Chicken and Chicken Meal: What are the differences?

Dr. Ron Rompalaby Dr. Ron Rompala

The recent problems with pet owners have encountered involving contaminated foods has many people paranoid. Pet owners want quality foods that will keep their pets healthy. Pet owners have become more concerned about the ingredients used to make pet foods. It is true that “garbage in means garbage out” so quality ingredients are essential for making good foods. Pet owners have become more aware of the variety of ingredients in pet food. However, there have been a number of misconceptions that have developed.

For example, chicken has been considered by many pet owners as superior ingredient to chicken meal. Is it?

Let’s differentiate between chicken and chicken meal. The definition for chicken, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), describes it as a clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of chickens thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. Chicken meal, according to AAFCO, is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with and without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. Chicken essentially is taking a roaster and grinding it up, mixing everything together including muscle, skin and bones. The water content averages around 70%, along with 18% protein and 5% fat. Now take this ground chicken and carefully dry it to a moisture level of 10%. The protein content is now 65% and the fat level is 12%. This product is chicken meal.

Many pet owners feel that chicken is a superior ingredient to chicken meal. It would seem logical that feeding a pet a whole, non-rendered chicken would be good. It would give the owner the feeling that the pet is eating human food. However, these ingredients make up only part of the total food.

Let’s go through the manufacturing process for a pet food. Typically, all of the ingredients (meats, grains, vitamins, minerals) are all mixed together and run through a machine called an extruder. The extruder cooks the mixture by adding steam and water. The result is the familiar kibble coming out of the extruder and subsequently dried. Fat is added after drying. This is the same process for making many of the breakfast cereals. The final product has a moisture level of around 10% – far different than the 70% moisture of that chicken.

The processing of chicken along with the other ingredients essentially is converting it to chicken meal. However, there are some characteristics of chicken that makes it less flexible for use as an ingredient compared to chicken meal. The high moisture content of chicken limits the amount that can be formulated into a complete finished food. Chicken is generally stored frozen to minimize microbial growth. The frozen chicken is thawed and made into slurry before adding to the mix. On the other hand, chicken meal can be used in a finished food at levels much greater than chicken. In addition, the same quantity of chicken meal provides roughly 4-5 times the nutrients as the same weight of chicken because of the differences in moisture. For example, 100 lbs of chicken meal provides 65 lbs of protein while 100 lbs of chicken provides only 18 lbs of protein. So, a product with chicken as its first ingredient may only have 20% of this ingredient in the final product providing 3.6% protein. Chicken meal at 20% of the food provides 13% protein. The maximum inclusion of chicken meal into the final product can be significantly greater than for chicken.

Let’s assume a dog food (Product A) has a protein level of 28%. Chicken meal is the first ingredient comprising 25% of the food. Assume that Product B is 28% protein and has chicken as the first ingredient. Consequently, chicken meal would have to be added at the same amount as chicken in Product B to provide the same amount of protein from chicken sources to be equal to Product A. For example, Product A has 25% chicken meal which would be equal to Product B having 20% chicken and 20% chicken meal.

One product can have chicken meal as the first ingredient and another can have chicken. It is almost certain that the product with chicken meal makes a greater contribution to the total protein of the product than chicken. Both are providing the same profile of amino acids, the protein building blocks.

So, is there an advantage with chicken? Is it essentially the quality of the ingredient?

There are good suppliers of chicken that provide a good, clean product that does not have excessive bones or fat. In addition, a good supplier will keep chicken from spoiling and keep it free of pathogenic bacteria. Good suppliers of chicken meal will not dry this ingredient at excessively high temperatures which ruins valuable amino acids. A good food manufacturer will use only good ingredients from reliable suppliers. Consequently, the nutrients from chicken meal from a good supplier will be just as good as the nutrients from chicken. In addition, there is a significant cost difference between these two ingredients. Due to the challenges in handling, chicken may cost 50% more than chicken meal.

In summary, chicken and chicken meal are common ingredients in pet food. Pound for pound, chicken meal provides more nutrients than chicken at a lower cost. Pet food manufacturers need to find good suppliers to provide these ingredients and handle them properly to assure that the nutrients are not damaged. Pet owners must be educated to understand the true value of these ingredients and be able to make the best choice for their animals.