Feed grade and human grade meats are regulated very differently. As a result, the meat in most cans of cat food would not pass USDA or FDA inspection if it were intended for human consumption. That, of course, doesn't stop cat food companies from decorating their products with pictures of what looks like delicious steaks and fish fillets fresh and tasty enough for the dinner table. A smart pet owner won't be fooled by a pretty picture—but terms like "human-grade" can be misleading.
Since most cat owners want the very best for their feline friends, they may be inclined to buy only cat foods labeled "human-grade." These high-end products are usually priced well above the cost of typical foods. But what are you really getting in your "human grade" product?
Feed Grade Pet Foods
Feed grade meats are specifically meats that would not pass inspection if they were intended for human consumption. They may contain a wide range of animal parts (such as bird beaks) that are not allowed in meats meant for people. They may also come from animals that are diseased or dying. Despite these realities, pet food that is properly processed can be perfectly safe—even if it is not appropriate for human consumption.
Human Grade Pet Foods
The AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Among other things, the AAFCO examines and grades pet foods. According to the AAFCO website, "The label of a pet food is a very important piece of communication. It is very highly regulated both on a federal and a state level. The federal regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 21CFR...The regulations cover not only the label attached to the pet food but also labeling which is defined as communication about the product in various types of media."
There are no clear regulations about exactly what defines "human grade" or "natural" pet foods. The assumption, of course, is that human-grade pet foods are literally pet foods made from meats that have been inspected by the USDA and could legally be sold in a supermarket for human consumption. Thus, the AAFCO makes this statement: "For a product to be human edible, all ingredients in the product must be human edible, and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. If these conditions exist, then human-grade claims may be made. If these conditions do not exist, then making an unqualified claim about ingredients being human grade misbrands the product."
Which Grade Should You Choose?
The bottom line is that your cat needs food that contains a great deal of protein along with several other nutrients for optimal health. Perhaps more importantly, you and your cat need very different nutrients. The fact that a particular can is labeled "human grade" does not necessarily make it the best choice. In general, if you read reviews or speak to your vet, you can select a cat food that's right for your pet—and know you're doing what's best for your friend.