This article first appeared on LinkedIn
Our love and obsession with our fur babies has come to a dangerous fork in the road! Our quest for "better" and "cleaner" ingredients is well intentioned but the current trend of "human grade" is not the solution. I am "all in" when it comes to pet care but this recent trend has only traded in one set of marketing buzz words for another. So long as the conversations continue to focus on ingredients rather than nutrients and digestibility, the industry will be at risk. To make it worse, consumers are paying an exorbitant premium for these new products and marketing spins. It is only a matter of time before this wave crashes on the shores of the pet industry and damages all of our sand castles.
I've written several articles on the history of commercial pet food and the important role the "Big Boys" (Nestle Purina and Mars) have played in advancing the science of nutrition for our pets. While kibble (aka "Round Brown Balls") has served a key role in the lives of our pets, I look forward to the day when it is not so prominent. I don't think anything is wrong with kibble, its just that we can do better for our pets (and our planet). You would think that fresh pet food delivered to the home would make me happy. It does, but just like the round, brown balls, we can do better...SO much better.
The basic premise of companies like Ollie, Nom Nom Now, The Farmers Dog, Just Food for Dogs and Pet Plate is that they start with "better, fresh ingredients" so it MUST be better for your dog. The numbers in the chart come from each companies website and the last two columns were calculated based on my own Golden Retriever. Its great that they all use "fresh ingredients" but if you look at Guaranteed Analysis and kcal/kg, what are you really feeding them? Well, I HOPE my dog likes the food because he will need to eat an awful lot of it (anywhere from 2.5-4.5 POUNDS PER DAY). Considering that more than 70% (thats 1.75-3.2 lbs./day) of these foods are water, it kinda makes you wonder how much of the "better ingredients" are actually in it. A 14 day supply (2 feedings/day) will weigh close to 50lbs (with roughly 35lbs of it being water) for my 80lb Golden Retriever!
The one measure that is not shared by any of these companies is their digestibility numbers. Why is this important? It would be nice to know how much of the diet you are feeding is actually available to your dog, especially since you have to feed so much of it. While it is true that they won't need to put in as many synthetics or additives because the food is not extruded, they all still use plenty of them.
Lets look at The Farmer's Dog Turkey as an example:
INGREDIENTS: Turkey, parsnips, chickpeas, carrot, broccoli, spinach, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, fish oil, vitamin B12 supplement, zinc amino acid chelate, iron amino acid chelate, vitamin E supplement, copper amino acid chelate, thiamine mononitrate, sodium selenite, riboflavin supplement, potassium iodide, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid.
How about JustFoodForDogs Chicken & White Rice:
INGREDIENTS: USDA Chicken Thigh, Long Grain White Rice, Spinach, Carrots, Apples, USDA Chicken Gizzard, USDA Chicken Liver, Icelandic Premium EPA and DHA, Calcium Pyrophosphate, Natural Calcium, Choline Bitartrate, Natural Kelp, Magnesium Bisglycinate Chelate, vitamin E, Zinc Bisglycinate Chelate, Vitamin D3, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin. Oh yeah, AAFCO, per PF5(d)(3), states "a reference to quality or food grade of the ingredient in the ingredient statement is not permitted." In layperson terms, you aren't allowed to list USDA Chicken... in your ingredient deck! As for the EPA and DHA, if its "natural", it should just be listed as fish oil or salmon oil or whatever the source.
Surely Nom Nom Now Chicken Chow-Wow has to be different:
INGREDIENTS: Boneless chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, spinach, canola oil, sunflower oil, dicalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, fish oil, vinegar, citric acid (natural preservative), taurine, choline bitartrate, zinc gluconate, ferrous sulfate, vitamin E supplement, copper gluconate, manganese gluconate, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), selenium yeast, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12 supplement, cholecalciferol (source of vitamin D3), sodium iodide.
Fresh ingredients indeed!! Some of those ingredients will stay "fresh" for quite some time in the lab. To be fair, many of the pet foods on the market today use these synthetics and additives too. My issue is that these "fresh" food companies with "better ingredients" give the consumer the impression that they are something more than just uncanned batches of wet pet food. I also have an issue with the convenience, or lack of, with these diets. I've already brought up the point that 70%+ of what is sent to you is water. This is akin to receiving a shipment where 3/4 of the cubic footprint of the box is empty or filled with crinkle paper or air pillows...anything other than the product you purchased!!
Take a closer look at these dogs with their delivery from Ollie. That is just 7 days of food for those three dogs at an estimated cost of $241! How is that convenient? How is that sustainable? Unless you have a spare refrigerator or freezer to put it in, how is storage even possible? And what do you do if you want to take your dog on a day trip or a weekend getaway? Pack an extra cooler? When you add in freezing, thawing, scooping and cleaning up the bowls, you have a full time job! "Fresh" food is just the most recent marketing spin in the industry; canned dog food without the synthetics needed to balance out the retort process and none of the preservatives needed for a 2 year shelf life.
Look, I get it! People want to feed their pets the healthiest diets they can with the hopes of having more quality years with their fur babies. Maybe I am missing something?! These companies have raised millions and millions of dollars from investors and have plenty of customers that think their products are great! They've been featured in print, TV and online. Even Petco has introduced the concept into their stores as "takeout". They have definitely stumbled on to something, its just not something that is better for pets. Recently, JustFoodForDogs had a recall due to listeria being found in their products. Despite all of the USDA and "human grade" ingredient talk, the actual food wasn't any more or less safe...it just made you think it was.
Somewhere along the line the industry made by-products and grains THE bad ingredients. The thing is, if we start talking about nutrition, macronutrients and digestibility we'll see that the conversation is a lot more productive and helpful for the one group that doesn't have a voice in all of this; our pets. The more we try to replicate human food for our pets, the more we will put our relationship with them in danger. Ingredients will become more expensive and more scarce. Eventually, if we aren't careful, we will be faced with our industry's version of Sophie's Choice: deciding who is fed the $30 burger and who goes hungry.
Jim Galovski is a 25 year veteran of the pet care industry and works as a consultant for both start-ups and well established companies in the pet industry. Jim sits on several Advisory Boards and is also the co-founder of Guardian Pet Food Company (www.guardianbars.com) which produces MoRE Canine Food Bars and WHoLE Prey Treats for Dogs.