Fresh Dog Food: A Review of Refrigerated Dog Food Sold in Stores
WDJs first look at fresh, cooked commercial dog food diets.
Today, more and more passionate, educated, dog-loving entrepreneurs are turning their attention to improving the health of their dogs and innovating new ways to feed quality dog foods. As they do, it’s getting more and more difficult to slot the resulting products into categories for review.
This is just one of the reasons we’ve never before reviewed dog foods in this category – for short, we’ll call it “fresh cooked foods.” When you start drilling down into how all these products are made, there is so much variety that the category really should be considered as a group with several sub-categories. Some of the products are essentially pureed; others look more like a meatloaf before it’s cooked, complete with chunks of vegetables mixed in; still others present more like those non-refrigerated preserved foods that are sold in plastic tubes, something that looks like a cross between a roll of salami and a tube of liverwurst.
Another big reason for our hesitation: For some years after the first product of this type came on the market, it was the only product in the category, and we weren’t big fans of its ingredients.
Also, other products came into the group and didn’t last; we’re thinking here of several companies who sent us samples of foods they made and “canned” in the old-fashioned sense of the word – cooked in glass jars, like your grandmother “puts up” plum jam or stewed tomatoes. It just didn’t seem scalable, and apparently wasn’t (since they are no longer in business).
Cooked Dog Food, Fed Fresh
But let’s focus on the things that these products (mostly) do have in common:
1. All of them have a high meat content – and most of them claim to use meats and perhaps other ingredients that are graded for human consumption. To fully understand these claims, see “What’s Human Quality?” below.
2. All of them use “fresh” meats; this includes meat that has been frozen to preserve freshness. In other words, none of the meats used were previously cooked before mixing at the point of manufacture.
3. All of the products are cooked – at varying temperatures and with various methods, but they have all been heated to the point that any pathogenic bacteria that may have been present on any ingredient should have been rendered harmless.
4. Most of them don’t contain preservatives. If it is formulated with fresh ingredients, cooked, immediately chilled or frozen, and shipped in an appropriate cold-shipping container, kept in a refrigerator, and fed promptly after opening, the food shouldn’t need preservatives.
5. All (save one, Freshpet) are available on a subscription basis for direct delivery to your door. (Freshpet is the only product sold in supermarkets; it’s also sold in pet supply stores.)
What Is “Human Quality” Dog Food?
When discussing their ingredients, many pet food companies use the phrase “human grade.” You have to understand that this is not a legal term, and its misuse probably causes more confusion – some of it intentional – than any other phrase used in the pet food industry.
The legal term for what an ordinary person would think of as “human food” is “edible” – but usually, only food-industry people are familiar with this term. So, in an effort to communicate the quality of their ingredients to consumers, manufacturers of products who use truly edible ingredients will often use some variation of “human grade,” such as “human quality” or “fit for humans.”
Understand this, though: If the company makes its product in a manufacturing plant that is not USDA-inspected and -approved for the manufacture of edible products, or that manufacturing facility contains even one ingredient that is not edible, then legally, it cannot claim that its products contain either “human grade” or edible ingredients. By law, an edible ingredient is one that has never departed from the custody of USDA-inspected and -approved food growers and processors.
Only those companies whose products were made at a USDA-inspected and -approved kitchen (which are not permitted to contain even one “feed grade” ingredient) can claim that they use edible or human-grade ingredients.
There are pet food companies who really do buy edible ingredients but don’t make their products in USDA kitchens – and believe me when I say they can be very creative when trying to find phrases that convey the quality of their ingredients without running afoul of state feed control officials (this is who is responsible for surveillance and enforcement of feed labeling laws). The problem for consumers is that there are also pet food companies who likewise use creative language to suggest that their products are made with edible ingredients, when in fact they don’t. Like, not at all.
Moral of the story? If you want to be as certain as one can be that your dog’s food is made with edible ingredients, look for a product made in a USDA-inspected and -approved kitchen. The only other option is to personally know the company’s owners and/or operators, visit the manufacturing site frequently, and inspect the ingredients yourself. There may be a few of you who are able to do all that!
|PRODUCT||VARIETIES||NUTRITION RANGES||TYPICAL INGREDIENTS||NOTES|
|EVERMORE PET FOOD
|Four recipes, two grain-free (oats and barley, representing no more than 5% of the formulas with them). All foods formulated for adult maintenance only.||Protein: Min. 11.5% – 13.3%
Fat: Min. 5.6% – 11%
Moisture: 69.9% – 74.6%
|Turkey recipe: Turkey breast and leg meat, turkey hearts, eggs, organic butternut squash, org. carrots, turkey livers, org. kale, org. apples, org. dandelion greens, org. cranberries, org. parsley, MSC-certified wild Alaskan red pollock oil, org. kelp, org. pumpkin seeds, org. alfalfa, GMO-free high-linoleic safflower oil, org. kelp, eggshell calcium, zinc amino acid chelate, copper amino acid chelate.||Founded in 2009. Foods are mixed, vacuum-sealed and cooked in BPA-free packaging, then frozen, and direct-shipped. Food is made in a USDA (human foods) facility in California. Lamb and beef used in recipes is grass-fed; chicken and turkey is certified as “Step 3” and beef is “Step 4” by Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating. Wild Alaskan red pollock oil is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) -certified sustainable seafood. All produce is certified organic except for wild blueberries. Only a few minerals are added to make formulas complete and balanced. Woman-owned, no outside investment capital used for growth, so founders control all aspects of company.
We’ll just say it: We love this company’s products.
|Company offers 22 pet food “rolls,” 13 of them grain-free (GF), and 10 bagged products, 6 GF. Products sold in four lines: Freshpet Select, Deli Fresh, Nature’s Fresh, and Vital. All products are formulated to be complete and balanced for dogs of all life stages.||Protein: Min. 9% -19%
Fat: Min. 6% – 10% Moisture: Rolls contain
76% – 78%
63% – 66%
|Freshpet Vital Chicken Recipe: Chicken, sweet potato, carrots, pea protein, ground oats, natural flavors, green beans, cranberries, vinegar, carrageenan, cassia, salt, potassium chloride, minerals, vitamins, spinach.||The company had a powerful advantage when founded in 2006, with Tyson Foods as a minority investment partner. In 2014, the company raised more than $150 million in an initial public offering. Sold in more than 14,000 retail stores (grocery and pet supply). Made in Bethlehem, PA. Chicken or beef is first ingredient in each product. Steamed “at low temperatures,” then vacuum-sealed and refrigerated, never frozen. Chicken used in recipes is certified as “Step 2” and turkey as “Step 1” by Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating.
“Best by” dates seem extraordinarily long for unpreserved product; we purchased foods with dates that were more than 8 weeks from our date of purchase.
|JUST FOOD FOR DOGS
Los Alamitos, CA
|JFFD offers six “daily” recipes, five of them gluten-free and three of them grain-free; additional recipes are offered seasonally. Eight other recipes are formulated to help dogs with specific health problems. Four of the daily recipes are formulated for adult maintenance, two for dogs of all life stages.||Protein: Min. 7.5% – 11.5%
Fat: Min. 2% – 7.5%
Moisture: 69% – 80%
|JFFD Beef & Russet Potato: Ground beef, russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, carrots, safflower oil, beef liver, green peas, apples, Icelandic fish oil, JFFD vitamin/mineral mix.||Founded in 2010, backed by venture capital firm L Catterton. Formulas were developed by a team that included veterinarians and animal nutrition experts. Products are prepared in all 12 retail locations, where you can watch the food being made – and purchase that fresh product on the spot. Company also offers delivery from its southern California locations and nationwide shipping. All manufacturing facilities are USDA kitchens. Products are shipped frozen. Company says food stays fresh up to 12 months in the freezer and for 3-6 days in the refrigerator after thawing and opening. Products are “complete and balanced” by virtue of AAFCO feeding trials (and the AAFCO “family” rule, which states that products that are nutritionally similar to the product that went through an AAFCO feeding trial can also use the “feeding trial” claim). In May 2018, JFFD announced a new partnership with Petco, which plans to build JFFD-branded kitchens in some of its stores, enabling people to buy freshly prepared meals in those stores, too.|
|LUCK DOG CUISINE
|Seven recipes, five of them gluten-free and two of them grain-free. All are formulated for dogs of all life stages. Each contains a single animal protein source.||Protein: Min. 7.8% – 11.6%
Fat: Min. 2.1% – 6.7%
Moisture: 70% – 77%
|Beef & Rice: Grass-fed beef, brown rice, ricotta cheese, beef heart, beef liver, carrots, peas, green beans, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, organic flaxseed meal, extra virgin olive oil, basil, organic kelp, vitamins/minerals.||Founded in 2008. Made in South Carolina. Family-owned, self-funded business recently opened a Canadian office (in Toronto). Company says food stays fresh after thawing and opening for a week in the refrigerator and up to 6 months in the freezer. Company says beef used in its recipes is humanely raised and grass fed; no certifications or info about source, however. Very helpful descriptions of each product and how it differs from the others; helps owners determine which might be best for their dogs.|
|Five recipes, all of them grain- and gluten-free. Four recipes are formulated for dogs of all life stages; one (egg & veggie) is for adult maintenance only.||Protein: Min. 6.5% – 11.5%
Fat: Min. 3.5% – 8%
Moisture: 70% – 76%
|Tasty Turkey: Ground turkey, eggs, brown rice, carrots, spinach, dicalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, salt, fish oil, vinegar, citric acid, taurine, and more vitamins and minerals.||Founded in 2015. All recipes formulated by veterinarian who is also a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Food made in Pittsburg, CA, and direct-shipped to your door. Each meal is custom-portioned for your dog in its own single-serving bag. Company says foods stay fresh for 8 days in the fridge and up to six months in the freezer. In 2018, the company received more than $10 million in venture capital funding, adding to $3 million it had received previously.|
New York, NY
|Four formulas, all of them grain-free, and all formulated for dogs of all life stages. Each is formulated with a single animal protein source.||Protein: Min. 10% – 12%
Fat: Min. 5% – 10%
Moisture: 68% – 75%
|Chicken Goodness: Chicken, chicken gizzard, carrot, green peas, chicken liver, chia seed, long grain rice, spinach, potato, egg, blueberries, sunflower oil, dicalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, fish oil, iodized salt, cod liver oil, zinc gluconate, basil, rosemary, vitamin E, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), riboflavin (Vitamin B2).||Founded in 2016. Food is made in New Jersey in a USDA kitchen. Only the vitamins and minerals needed to make the food “complete and balanced” are added; no blanket vitamin/mineral premix is used. After cooking, it is chilled and custom-portioned into trays for your dog, which are then sealed with modified-atmosphere packaging and direct-shipped to you; the product may arrive chilled or frozen. Company says the food will stay fresh in the sealed containers for 14 days or 5 days after opening (company provides a reusable lid to use on open trays). Owners use a measuring scoop (provided) to provide dog with appropriate amount. Company received more than $4 million in venture capital in 2016 and more than $12 million in 2017.|
New York, NY
|Four formulas, all of them grain-free, all formulated for dogs of all life stages. Each is formulated with a single animal protein source.||Protein: Min. 10.8% – 12.5%
Fat: Min. 4.2% – 6.4%
Moisture: 68% -74%
|Harvest Chicken: Chicken, sweet potatoes, chicken liver, broccoli, apples, butternut squash, dicalcium phosphate, salmon fish oil, calcium carbonate, salt, potassium chloride, parsley, zinc, iron, copper, iodine, manganese, vitamin D3, vitamin E.||Company founded in 2016. Food made in a human food (USDA) facility in New York. Formulas developed by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (DACVN); only the vitamins and minerals needed to make the food complete and balanced are added; no blanket vitamin/mineral premix is used. Company says the food will stay fresh in the sealed containers for 10 days, or 3-4 days after opening. Containers can be frozen for up to 18 months. Company offers money-back guarantee if your dog does not like the food. PetPlate recently received $4 million in investment capital.|
|THE FARMER’S DOG
|Three grain-free formulas, formulated for dogs of all life stages.||Protein: Min. 9% – 11%
Fat: Min. 5% – 8%
Moisture: 66% – 72%
|Turkey & Parsnip contains: Turkey, parsnips, chickpeas, carrot, broccoli, spinach, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, fish oil, vitamin B12, zinc amino acid chelate, iron amino acid chelate, vitamin E, copper amino acid chelate, thiamine mononitrate, sodium selenite, riboflavin, potassium iodide, vitamin D3, folic acid.||Company founded in 2015. Food seems to be made in New York and is direct-shipped. Pet peeve: no phone number or even email address listed on website. Company claims “Human-grade USDA ingredients mean less processing, natural nutrients, and higher safety standards,” but nowhere does the site say where the food is made, or whether it is made in a USDA-approved kitchen (which would confirm whether the ingredients can accurately be called “human-grade”). Product is made fresh and “delivered to you within days of cooking,” chilled, never deep frozen. Each recipe is customized for your dog’s needs and labeled with his or her name. Company received more than $10 million in venture capital in 2017.|
Fresh Dog Food: WDJ’s Usual Food Selection Criteria Apply
There are certain things we always look for in a wholesome and superior diet for our dogs, no matter what type. Virtually all of the manufacturers offering products in this category use ingredients that meet our usual selection criteria, such as whole, named sources of animal protein (i.e., chicken, beef, and lamb, rather than “meat” or “poultry”); whole food ingredients (such as rice rather than rice flour, and tomatoes rather than tomato pomace); and of course, no artificial colors or flavors.
All of the companies on the following pages offer products that meet all of our selection criteria – but some of the products are higher in quality than others. Some are quite expensive. We wouldn’t necessarily say that cost is a perfect indicator of quality, but it’s a pretty good one. If some of the products are beyond your budget, don’t despair: We would consider every one of these products to be healthier and of a higher quality than any kibble or canned product.
How We Ranked These Fresh Cooked Dog Foods
We are often asked to rank the products that we include in our reviews, and, as always, we have to decline. Only you can decide what you can afford to spend, and only your dog can determine if a particular food will work for him. The product’s performance in your dog is everything – and what works for your dog might be a disaster for mine.
That said . . .
In addition to our normal selection criteria, when shopping for products we feed to our dogs, we also consider some “soft” criteria regarding the companies – factors that have more to do with the feel or personality of the company than the ingredients or protein levels of the foods.
You should be aware that there are pet food company owners who are full of passion and knowledge, but who lack the resources to really pull off top-quality ingredient sourcing or quality control. On the far other end of the spectrum, there are companies who are helmed by folks with amazing business acumen and connections who don’t necessarily live and breathe for dogs. Large and/or well-funded companies have the resources to invest in the best manufacturing equipment and facilities for consistent, safe products – but do the principals care about ingredient quality as much as some of the smaller companies?
We like to buy from the companies that are of a sufficient size to sign manufacturing contracts with reputable manufacturers and invest in employee training and quality control testing and equipment – but not so big that they don’t know exactly where on a map every single ingredient in their products is sourced from.
We appreciate that it can be challenging to identify companies that are occupying that sweet spot, somewhere between enough success and not too much. For what it’s worth, in the following pages, we will try to give you enough information about each company for you to judge where your own zone of comfort might lie: with the giant companies who should have their own plants and control every aspect of manufacturing, but whose formulas are a tad corporate? Or with the smaller outfits who oversee contract manufacturers on just a few production runs each month, but whose ingredients are locally sourced from sustainable farms where the humanely raised food animals live their entire lives on grass?
It’s tough to have to choose, but it seems that when it comes to food, you can’t have it both ways.