This article first appeared on LinkedIn
I love the pet care industry. I really do. I have been involved in it for a long time...since my college internship at what was then Ralston-Purina in 1991 to today as co-founder of Guardian Pet Food Company. Maybe I've over-romanticized the industry; maybe I've miscalculated my self-worth and the contributions I've made...regardless, I believe the industry can do better and I KNOW our pets deserve more.
Senator Hiram Johnson of California once said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." Make no mistake, there is an economic war raging for the $100 BILLION global pet market and "truth" has been on life support, ever since the first kibble was extruded in the 1950's. This isn't a historical piece, nor is it going to focus on a particular food format or manufacturer. This is a bigger issue. This is about having integrity, working towards a "greater good" and finding value in something other than the "almighty" dollar!
I'm not sure when it happened, but as a society we went from, "...tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..." to PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" without even blinking an eye. While outright lies exist, the more favored route is "deception by omission" and it runs rampant! *NOTE: You will see lots of hyperlinks throughout this article. Feel free to follow as many or as few as you would like. They are here as citations and supporting documentation.
Here are a just a few recent examples of "Lying by Omission":
"No Chinese Ingredients" - The Melamine Recall of 2007 was a horrific event but are Chinese Ingredients really the problem or is it doctored ingredients (e.g. hydrolyzed feather meal) and poor safety and quality protocols (e.g. Vitamin D recall)? After all, if this is the issue, and no one is using Chinese ingredients, why are we still having recalls? This is a failure to correct pre-existing misconceptions.
"Live CFUs/Probiotics" - These claims start with a general statement, "healthy digestive and immune systems are vital..." No argument here! The issue is that companies then go on to say that they supply 80 million live CFUs per pound of food. We are led to believe that this MUST support the previously mentioned "digestive and immune" systems. What is omitted is that research shows that a minimum of 500 million CFUs/day are needed for digestive health and 1 billion CFUs/day supports digestive functions. So, unless your dog is eating between 6 - 12 lbs of this food daily, they aren't getting the benefits you think. This is lying by omission!
"Benefits of Fresh/Human-Grade Food" - Whether it is "extending a dog's life by 32 months" or "decreasing the risk of cancer by 65%", companies get away with saying some crazy sh*t! The only study published on fresh foods was fed to "...surgically altered roosters lacking ceca (microbial pouches)". If they had actual canine studies that were legitimate, peer-reviewed and replicated, they would share those studies and the results, but they DON'T!! In addition to saying things like the above, they say, "Immediate benefits of a fresh-food diet may include an increase in energy and appetite, improved digestion, shinier coat, allergy relief and healthy weight management." A lifespan study takes years to validate. I couldn't find any reference to a cancer study but did see this post that they may be "borrowing". The problem is that the actual findings were more about the high levels of Scotties and cancer from lawn pesticides and less about the type of food fed. In all honesty, it's not hard to run a digestibility study. It is even easier to have a lab run the essential amino acid analysis. If you are taking information from another study and applying the logic to your products, say so! If you don't, you are simply misleading the industry and your customers!
"Sourcing and Ingredient Origins" - The "Made in the USA" label is NOT regulated in pet food by the FDA or AAFCO. The only guidance comes from the FTC that says if the food incurs a "substantial transformation" in the US before distribution to the public, it can carry the claim. So technically, ingredients can be sourced from outside of the US but if it is manufactured within the US (mixed, formed, etc.) it can carry the "Made in the USA" moniker. Yes, the FTC allows for "negligible amounts of foreign sourced ingredients" but does not define what constitutes "negligible" in terms of weight and/or costs. Some companies also pretend to be the J. Peterman of the pet food world! "Brimming with wild caught fish..." Jerry, I fought the beast for hours just to bring it to your dog's bowl! What does it mean if that company actually uses farm-raised fish for the majority of their proteins? It's OK because they said, "Made with wild-caught fish", not exclusively wild-caught fish. This, I believe, is deceptive and is being challenged in court as I type!
"Marketing Puffery and Imagery" - Sometimes companies do SUCH a good job at marketing that they, and their customers, lose sight (for a while) that it is actually marketing and not really based in facts or science. In the early 1990's, Dr. Ian Billinghurst coined the term BARF Diet. It stood for Bones And Raw Food but somewhere along the line, it was changed to Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Those first two words are where the deceit kicks in! In a lawsuit against Champion Pet Foods (the manufacturer that trademarked the term), Champion's General Counsel stated in court that Champion could not be held liable for what amounts to "pure marketing puffery"! It's the same thing with the images that pet food manufacturers use to "represent" their ingredients. Leg of lamb, filets, Chilean sea bass, plump and juicy blueberries. In the Wysong lawsuit, a judge ruled that, "no reasonable person would believe that the images of prepared meats and vegetables was actually in the food."
"Quality, Premium and Best-in-Class Nutrition" - The funny thing with these words are they are purely subjective and meant to evoke the "warm fuzzies"! Other words like Organic and Highest Standards/Humanely Raised and Human Grade are worse because they have emotional connotations that are unfounded. The term organic applies to how the ingredient was raised or farmed. Certified Organic by a 3rd Party is meaningful in that sense, but it does not mean the ingredient has higher levels of any nutrient or is more easily digestible...people just "think" it is. The term "Humanely Raised" has a pretty low hurdle. The animals must be "given water at all times, given feed if they are held at a plant for an extended period and they must be handled in ways that minimize stress. As for the "humane" slaughter, this ranges from the Temple Grandin Method of curved chutes to allowing mobile slaughter units so the animals don't need to be transported. Sometimes, the animals are allowed to "rest" for up to 3 days before they are slaughtered. Not quite the image you get when you think, "humanely raised". Stop using words (and hijacking legit terms) for marketing puffery.
"Words Matter" - Too many companies go for the soundbite or t-shirt philosophy. If you say something like, "No More Nasties" or "Nothing Fake", you should "walk the talk". When a company touts the latter, but still uses artificial and synthetic ingredients, it says a lot about them and what they think about their customers. When a company says the former but doesn't take the *nasties out of their own food and allows those same ingredients to persist across other species' foods, it is grandstanding and hypocritical!
HERE IS MY CHALLENGE TO THE PET INDUSTRY:
No, I'm not going to ask you to eat your company's pet food (whatever THAT proved) ...it is a request to follow three simple paths:
- Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! - Food selection (for ourselves and our pets) is a very personal decision. No one, not a single consumer, is expecting you to have the"perfect" pet food. The vast majority of pet owners don't have degrees in animal nutrition, so they are dependent on external resources for knowledge. This is why today's marketing is so effective and bad for the industry. Consumers only "see" the front panel, the "romance copy," the ingredient deck and the guaranteed analysis and none of it adds value and is a breeding ground for misinformation.
- Support your claims with data, research and citations (maybe all three). - A major retailer used an asterisk in their marketing campaigns with great effect. The fact that they did so only AFTER being called out for inconsistencies is another story. Maybe, just maybe, we can use the asterisk as support for our marketing and/or claims. Real estate is limited on packaging so if you use an *, you can invite the consumer to dive deeper ( via hyperlinks) so they can do their own research on what you've presented. Dare I dream that we can even help them understand the science that was used to support your claim/position?
- Move from Subjective to Objective measurements. - I'm not saying that we need to drown consumers in so much science and data that they require a degree in animal nutrition, just that the emotionally based, subjective marketing needs to be curtailed. Look at the DCM issue as an example of why this is problematic. By the end of 2018, grain-free diets accounted for 47% of all pet food sold and of all the new food item introductions that year, nearly 70% were grain-free. Was there any science behind this shift? ANY? Some brands marketed grain free so well that sales skyrocketed! Naturally, everyone followed suit. No research was done. Nothing showed that grain free was nutritionally equal to or better than grain inclusive. Did pets benefit from these formulation changes? No! The primary beneficiaries were the manufacturers as they saw sales increases and cost reductions (read that as improved profitability). From FoodIndustryExecutive.com on October 25, 2019, "Marketing opportunities await. It may only take a few formulation tweaks for pet food brands to take advantage of grain-free’s demise. Some companies may find that their existing recipes qualify for grain-friendly claims without any changes. And several raw, dehydrated, and minimally processed foods are already free of potatoes and legumes. In these cases, a change in packaging may be all it takes to win over consumers." When Dr. Lisa Freeman from Tufts wrote her opinions on the cause of NM-DCM, there was no data (on either side really) to defend grain free. As a matter of fact, there was a resounding silence from the manufacturers. When they were heard from, they were touting "added taurine" and "ancient grains". There was no causal relationship to explain the need of the former and no benefit (once again) for the latter. Some data even suggests "ancient grains" are less beneficial to pets. The point I'm trying to make here is that emotion-based decisions are powerful and that makes them even more difficult to change when the winds shift (as they always do). In this case, fear of DCM was more powerful than the fear of grain inclusive diets. Unfortunately, most manufacturers went in to hiding and left retailers (mostly the independents) to fend for themselves.
Call me naive, but I believe you can market your product (whatever your product) by discussing its features and benefits. You don't need puffery or lies unless you don't personally see or believe the benefits of your product line. It has been said in politics that it is not the lie but the cover-up that does the most damage. Edward Bernays added to Hiram Johnson's quote, "...during any war, the truth is forsaken for propaganda." It is time to get real...
"Always stand up for what you believe in, even if it means standing alone."