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What Is Chicken Meal in Dog Food, and Is It Okay?

Brooke Bundy

By Brooke Bundy

Dog food in a bowl

When researching food for your dog, you might see catchy labels like “real chicken” and wonder what’s the alternative. Shouldn’t every dog food with “chicken” on the label contain real chicken? Advertising for dog food aimed at health-conscious consumers throws around keywords like “no by-product meal” and “human-grade ingredients,” which might lead you to suspect the cheaper stuff with its mysterious meat products.

You may be surprised to know that chicken and chicken meal could be the same product in a different form! More concerning, according to the FDA, animal feed can legally contain meat not fit for human consumption, and it’s held to the same standard whether the meat is listed as chicken, chicken meal, or chicken by-product on the label.

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Chicken, Chicken Meal, Chicken By-Product: What’s the Difference?

Chicken, by definition, includes clean meat, bones, and skin. Feathers and internal organs such as livers and spleens are excluded. Chicken by-product is the rendering leftovers after chicken has been processed for human use. It’s basically a dry form of the previous ingredients: meat, bones, and skin.

The biggest difference is it doesn’t have to be clean, and it’s been highly processed at an extremely hot temperature that extrapolates the nutrients. Dog food containing chicken meal is often sprayed with artificially derived nutrients to make up for the ones destroyed in the rendering process.

Chicken by-product gets a little dirtier. Not only can it contain meat, bone, and skin, but necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines are now fair game.

Even though these ingredients might sound gross to you, they’re nutritionally similar to each other if they’re going into kibble produced by conventional methods. The cooking temperature required to turn the chicken into dry food destroys much of its nutrients, regardless of whether the meat is considered chicken, chicken meal, or chicken by-product.

wet dog food in a yellow bowl
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

Why the Source May Not Matter as Much as You Think.

Despite advertising schemes, whether chicken is listed as a real meat or a by-product, unfortunately, it doesn’t make much of a difference if it’s animal feed grade. Regardless of how chicken is listed on the package, meat in pet food shares the same concerns unless it’s human-grade. This is because the FDA allows animal feed manufacturers to use 3D and 4D meats—neither of which are fit for human consumption.

3D meats come from animals that weren’t slaughtered but found dead, diseased, or dying. Even worse, 4D meat can have any of these origins but also includes animals that were “destroyed.”

The worst meat ingredient you can see on a label isn’t chicken or chicken meal. Rather it’s an anonymous “meat by-product” that doesn’t reveal its protein source. Legally, animal shelters can sell euthanized animals to rendering plants. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that gives the shelter money and provides a very cheap source of meat to pet food companies.

However, there are ethical concerns, not the least being forced cannibalism, such as the fact that there may be trace amounts of antibiotics, steroids, and the euthanasia drug in your dog’s kibble. Of course, it’s a small amount and it’s cooked at startlingly high temperatures that might counteract some of the effects. But it’s still a concerning and little-known fact of the commercial pet food industry.

What’s the Healthiest Choice for My Pet?

Every dog food that is considered animal feed grade may contain 3D or even 4D meat. The only way to ensure your dog never eats a diseased animal or one of its own kind is to buy human-grade dog food that must pass the same standards as the food we eat.

We like The Farmer’s Dog as a premium option. They can be a little pricey, but they provide prepared meals that are shipped to your door and peace of mind about your dog’s nutrition. If you’re on a budget, check out food by The Honest Kitchen, which is available on Chewy and at most pet stores.

dog eating from bowl in kitchen
Image Credit: Pixel-Shot, Shutterstock

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There are marginal nutritional differences between chicken and chicken meal. Unfortunately, the same concerns befall them both if they’re in highly processed kibble because the rendering and baking process destroys a lot of the nutrients.

In general, the standards for animal feed are seriously low—even allowing euthanized pets to be used as a protein. If you want to avoid 3D and 4D meats altogether, you can switch your dog to a human-grade formula. It’s typically a little more expensive, but at least you won’t have to wonder if there are chicken feet in their food.

Featured Image Credit: 279photoStudio, Shutterstock

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