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HMRC internal manual

VAT Food

Excepted items: pet food and wild bird food: what constitutes a pet food?

A pet food is any product that is being supplied for consumption by pet animals, which would include both pet species and pet individuals of non-pet or mixed species. Some products are pet foods because they are suitable only for consumption by members of a pet species, for example, hamster mixtures or cat food.

Other products may be suitable for consumption by both pet and non-pet species, or by pet and non-pet individuals of a mixed species, but are either specialised in some way to pet individuals, or how they are identified by the supplier, in the way they hold them out for sale as being intended specifically for consumption by pets.

Cereals, nuts and pulses

Many products eaten by pet animals are raw grains or pulses which are suitable for feeding to a wide variety of pet and non-pet animals and have not been processed in any way that would specialise them to pet consumption. For example, sunflower seed is frequently fed to caged birds but does not receive any special treatment beyond the hulling which it would normally undergo.

Frequently the same product (usually of a higher grade, or prepared under higher standards of hygiene) may also be sold for human consumption - for example, peanuts, sunflower and other seeds, bran, maize and other cereals. Sold unmixed, such products are only classed as pet food if the supplier specifically holds them out for sale as such.

Specialised mixes

While raw grains etc sold unmixed are not considered to be pet food, mixtures of raw grains tailored specifically to meet the needs of a pet species are. This includes mixtures of seeds designed specifically for cage birds, and hamster and mouse mixtures. Specialised pet mixtures of this sort are considered to be pet foods in their own right, whether or not the supplier specifically holds them out for sale as such.

Rabbit food

We are advised that some 85% of rabbits kept in the UK are reared for food, and rabbits are therefore not a pet species. Food specially designed for rabbits is therefore only pet food if it is specifically held out for sale for pet rabbits. At one time, the Commissioners did take the view that selling rabbit food in small quantities (such as 1 or 2 kilo bags) constituted holding it out for sale for pets, as food for rabbits being reared for commercial purposes would be bought in far larger quantities. However, after consultation with the trade, and in the interests of simplicity, both for the trade and control officers, this position has been abandoned and rabbit food sold in any quantity is only standard-rated if it is supplied, packaged, specifically for pet rabbits. As the position is widely understood in the trade, this is unlikely to happen.

In the case of Brian Beresford (MAN/92/0099), the tribunal accepted that rabbit food sold by the appellant in small quantities would be for pet use. However, the case did not turn on that particular point, and the consequent decision of the tribunal in finding for Customs and Excise does not preclude our subsequent change in policy.

Food for working dogs

Once the tribunal had established that not all dogs were pets, liability questions arose over dog food products formulated and marketed specifically for working dogs. There are two main types - one is designed for working dogs generally (such as sheepdogs and gun dogs) and the other specifically for racing greyhounds. On investigation, the food for racing greyhounds proved to differ markedly in composition from the usual range of dog food, as a racing greyhound has very different (and specialised) nutritional requirements. It was, in fact, so different that it would have been unsuitable for feeding to a dog not subjected to the extreme energy demands of racing. However, food for other working dogs did not show the same distinction: it tended to carry higher levels of protein than the average pet dog food, but still fell well within the normal range. This is perhaps not particularly surprising, as most working dog breeds (German shepherds, border collies etc) are also kept widely as pets. While a working individual of the breed may be more active than the average pet, this activity is not of so different a kind from the normal activity of a pet dog as to require a different diet; it is more likely that the active working dog will simply require more food than the pet rather than different food.

The examples of working dog food that were seen were therefore regarded as being suitable for feeding to pets. Frequently, in fact, the packaging or accompanying documentation of these products actually contained feeding instructions for pets. So although working dogs are not regarded as pets, the fact that a product is held out for sale as suitable for all breeds, sizes and ages of dog, is a clear indication that the product is standard-rated pet food.

However, given the significance of the held out for sale test when determining liability, where a working dog food product is specifically held out for sale for working dogs, and there is no indication on the packaging that it is equally suitable for all types of dog, then the product is not pet food and can be zero-rated. If packaging is ambiguous or fails to make it clear that the product is specifically for working dogs, then HMRC should challenge the retailer / producer to support their case for claiming that the product is a food for working dogs, and not a pet food.

Food for racing greyhounds

Zero rating is allowed for specialised complete foods for racing greyhounds. Remember, though, that zero-rating would only apply to a complete food for racing greyhounds which:

  • provides all the required elements for a balanced diet for the dog without having to be mixed with any other food (other than water); and
  • is specifically held out for sale for racing greyhounds; and
  • can be demonstrated that the product is designed specifically to meet the special nutritional requirements of racing greyhounds.