What’s the Deal with Meat Meal in Dog Food?

A dog eating out of a bowl.

For many pet owners, knowing exactly what goes into your pet’s food can be complicated. We clearly know that our pets normally eat dry dog food called kibble, but that’s normally the extent our knowledge goes to. But what’s in the kibble?

Complicated becomes an understatement when we take a look at the bag and see words like by-product, meat meal, and chicken meal thrown into the mix.

At the same time, pet owners also may wonder if it even matters. Despite what’s labeled on the bag, pet food is pet food, right? Wrong.

We want to give our pet the best nutritional diet we can with all of the essential nutrients.

Knowing all of the different things that can go into pet food is a challenge. The process of what goes into your dog’s food is complicated. There is no one size fits all.

The process becomes even more difficult to grasp if your dog has health problems. You need to know the best, most digestible food for him to eat. That’s a whole other ballgame. 

This is because pet food companies aren’t even allowed to refer to the digestibility of the ingredients in the bag. This makes it extremely difficult for pet owners to know exactly what they are feeding their pets. 

However, becoming familiar with the ingredient list is a start. Knowing what’s what can put you on a path to giving your dog a much healthier diet. As pet parents, this should be our overall goal. 

If you’ve ever wondered what all of the different words mean on the back of your bag of dog food, you’re in luck.

We’ve created an in-depth description of what actually goes into our pet’s food for those of you who have always been curious. As pet owners, we want to be sure our pet is getting all of the nutrients he needs to not only survive but thrive.

To get a complete picture, there are mainly four terms you will see on the back of a bag or can that are the main ingredients in your pet’s food. They are as follows:

  • By-Product
  • Meat Meal
  • Meat By-Product Meal
  • Digest

To get started, you need a general idea of what goes on in the meat business. The process can be rather gruesome so continue with caution. 

For starters, when animals are slaughtered for the production of food, the lean muscle is cut from the whole carcass for human consumption.

What’s left of the carcass is what goes into your pet’s food. This is commonly referred to as a by-product.

In addition, there is also a process called “rendering.” Rendering is the process the meat industry uses to convert waste animal tissue into usable materials.

This can be anything from restaurant grease to out of date grocery store meat. It can also include dead, dying, disabled, or diseased livestock animals–known as “4D” animals.

Once this process is complete, the whole carcasses are placed into vats and cooked for several hours. The materials then dry and separate the fat from the bone and protein. The fat that is left goes into pet food.

Now that you have a general idea of what goes on behind the scenes, we can move onto the vocabulary.

A pug looking at his dog food.

Many types of dog foods include meat in them but owners are beginning to question the quality of this meat.


View Table of Contents

So What Is A By-Product Meal?

A by-product meal contains everything from the carcass except the meat. This can include bones, organs, and blood. If your pet is eating a by-product meal, he is not eating real meat. It can also include kidneys, lungs, and fat tissue.

If you’re really concerned with what your pet is eating, you may want to steer clear of the term “by-product.” This is a product that doesn’t clearly name its sources of protein and the chances your pet is getting real food are slim to none.

The Deal With Meat Meal

If you’re picky about what your dog eats, then the next time you go shopping for dog food, meat meal may be the way you want to go. There are many benefits to choosing meat meal over the other options. The first reason is it’s actually real meat.

With meat meal, you at least know your canine is getting real food. For example, in chicken meal, all of the rendered parts are added to pet food after they go through the cooking process. This excludes all of the blood, hair, and stomach contents that are part of the rendering process. With meat meal, your pet is getting real meat instead of blood and bone.

Meat By-Product Meal

This is still better than simply by-product, although it’s a good idea to stay away from everything containing the words “by-product.”

A meat by-product meal is similar to a meat meal. The difference comes in that, once dried, everything from the rendering process can be added to pet food. This process does not exclude the dried blood, hair, and stomach contents.

With all food labeled with, “By-product,” you can’t be 100% sure that your dog isn’t eating anything but intestines. 

Digest in Dog Food

Digest does not contain any meat. Digest is the chemical breakdown of parts other than meat. This is most commonly added to give pet food flavor. 

This can all be extremely confusing–especially if you’re hearing these words for the first time. To make this easier, let’s use chicken as an example:

Chicken According To AAFCO

According to AAFCO, chicken (raw), or real chicken is, “The combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone derived from parts or whole carcasses of chicken exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails.”

In simple terms, this is the kind of chicken you would feed your family.

Chicken Meal

In terms of Chicken Meal, AAFCO says it is a, “Dry, rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcass of, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails.”

Chicken Meal is what’s left after the rendering process. This is dry, cooked chicken that is turned into kibble.

Chicken By-Product Meal

In AAFCO’s terms, chicken by-product meal can contain varying amounts of clean flesh and skin. It can also contain heads, feet, and intestines.

I know you may find this hard to wrap your head around. Naturally, you only want what’s best for your pet, and it’s difficult to find that with all of the little details that go into pet food. 

Luckily, though, there have been numerous studies about this concept in terms of the protein content in meals and by-product meals. What have they found?

 The general consensus is that Chicken meals contain more amino acids than their by-product meals counterpart. The digestibility of Chicken meals also outranks by-product meals.

How Do I Know I’m Getting High Quality?

Depending on how Meals are processed, they can be high quality or poor quality. Without quality protein, it won’t be a good source of amino acids for your pet.

How do you tell the difference between high-quality and low-quality food ingredients? Well, it begins by looking at the food label, more specifically, the word that comes right before “meal.”

If it’s specific, for example, chicken meal or lamb meal, it’s safe to assume you’re choosing a high-quality ingredient.

If it’s broad or generic like poultry meal, it’s going to be a lower quality ingredient. With this, you can’t be sure what kind of poultry you’re even getting.

A dog eating fresh meat.

Fresh meat has more moisture in it than dried dog food but may not be the healthiest choice.


Think Again Before Opting For Fresh Meat

An important thing to remember when picking out your dog’s food is that food products are listed with the highest volume first. So what does this mean?

Well, you may be tempted to purchase fresh meat. Fresh meat does sound better, however, there’s a catch.

The difference between meat meal and fresh meat lies in the fact that fresh meat contains much more moisture. Meat meal has already been cooked, thus, it contains more protein than its fresh meat counterpart. If you want a greater source of protein for your pooch, opt for the chicken meal.

To give you an idea of how this looks in real life, chicken before rendering is almost 80% water and only about 20% protein. After rendering, it flips to about 10% water and 65% protein. 

So yes, it’s a good idea to go for the meat meal over the fresh chicken.

This is where the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) comes into play. The AAFCO has four rules when it comes to the food label:

  • 95% Rule
  • 25% Rule
  • 3% Rule
  • Flavor Rule

The 95% rule means that 95% of the food must be the labeled ingredient. This rule primarily applies to products that consist mainly of meat. If the product reads “Chicken Dog Food,” the product must be at least 95% chicken. 

The second rule that the AAFCO has when it comes to food labeling is the 25% rule. This states, for example, that “Fish Dinner Dog Food,” must contain at least 25% chicken but less than 95%.

The third rule that applies is the 3% rule, or the “With” rule. This applies when the label company places the word “with” on a product. For example, “Chicken Dinner with Cheese,” means that the product is at least 25% chicken and at least 35 cheese.

Lastly, the Flavor rule. Under the Flavor rule, no percentage of meat is required. For example, “Beef Flavor Dog Food,” probably contains digest or enough fat to flavor the food. 

Purina vs. Blue Buffalo: A Federal Case

All that talk about meat meal and by-products leads us to a very interesting case that happened a few years back. It was the classic big dog/little dog matchup: Purina vs. Blue Buffalo.

When you first look at the pet food industry, it doesn’t seem as exciting as, say, the stock market. However, in May 2014, things took a turn.

It just so happened that by this time the pet food business was a multi-billion dollar industry. Blue Buffalo wanted to be a part of that and was on its way to reaching that goal.

Founded in 2003 by Bill Bishop, Blue Buffalo managed to rack in $600 million in revenue in 2013. The largest portions of these sales being from their Blue Basics line for pets with allergies; the Wilderness line, which has a higher portion of meat; and their grain-free Freedom products. 

Blue Buffalo was on the rise and had a bright future.   

In stepped Purina.

At this time, Purina was the second-largest pet food supplier in the world and the largest in the United States. In 2013, they had a revenue of $11.2 billion. The Nestle owned Purina is known for producing Beneful, its own grain-free product Purina ONE, and Fancy Feast Appetizers cat food.

An 85-year-old company at the time, business was booming for Purina.  

Obviously, Purina shouldn’t have been worried about the slow-growing upstart who called themselves Blue Buffalo. So what caused all of this drama? Well, Purina didn’t like the marketing strategies used by Blue Buffalo. 

Blue Buffalo advertises its products as having the “finest natural ingredients.” Along with this, Blue Buffalo stated that their products contained no by-product meals and that their competitors’ (Purina) products did. 

Purina didn’t like that. They argued that Blue Buffalo sold products that contained poultry by-product that is at least 25% percent of the meal.

The result? Purina filed a lawsuit against Blue Buffalo for false advertising and disparaging competitors. If you were to ask Purina, they’ll tell you that Blue Buffalo spent around $50 million the year before to shame their competitors.

So what happened? Nothing much. The dispute was settled out of court and remains confidential.

Around the same time, Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc. filed a separate complaint with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The company said Blue Buffalo attack “big name dog food” in their ads. 

It’s obvious that Blue Buffalo doesn’t like the majority of their competitors, but why does all of this matter? 

This is relevant because what goes into your dog’s food is a bigger deal than you may think. These days, pets are becoming more popular and pet parents are looking closer at the ingredient list than they used to.

Take 2007 for example. The world of the pet food industry turned upside down. It was released that many pet food products from China contained harmful ingredients that were known to cause kidney failure in both cats and dogs.

This was a wake-up call for millions of pet owners across the nation. Thus began a more conscious approach to purchasing pet food. 

Compared to recent generations, the majority of pet owners today actually pay attention to what they are giving their pets. This is because now–more than ever– pets really are another member of the family. 

Wrapping Up

As much as we love our pets, it’s important to ensure that they are being fed a proper and healthy diet. Naturally, with all of the different names we see while purchasing pet food, this can prove quite the challenge. 

Feeding our pets is perhaps the most vital aspect of being a pet owner. They’re like four-legged furry children, we have to care of them and make sure they’re getting the nutrients they need from their diet. 

Doing so can be difficult if we’re not familiar with what goes into our pet’s food. This is why it’s important to become familiar with the terms you see on the back of the label.

Know the difference between by-product, meat meal, and meat by-product meal, and always opt for the meat meal. 

Remember that when it comes to protein content, fresh meat isn’t the way to go. It’s all water!

As our pets become more important to us, the way we feed them also becomes more important. With this advice, you’ll be feeding your dog a healthier diet than he’s ever had before. A healthier diet means a healthier and happier dog.


See more:

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is an animal lover and the proud dog-mom of a Golden Retriever named Brody and an Italian Greyhound named Jessup. Unfortunately, Jessup developed serious allergies to many different types of dog foods and ingredients when she was just a puppy. Meanwhile, Brody could eat seemingly anything and carry on as healthy as could be. Sarah spent hours of time researching and testing different foods and brands before finding something that worked for little Jessup. She wants Dog Food Care to simplify this experience for future dog-parents who face food allergy or tolerance issues of their own.