include supplementing cat foods with taurine after cats were going blind and suffering heart problems, or the constant adjustment of calcium:phosphorus ratios in puppy foods to prevent bone malformations and improper growth patterns (which still occur despite all the supplement adjustments). Interestingly, natural calcium in raw bones does not cause these malformations to the same degree artificial calcium does. One has to feed a LOT more natural calcium via bones to get the same degree of skeletal malformations found in commercial fed pets. All the researchers had to do was look to nature for the correct ratios.
When making their commercial processed foods, the pet food companies must often oversupplement their foods with the various vitamins and minerals to fall within the range of accepted nutrient values—the effects of which are NOT monitored past the six months of the AAFCO feeding trials. It should also be noted that pet food companies are not required to divulge the specific results of AAFCO testing of their products; that information is only made public if the company chooses to do so! Additionally, not all foods are required to enter feeding trials (The February 2007 edition of the Whole Dog Journal had an excellent article on this topic as well.). A food can undergo laboratory analysis to determine if it meets the nutrient requirements for dogs and cats. However, those nutrient requirements—expressed as minimum and maximum values—can vary widely! The minimum iron requirement for dogs, for example, is 80 mg/kg. The maximum iron requirement is 3,000 mg/kg! This is an incredible difference, and yet one food on the low end can be just as "complete and balanced" as another food with the maximum amount for iron! How will this affect the dogs over long term? Will one animal show a deficiency while the other shows an excess? The industry does not know, because they have never been required to test this beyond the 26-week mark! Foods can also obtain "complete and balanced" status by being 'grandfathered in'. If a company can show that one of its new foods bears "nutritional similarity" to one of their own existing products that underwent feeding trials (which allow for the removal of 25% of the dogs and loss of condition up to 15% over the course of 26 weeks), then that food can carry the same claim of 'complete and balanced'. Yet the actual ingredient combination was never tested! How can this similar yet different food be 'complete and balanced' for the *lifetime* of the animal if it was never adequately examined or tested? The entire process is faulty, but it is the best the pet food industry has. If this is the pet food industry's best, then what does that say about their 'complete and balanced' commercial foods? Hopefully one can now see why the AAFCO standards are useless for evaluating raw food diets and why they are incomplete in determining the actual "nutrient standards" needed and utilized by our pets.
Contrast this with a whole prey animal. Raw food's "best" is a brutal battle for survival over a span of several million years. Species evolved and adapted to their environments, thriving on fresh raw foods. If wolves and dogs have survived the worst of nature while eating fresh raw prey, what does that say for raw diets? A whole raw prey animal (unprocessed and NOT ground), or whole raw foods, contain the exact proportion of fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. One will be hard-pressed to test this in a lab, as the testing itself alters the perfect proportions. Nature's laboratory is how we know it is perfect. This is the food that keeps wolves, other canids, and felines alive and thriving, even in the face of intense pressures and hardships (many of which are man-induced!). Nutritional deficiencies arise because the animals cannot get enough to eat, NOT because the food is insufficient in nutrients. Who are we to think we can do better than nature? For further reference, please read Raw Meaty Bones.