The Merriam-Webster definition of "déjà vu" is the feeling of having already experienced the present situation. A lesser cited definition is "a tedious familiarity." THAT, my friends, is Déjà Moo! It's the feeling of having seen the same old BS marketing tactic so often that it no longer resonates. This is the current state of pet food marketing and it needs to end.
Now before anyone says I'm a marketing hater or that I refer to the profession as the "two drink minimum" club, let me set the record straight: I LOVE marketing but the industry is lacking creativity, innovation and quite honestly, a little integrity. Thirty years ago Purina started the "ingredients first" culture with their ONE tagline of "Real meat is our #1 ingredient..." (Did you know ONE stands for Optimum Nutritional Effectiveness). Made sense because at that point in time, a meat first based diet was a true innovation. Ten years ago after the Melamine Recall, marketing changed course and evolved into the exclusion of ingredients; "No Chinese ingredients", "No soy, corn, wheat, flavor, value"...Ok, so I threw in the last 2 to see if you were paying attention. Recently marketing has morphed again and now promotes "human grade," "human quality" or "USDA Chicken" parts. Beyond the regulatory problems with these phrases (more on that later), we are confusing the consumers and propagating falsehoods. The vast majority of pet food is extruded kibble and has been that way since Purina adapted and conformed the process for pet food in the 1950's (a borrowed extruder from their cereal plant). What is currently touted as the "newest innovation" is "home cooked" meals for your dog, delivered to your door. In a previous article (Has Pet Food Gone Too Far?), I highlighted the Top 5 manufacturers in this segment. Topline: My 80lb Golden Retriever has to eat between 2.5 and 4.5 POUNDS of "fresh" food at a COST between $8.13 and $12.48 PER DAY!! That is a LOT for what amounts to glorified canned/wet product! We can talk about the quality and nutritional benefits of the food later (and the fact that what they are shipping you is 72-75% water) but this article is about the marketing of these and other foods. The problem is that the base of our industry (aka "consumer trust") is slowly being eroded by each new wave of marketing and that no one, not any company or industry group, is doing anything about it.
"I was on the factory floor - in a hazmat suit - and saw how inferior the ingredients are and how many corners are cut to make mainstream pet food." - Renaldo, founder of PetPlate
FEAR BASED MARKETING
A long-standing tradition and is not unique to the pet food industry by ANY means. Some can be subtle and some can be overtly in your face. Most of these campaigns are based on a small nugget of truth that is then magnified and taken to the extreme. A "hazmat suit"? They could "SEE (emphasis mine) the inferior ingredients"? What makes it even more damaging is that the biggest conduit for fear marketing is social media ads and posts. These companies are literally unleashing the genie with the hopes that it is so tantalizing and sensationalistic that their message spreads like wild fire. The same companies create social media ads that call out "BigCo" pet food companies as peddlers of BS that have been feeding your dog BS for years! The irony of it is that some of these purveyors of fear and bashers of companies have happily accepted money and assistance from the very companies they are badmouthing. I have said it previously and I will say it repeatedly, the "BigCo" companies (e.g. Purina, Mars, Colgate) have done more for the health and well being of pets than any of these new companies could dare to dream of on their own! I get it! You're a new company and you want to make a splash so you go after the incumbents and hope to carve off a fractional percentage of their sales without waking the sleeping giant. I'm all for it but STOP doing it through fear mongering and try to do it based on your product's merits (unless of course you don't have any, in which case, stick with fear)!
There are companies out there that don't rely on fear marketing and DO discuss the merits of their product but they do it in a way that either skirts around current regulatory requirements or takes other findings and applies them (without rigor or merit) to their own products. Back in 2002, Purina released the findings of their landmark 14 year Life Span Study. They showed that proper feeding of dogs (maintaining a lean body weight), extended the life of the dog by 1.5 years. It took them 14 years to complete the study as they followed all littermates for their entire lives. Some companies take those results and apply it to their own diets but in a way that gives the impression that THEIR diet is superior in some way. For the record, the Purina study wasn't about the actual diet and nutrients (or ingredients) it was about adherence to feeding guidelines and the benefits of a lean body type. Other companies throw out the "9 out of 10" or "3 out of 4" preferred our food. They never seem to say who the other food was or the total number of respondents, how they were chosen, etc. It reminds me of the saying, "In God we trust; all others bring data!" One of my favorite tactics is naming the company but not the actual product. Blue Buffalo frequently targets Purina in their comparisons but do you ever actually hear which Purina diet they are comparing themselves to during the "challenge"? Purina has 50+ brands so when Blue talks about having a larger sales share, it is often Blue Buffalo (as a company) sales share vs. just Dog Chow or Purina ONE.
The Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) states in PF5(d)(3) "a reference to quality or food grade of the ingredient in the ingredient statement is not permitted." They go on to say, "ingredients used must be AAFCO officially defined animal feed ingredients, or be common or usual names of feed ingredients, be approved food additives in 21 CFR 573, or be considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) animal feed additives." All that is a mouthful and can make your head spin so let me "Jim it down" for you. You are not allowed to use a "quality" or "food grade" on your ingredient deck. So the companies that say, "USDA Chicken Thighs" as an ingredient are thumbing their noses to Regulatory. USDA "grading for quality means the evaluation of traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of meat; and, for poultry, a normal shape that is fully fleshed and meaty and free of defects." Once the meat goes through the extrusion process, none of those traits exist. Under USDA Beef grading there is Prime, Select, Choice, Standard and Commercial (also Certified Tender/Very Tender) which reference marbling and other visual cues. Under each category there are 3 classifications. So if a company markets their meat as USDA, which category/classification is it and what impact does that have since the grading is based on visual cues and other traits? Another marketing issue is the use of comparative statements. Calling your product something like "Superior Protein" is not allowed, yet companies still do it. Some companies also literally change the names of the ingredients to something that is more "user friendly". It is one thing when industry regulators do it after due process (e.g. Rape Seed Oil to Canola) but quite a bit different when a company does it, without going through the Regulatory hurdles, to make their product more appealing. I get it...I don't think anyone is saying, " I can't wait for my dog to eat some dried aspergillus oryzae fermentation product!" The regulations and requirements are there however for the safety of our pets and for the integrity of the industry. And for the record, the dried aspergillus is GRAS as an enzyme source and NOT approved as a protein source by either AAFCO or the FDA. Think about it as AAFCO's own version of truth in advertising. Yes, marketing would present something as "a gently processed food by-product" but in reality, its sh*t.
SAFETY BEFORE SALES
This brings me to one of the reasons it is so very important for the industry, new and incumbent, to do things properly and stop with the puffery. For almost 18 months now reports have been surfacing about a possible link between grain-free diets and a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) that is brought on by taurine deficiency. There are plenty of well educated, nutritional experts having these discussions and I encourage you to read their research but (for the sake of this article) here is my summation and concerns as it relates to the marketing of pet food. Ten years ago grain-free made a splash as it made grains out to be the "bad guys" of pet food. Before full approval from AAFCO was achieved, the industry was flooded with grain-free diets. In August of 2017, PetFoodIndustry.com reported that 44% of dry dog and 47% of dry cat foods on the market were grain free! So what's the big deal? While there is a lot science going on with this issue as it relates to bio-availability and digestibility, it can be summarized like this, "The industry has taken taurine, a non-essential amino acid (meaning it can synthesized within the body) and made it, in essence, an essential amino acid because some dogs are not able to use or synthesize it. A 2016 UC Davis study reported the following, "Grain-free commercial diets are very high in carbohydrates, which displaces amino acids. They also contain anti-nutrients (e.g. saponins, trypsin inhibitors, phytates and lectins) that may interfere with taurine absorption. When you add in the high heat processing used to manufacture kibble, it's hardly surprising these diets aren't an adequate source of taurine for many dogs." I'll "Jim it down" for you again. A company will take an exotic protein (lets say unicorn so we don't get served). Unicorn is a very expensive protein source so we balance the cost by lowering the level of unicorn protein and add in things like pea protein and some legumes (this raises the protein calculation at a lower cost). We are now effectively grain free and have kept costs in check. We can also now charge more for the exotic protein and grain free diet! A win-win for sales and profits. The problem is that it appears some dogs are having their ability to synthesize (and use) taurine diminished or lost by the higher levels of inclusion of these ingredients. Dogs that had a predisposition to taurine deficiencies are now having those problems exacerbated, possibly due to these diets. Something that would have shown up and been studied if the industry wasn't in a rush to market the "next great thing". It may be too early to tell if it is a causal relationship but enough cases have been reported across the country and across different breeds over the last few years to warrant digging deeper.
So how does this tie in to the marketing of pet food? Well, you don't go from only a handful of grain free diets to 44% without a marketing push. You make grains out to be the bad guys and you tout an "exotic or novel" protein combined with "different" ingredients. Everything looks good on the surface because the only measurement is the Guaranteed Analysis and AAFCO panels, both of which are straight up calculations and show nothing of availability or digestibility. I could chop up a leather shoe, add some sawdust and load it up with synthetic vitamins and minerals and could hit the necessary numbers for adult maintenance but it doesn't mean its what is best for the dog or cat. Call up the company that you support with your purchases and ask them for the analytics. Ask them for digestibility and the bioavailability of their diets. Ask them for the caloric distribution and their carbohydrate and starch levels. Until the industry holds itself accountable through transparency, marketers will rule the roost out of fear without any concern for what is ACTUALLY happening. "Food" for thought - might it be possible that the exploding obesity epidemic (56% of dogs) is related to "side effects" of these popular diets? They are significantly higher in carbs, sometimes up to 70% of caloric distribution. It's an interesting question but its tough to have a conversation when the industry can't agree on min/max carb levels (or even if carbs are good/bad for a pet). They don't require the reporting of caloric distribution of macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) for pet foods either. The first step is an overhaul of the pet food label itself. Companies will respect what the FDA inspects. If they change the conversation to nutrients and digestibility, the industry will have to follow!
When Ryan Yamka and I launched Guardian Pet Food, I was approached by a friend from within the industry and he said, "You have an amazing product, a real game changer and I wish you the best of luck! My only fear is that you won't play the game and that will hurt you." Well, we hope that's why it's called a game changer!