What does “organic” mean in pet food?

I recently treated a puppy that I have not seen before. We all love first puppy visits. The puppy is always curious and new owners excited. They proudly introduce us to their puppy and answer our questions with gusto. One of those questions always is: “What do you feed him/her?” Some new owners can tell me exactly what they feed and how they chose it (and choosing pet food is another blog entirely, so watch for that), but many of them say that they feed “that expensive organic pet food” that was recommended to them by the breeder or someone at the pet store.


I feed my pets the pet food that I carry at Applebrook Animal Hospital, so I have not been pet food shopping in a long time. I decided to go and see what this experience was like for my new puppy and kitten parents.  I entered the large chain pet retailer with the intent of exploring the pet food options and perhaps look at some of the foods that people have told me they have chosen. It is true that the choices are overwhelming. A normal person would HAVE to have some kind of influence or advice to sort through the options. There are small bags, large bags, cans, and tubes. Today I was on a mission to figure out what “that expensive organic pet food” was, however, so I tried to focus.

Above one shelf hung a large blackboard that said “Organic” with a brief description of what the definition is. It said: Organic- made according to USDA organic standards with no pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. I would agree that this is a fair definition of what organic in this instance means.

However, what shocked me was that absolutely none of the foods I saw in this store had the USDA certified organic label on them. None of them even claimed to be organic on the label! This large blackboard (with the word displayed on it) did not denote the presence of any certified products at all!

It is possible that I overlooked one, but certainly all the brand names that I hear from my new pet parents were there and I saw them all. None were labeled ”organic” at all. I saw terms like natural and holistic, but no organic. So why did the blackboard imply that they are? I don’t really know. But my clients saw the board and assumed that what they were feeding was held to special standards.

When I got home, I contacted Rebecca Thompson at the USDA and she was extremely helpful to me. She provided a link to a presentation on the matter by Emily Rosen (also USDA) who provided a presentation on the topic of organics to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). In her presentation (Aug 2013) she discusses the rigorous standards required by the USDA to allow the organic label on human food, but says that the pet food regulations are not specifically regulated. (Gasp!) She mentions that standards are being drafted for pet food regulations and I have contacted her to see if there are any changes I need to know about since that time. I have not heard back from her yet.

I guess it doesn’t matter at the moment because even the foods below the ORGANIC board at one of our local pet stores do not even have label claims. They are not breaking the law in any way. But I really want my clients and pet lovers everywhere to know what they are paying for. If you pay a lot for pet food, make sure that you know why.

At this time, it probably isn’t because it is organic.