How to Recognize Dog Food Made with Lower Quality Meat

Meat may just be the most important ingredient to look for on a dog food label.
Dog Food Detective
That’s because the protein found in meat is unique. So, unlike most plant-based protein sources, meat naturally contains all ten essential amino acids — nutrients dogs cannot live without.

What’s more, meat-based protein is easier for dogs to digest.

The Mysterious Language
of Ingredient Lists

Dog food labels can be difficult to understand. Their ingredient lists are loaded with cryptic names — names that can disguise the true identity of the meat itself.

While scanning a label, it’s not unusual to come across obscure names like meat meal, animal digest and poultry by-products.

Some of meat ingredients are of good quality — yet others can be questionable.

Here are three simple tips that can help you recognize dog foods made with inferior meat ingredients.

Tip #1:
Give Less Value to Any Dog Food
Made with Meat By-Products

Let’s take a look at the dog food industry’s definitions for a few meat by-product ingredients.

Meat by-products are… “the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals.  It includes, but is not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents.”1

Let’s also assume a broader definition of “meat” than only the muscles of mammals. So, here’s the industry’s official description of poultry by-products:

Poultry by-products are… “the non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice.”2

Meat by-products are simply slaughterhouse waste. They’re what’s left of a slaughtered animal after all the striated muscle cuts have been removed.

So, with the exception of hair, horns, teeth and hooves, they can include almost any other part of the animal.3

Of course, animal by-products can provide satisfactory nutrition.

However, by-products are considerably cheaper. So, be sure you’re not overpaying for your dog’s food.

Tip #2:
Give Less Value to Dog Foods Made
with Generic Meat Ingredients

Generic meat ingredients are those ingredients that do not identify the source animal.

So, instead of listing a specific protein source — like beef, chicken or venison — generic ingredients disguise important details with words like…

  • Animal
  • Meat
  • Poultry

Here’s why that’s important…

Especially when used to make rendered meals, meat can legally come from virtually any mammal4. So, unlike “beef meal” which must come from beef, generic “meat meal” can be legally made from…

  • Road kill
  • Euthanized cats and dogs
  • Dying, diseased or disabled farm animals
  • Dead zoo animals

Tip #3:
Favor Dog Foods with Quality Meat
Near the Top of the List

Many dog food companies make little effort to disclose the actual amount of meat that’s in a product. So, one way to get a reasonable idea for the amount of meat in a product is to pay attention to its relative position on the ingredients list.

Dog food companies must follow the same ingredient listing guidelines as human food manufacturers:

All ingredients must be listed in descending order according to their pre-processing weights.

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for better value when buying dog food, keep the following three tips in mind:

  1. Give more value to dog foods that contain no meat by-products
  2. Avoid dog foods made with generic animal protein
  3. Favor dog foods with high quality meat near the top of the ingredients list

Whenever you come across a dog food that violates one of these simple rules, you may want to look elsewhere for a better product.


  1. Official Publication, American Association of Feed Control Officials, 2008 Edition, Section 9.3, p. 259
  2. Official Publication, American Association of Feed Control Officials, 2008 Edition, Section 9.14, p. 260
  3. Association of American Feed Control Officials
  4. Official Publication, American Association of Feed Control Officials, 2014 Edition
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