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Classical Romanticism was a period between the late 18th to mid-19th century. Many scholars would agree that it was a direct response and reaction to The Enlightenment and the Age of Rationalism; a way of pushing back against facts and science. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the emotional and the visionary. According to Brittanica.com, the defining characteristics of the period were, "... a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect." Rousseau, the philosopher and writer, described Romanticism as a "rebellion against reason" where the "primacy of emotions and feelings" ruled. With that as the backdrop, let me be the first to welcome you to the Age of Pet Food Romanticism!
I'm not saying that this is a bad thing for the pet industry, just that we need to hold on to a little bit of rationalism, keep our eyes open and our emotions in check. It would be easy to pine away the day talking about "ancestral" diets and to pontificate about the wonders of "natural" foods. We could even go on, ad nauseam, over the "supernatural" healing powers of CBD, but without the support of evidentiary facts, all of this is just a series of folk tales (aka Marketing). Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism a disruption that was leading "to something like the melting away of the very notion of objective truth." For example, AAFCO may define your primary ingredient as a "digestive aid" based on decades of research and clinical studies but if you want to call it a "superior protein," knock yourself out! If AAFCO insists that you call an ingredient by its proper name but you think it sounds better to call it something else to avoid sounding "sciency" or to sidestep legal issues, go for it! After all, why would we want to consider the long term impact of a "natural" ingredient or the interactions of various ingredients upon one another? I don't know....maybe because carrageenan (a "natural" ingredient found in 70% of wet pet food) has been linked to cancer or that a correlation has recently been found between grain free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), to name just two examples!
Blue Buffalo was the epitome of Pet Food "pre"-Romanticism. With more emphasis on emotional marketing than actual facts, they set the industry on fire! Their success, and eventual sale to General Mills last year for $8 Billion, has led to a flood of aspiring Romantics in pet food. A July 25, 2014 article by Bloomberg is the equivalent to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads in that it started the current Age. In the article, Blue Buffalo's founder Bill Bishop says he saw pet food parallels to sweetened beverages: high margins and low barriers to entry. “You can get into the market small with contract manufacturers making the stuff,” he says, displaying an easy candor. “Slap on a good label, come up with a slogan, and off you go,” he says. “There were already a lot of smoke and mirrors in how pet food was advertised, and that was the sort of stuff we were good at.”
The new Romantics will "sell" us stories that appeal to our emotions but, should we dare to critically examine them, their tales will be less savory than we thought. One of my favorite examples is the campaign against "by-products." Merriam-Webster defines by-products as "an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture or synthesis of something else." In the case of Pet Food, the "something else" is human food. The by-products are the parts of the animal that would not normally or easily find its way into the human food supply chain. Animal by-products, as defined by the USDA, are "products harvested or manufactured from livestock other than muscle meat." If you have a 1,200lb steer, the average yield is only 490lbs of boneless trimmed beef (ground, steak, etc). This leaves 260 lbs. of by-products (heart, liver, etc.) that could be used in pet food manufacturing. If that 1,200 lb. steer cost $1,500 and there is no market for the by-products, the cost of the 490 lbs. of beef goes from $2.50 to $3.06 per pound (illustrative). The number of steers required to meet the beef demand also goes up as does the demand on feed, water and other resources to "produce" it. Remember, the term by-product is in relation to the human food chain and does NOT reflect the quality or nutritional value of the by-product itself. In this particular example, the IDEA of "human grade" ingredients may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but it actually does more harm than good overall. When the day comes that we have to choose between feeding our child or our pet, we will all have lost.
The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner (1837) By Sir Edwin Landseer
While there are more than a few "snake oil" hucksters in the industry (I define them as companies that sell stories/exclusions over facts), there are folks with a Romantic view of the future that are working with solid scientific rationale. These companies have had visions and are working to create the future. Jiminy's and Forage Pet Foods are working on cricket protein. Bond Pets is working on cultured meat (perhaps a Rational Romantic antithesis of Mary Shelley) and at Guardian, we are preparing to launch our own alternative at 2019's Global Pet Expo. There are many more companies doing similar work but they are drowned out by the more showy Romantics. What's important to understand is that not all claims are equal. Often times, the shiniest thing that gets the most attention isn't the best thing, no matter what those folks may tell you. The only way to know for sure is to do your own research; to ask questions and to resist the urge to Romanticize their marketing tale!
The idea of using ingredients that are truly from nature and used in as close to their natural state as possible, is very appealing. The health of consumer animals and the welfare of producer animals should be paramount and not just a marketing means to a profitable end. Those entrepreneurs that have visions for a better tomorrow should be celebrated. Our love of animals should be what motivates us and gives birth to the advancements we strive to make realities. All of this can be done without abandoning facts and actual science. When someone disparages the "big, bad company," ask why is Big Co. bad and how is your product better? If a company uses scare techniques to sell their goods ("I had to wear a hazmat suit", "global warming is near" or "if you feed this, your pet can die"), ask them why they aren't talking about their own products features and benefits. Passion, empathy and nature are more than worthy of our efforts but I hope this Age of Pet Food Romanticism is one with a very short timeline. The best thing for the industry would be that we quickly find ourselves in a Rationalistic Romantic Age; one where we can celebrate nature, and experience the emotions and passions of Romanticism but with a grounded and rational approach to actual facts.