Big Food Swallows Yet Another Much-Loved Natural Brand

Purina Pet Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A few months ago Nestlé Purina acquired a smaller pet food company, Merrick Pet Care, loved by many pet owners who felt Merrick produced good quality formulas
  • Last year, Purina also purchased Zuke’s, a manufacturer of popular natural pet treats
  • Many consumers and pet advocates feel the quality of both Merrick’s and Zuke’s products will be compromised now that Purina is in charge
  • The best way to check ingredient changes in commercial pet foods is on the company’s website, since it can take a year or more for product labels to reflect changes

By Dr. Becker

Some of you may be aware that this past July, Nestlé Purina bought Merrick Pet Care, which many dog and cat guardians felt was one of the higher quality commercial brands on the market.

Purina also bought Zuke’s, a natural pet treat maker, early in 2014, and later in the year overhauled their Purina One Beyond line and began offering grain-free and super food ingredients to try to position it as a natural brand.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on with the major pet food industry players. According to Packaged Facts:

“The big three mass marketers of pet food – Nestlé Purina, Mars, and Big Heart Pet Brands (recently acquired by J.M. Smucker) – are all investing heavily in the natural segment via brand reformulations, new product introductions, and acquisitions.”1

Pet Food Giants Are Buying Up Smaller Companies with High Quality Products

On the surface this may seem like a positive trend. It may seem as though big US pet food producers are trying to offer higher quality formulas to meet the needs and demands of consumers. And perhaps they are… but many pet owners and holistic vets are skeptical, to say the least.

Per PetfoodIndustry.com:

“Within hours of the Nestlé-Merrick announcement, comments – mostly negative – were flying on social media. Merrick’s Facebook pages received thousands of posts for several days, with many lamenting the company’s ‘selling out’ to a larger corporation of which many commenters apparently have a very low, even adverse, opinion.

Merrick gamely responded with assurances that it would not change its formulations, ingredients, manufacturing practices, or quality standards, but most of these consumers weren’t buying it.”2

Here’s one typical exchange on Facebook between a pet owner and a Merrick representative:

Pet owner: Have you changed your formulas now that you’re owned by another company?

Merrick rep: We are focused on doing what we have always done… making the best recipes for the best pets ever… yours.

Pet owner: Ok… so same formulas? I appreciate the response, but that wasn’t exactly my question.

Merrick rep: No changes have been made as a result of the recently announced purchase agreement. We’re excited to continue to do what we’ve always done and that’s why we wanted to let you and other pet parents know about our newest offering… Grain Free Turkey. Gobble gobble!”3

Merrick’s statement, “No changes have been made as a result of the recently announced purchase agreement” appears repeatedly in their responses to concerned pet owners. Sounds a little wiggly to me.

Perhaps changes have been made, but not as a result of the acquisition? Or perhaps changes will be made in the future, putting distance between the “recently announced purchase” and the actual changes.

In any event, there’s about a 99.99 percent probability that at some point in the foreseeable future, Purina will make changes to its Merrick formulas that probably won’t be obvious to consumers; AAFCO’s incredibly evasive labeling suggestions make it nearly impossible to navigate through a pet food label without significant doubts about quality and raw materials in the end product.

Purina’s Purchase of Merrick Is Being Downplayed

One interesting development in Purina’s recent acquisition of Zuke’s that may also take place with the Merrick purchase, is that so far there is no evidence Nestlé Purina owns Zuke’s on the brand’s packaging, website or trade show booths.

“In fact, the name Nestlé Purina PetCare doesn’t appear anywhere on Zuke’s website,” according to PetfoodIndustry.com. “Even a press release issued about six months after the purchase reiterating the treat maker’s ‘intention to maintain its past product development and distribution strategies’ makes no mention of its new owner.”4

PetfoodIndustry.com attributes part of Purina’s under-the-radar approach with both Zuke’s and Merrick’s to consumer backlash. Pet owners are growing very vocal when big industry players swallow up smaller brands known for their high quality products.

As one blog commenter observed:

“Isn't it sad (that's one word for it) that Nestle-Purina has to maintain *complete* invisibility when it comes to companies they buy that have stellar quality reputations with their customers – just to protect those companies from ruin due to their association with Purina? That ought to tell Purina something about their own company and that major quality changes are in order!”5

Expect More Acquisitions, and Know Where to Look for Ingredient Changes

Purina’s acquisition of Merrick is another sign that pet food consolidations will continue just as they have in other industries. As PetfoodIndustry.com points out, whether this is positive for the industry, pet owners, or the pets we all feed is yet to be determined.

If you happen to feed Merrick products to your dog or cat, keep in mind that ingredient changes will appear on the company’s website long before they appear on product labels (in most cases, manufacturers are allowed to use up all the labels and packaging they have in stock before switching to updated labels).

Class Action Lawsuit Against Purina’s Beneful Is Expanding

A few months ago, I wrote about a class action lawsuit filed against Nestlé Purina charging that Purina’s Beneful brand dry dog food sickened two dogs in one family and caused the death of a third. The suit was filed on behalf of Frank Lucido, owner of the three dogs, in California federal court.

According to the lawsuit, owners of sick or dead dogs that were fed Beneful kibble have made over 3,000 online consumer complaints. The symptoms most consistently mentioned were vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, internal bleeding in the stomach, and a problem with or failure of the liver. You can read a sampling of the complaints in the original court filing.

This past June, the original class action complaint was amended to include over 26 pet owners in 15 states, including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

Is Purina Trying to Silence Its Online Critics?

Purina’s public response to the initial charges was unsurprising, blaming the lawsuit on “social media-driven misinformation”:

"Like other pet foods, Beneful is occasionally the subject of social media-driven misinformation. Online postings often contain false, unsupported, and misleading allegations that cause undue concern and confusion for our Beneful customers."6

However, according to NBC News, Purina is working behind the scenes to attempt to silence online critics:

“The amended suit claims that Purina has been contacting consumers who post negative experiences with Beneful to social media, denying liability while offering them cash settlements in exchange for restrictive confidentiality agreements. The lawsuit claims to include a copy of a non-disclosure agreement for a complaint involving Beneful.

Schopp, the Purina spokesman, said any customer service agreements and compensation were ‘good-will gestures’ by the company and a common practice in many industries.”7

So What Does All This Mean for You and Your Pet?

It’s important to realize that your pet’s first line of defense in avoiding low quality or contaminated commercial pet food is you. Don’t depend on pet food companies or government regulators like the FDA to have your dog’s or cat’s best interests at heart.

My first recommendation, if you’re worried about the quality of the commercial pet food you’re offering your dog or cat, is to prepare pet meals yourself in your own kitchen with ingredients you select (and based on balanced, species-appropriate recipes).

Alternatively, I recommend buying from small pet food companies who offer fresh, whole, species-appropriate, preferably organic, human grade, and non-GMO diets for dogs and cats.

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