This article first appeared on LinkedIn
The 17th century Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian once said, "A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity" and in regard to what the pet industry has allowed, he couldn't have been more accurate! Commercially prepared pet food has been around since 1860 when James Spratt, an English businessman, formulated a dog biscuit made of wheat meals, vegetables, beet root and beef blood. It wasn't until 1956 when Ralston Purina "borrowed" equipment from their cereal division to make the first extruded kibble that we became familiar with the "round brown balls" as the "go to" form of pet food. In the mid-1980s the industry pivoted by introducing "slurry" and "meat first" ingredient decks. Before then, dry pet food was primarily grain based in order to promote shelf stability and convenience. This isn't meant to be a history lesson, and certainly not an homage to any one company. The point of my preamble is to show that the industry had a reputation of integrity and evolved to meet the needs of pets. The majority of these evolutions have been driven by science, research and a greater understanding of cats and dogs. Above all else, the desire to help pets live longer, healthier lives was at its core.
Sadly, the reputation and integrity of the industry has, at best, become tarnished. Last year the research team at iHeartDogs performed a survey that showed "only 6.9% of respondents trust that major market pet food brands are delivering a quality, safe pet food." The other alarming tidbit was that only 17% of consumers think that pet food manufacturers do a good job of educating them on pet nutrition. Think about that...less than 2 out of 10 people think pet food companies are doing a good job at explaining why they exist and only 7 out of 100 think they are actually making good, safe food!! I think Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible and Freddy Kruger had higher trust ratings!
I wish I knew the exact moment when things began to decline. Granted, the 2007 melamine recall did a lot of damage to the industry but truth be told, it hasn't been a single event - it has been a series of mis-truths, disinformation, manipulations and misleading marketing campaigns. Maybe it started with the old "Beaks and Feet" scare tactics. The chart above shows FirstDraft's 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation that are used. Basically it is a version of Dante's Seven Concentric Circles of Hell set to marketing. You'll see that the pet industry uses way too many of them, far too often! Let's jump right in with some examples shall we?
MISLEADING CONTENT, FALSE CONTEXT and MANIPULATED CONTENT
So the document on the left says, "Guaranteed probiotics help support digestion..." and then they clearly (and boldly) call out that they have 80 MILLION CFUs (colony forming units) per pound GUARANTEED! This would lead a reasonable person to think that 1) this product is better for the dog's digestive system and 2) that 80 Million CFUs must be good! While there are only a handful of studies on probiotics and dogs, the prevailing belief is that a dog requires 500 million CFUs daily to claim support of the immune system and 1 billion CFUs daily to claim that it supports the digestive system. I guess if your dog wants to eat 12.5lbs of this diet daily, it's not an issue. Another example is using certain ingredients that are not approved by AAFCO and thumbing your nose at Regulatory. If an ingredient is only approved as a digestive enzyme and you use it as a protein source in your treat, tout its long human usage history and change its AAFCO approved name to make it sound more appealing, you are manipulating information and the consumer. Unfortunately, the Regulatory sharks don't have teeth to take a proper bite!
FABRICATED CONTENT and MANIPULATED CONTENT
As we move along the seven concentric circles of misinformation we come upon these two. The photo and copy are from PetPlate and the other four images are from the internet. The two mounds of meal on the top right can be used in the manufacturing of pet food. If you were to see them going in to the mixer, could you identify which one was the "inferior ingredient"? Does it help to know that one pile is hydrolyzed feather meal and the other is chicken meal? Still can't tell? Exactly! Now how about that "Haz Mat" suit? I haven't been in EVERY single pet food manufacturer's plant but I have been in about 23 during my career and have NEVER seen a Haz Mat suit worn during manufacturing. The left side image in the lower right is a Haz Mat suit whereas the one on the right is what is typically worn in food/feed manufacturing facilities. Haz Mat suits are meant to protect the individual from dangerous elements, chemicals, etc. The helmet, hair net (beard/mustache nets too), white coats, gloves and boots are worn to make sure that nothing enters/contaminates the manufacturing process. I won't even address the "kibble contains many toxins" statement but suffice it to say that scare tactics have always worked and still do!
To be honest, these two images could fall in any one of the seven circles but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt by placing them here. Purina had a landmark study that showed that adherence to proper feeding guidelines (that is NOT over feeding) could extend a dog's quality of life and longevity. The study was NOT about a Purina food, but rather caloric intake and the effects on life span. I'm saying these claims are "False Context" because it is possible that they are taking Purina's findings (adding a year or so) and applying it to their food's portion controlled deliveries. I doubt it, but you never know. I wonder how much those claims helped their funding rounds? For the record, I'm jealous of the amounts they both have raised but if thats what you have to do, I'm OK with bootstrapping it! By the way, I've asked for a link to the studies or even an abstract of their research but to no avail. Not even the courtesy of a "get lost" email. It is particularly interesting that both companies make similar claims, especially when both companies have only been around for roughly three years. Did they mean to say that dogs on their diets have been alive for 32-36 months and counting? I guess we will never really know.
These are some of the more egregious claims that I couldn't NOT address but there are SO many more! The idea of "ancestral" and "wild" diets is ridiculous. Not in the sense that the macronutrient profiles of ancestral diets may be better for a dog but the companies making these claims are more than 40% carbohydrates and between 32-36% protein on a DMB. A far cry from the generally accepted belief that, "wild/ancestral" diets were 6-14% and 48-60% carbs and proteins, respectively.
We also have to contend with things like "Natural with added vitamins and minerals." That's like saying, "He's SUPER nice with just a little possessive demon in him." And then there is "Human Grade"/USDA/Organic ingredients and exclusionary diets. None of these diets have been shown to be ANY better than ANY other diet that does NOT have those things. "Human Grade" is primarily about the supply chain. "USDA" grading is a rating system of visual cues on marbling. Organic is about how the food is grown and has nothing to do with quality of ingredients. And let us not forget the hatchet job that has been done to "byproducts" by marketers. The funny thing is, many of those same byproducts are now being used and called out. Things like heart, liver, kidney, tripe, cartilage...yup, ALL byproducts but now marketing has decided they are once again "worthy" and should demand a premium price for their inclusion into the diet.
And then under exclusionary tactics we have "Grain Free" and "Non-GMO" to name but two. If I were to create a product that screamed out "Does NOT contain New Zealand Lamb" and put a cool little ghostbuster icon on the package, you can rest assured that some people would start to think that SOMETHING MUST be wrong with New Zealand lamb (and that's the point)! Most companies don't outright lie (some do), they just create confusion and blur the lines using the 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation. This is where the second iHeartDogs factoid is important! Remember, only 17% of consumers think manufacturers educate the consumer. The rest think we can't convince them, so we confuse them.
From one of my earlier posts, this comment was posted by a very well informed industry analyst that I respect and agree with 100%! "Our current reality is one of alternative facts and post truths. No longer are you obligated to support your claims with data and science, but allowed and encouraged to thrust the responsibility of disproving your version of reality on to those who dare cast skepticism (your #haters). The blame is shared by everyone from brands, to manufacturers, to regulators, to social media. The system is broken, but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed." As for me, I do dare to cast skepticism on the brands and companies that continue to sacrifice truth on the altar of sales! Until others join me, I guess I'm going to try this new pet food I found online. It says it contains NOTHING my pet wants or needs! PERFECT! Plus the model looks very trustworthy, relatively speaking!