Has This Pet Food Giant Opened an Embarrassing Can of Worms?

Pet Food Industry

Story at-a-glance -

  • In May of this year, pet food giant Purina filed a federal lawsuit against a much smaller competitor, Blue Buffalo, alleging Blue Buffalo is not honest about the ingredients in its pet food. Purina says it has independent laboratory test results that purportedly dispute Blue Buffalo’s claims about some of its products. Purina also launched a new website with the fanciful name “PetFoodHonesty.com” on the same day it announced the lawsuit.
  • The Purina lawsuit follows a complaint another big pet food producer, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, made against Blue Buffalo through the National Advertising Division (NAD). Hill’s accused Blue Buffalo of disparaging its competition in its advertising campaigns, and NAD ultimately recommended that Blue Buffalo modify certain advertising claims. Blue Buffalo is appealing most of NAD’s recommendations.
  • Within a week of Purina’s lawsuit, Blue Buffalo fired back with a lawsuit of its own, accusing Purina of defamation, unfair competition, false advertising, and trade-practice violations. Blue Buffalo referred to Purina’s independent lab tests as “voodoo science” and demanded Purina be held accountable for their actions and forced to stop a “carefully orchestrated P.R. campaign designed to erode the trust that pet parents place in our BLUE brand.”
  • According to industry insiders, Purina’s lawsuit against Blue Buffalo represents an escalating fight for control of the upper tier of the pet food market, which happens to be the fastest growing segment of a $23 billion industry.
  • Whatever Purina’s intentions are with regard to Blue Buffalo, it’s conceivable their very public campaign against Blue Buffalo and in favor of “Pet Food Honesty” could draw unintended, unwanted attention to both their ingredient lists and their own questionable advertising tactics.

By Dr. Becker

As I'm sure many of you are aware, there's an interesting legal battle taking shape between pet food giant Nestlé Purina PetCare and smaller competitor, Blue Buffalo.

In early May, Purina filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court against Blue Buffalo, alleging false advertising, disparagement and unjust enrichment. About a week later, Blue Buffalo returned fire by filing their own lawsuit, accusing Purina of defamation, unfair competition, false advertising, and trade-practice violations.

Purina Sues Blue Buffalo

On the same day Purina's lawsuit was announced (May 6), the company launched a new website with the whimsical name, PetFoodHonesty.com. On the home page, under the equally whimsical headline, Purina: Where Honesty Is Our First Ingredient, in a letter to pet owners, the company lists its grievances against Blue Buffalo, starting with the assertion that "Blue Buffalo is not being honest about the ingredients in its pet food."

The main thrust of Purina's lawsuit appears to be that while Blue Buffalo claims its products contain no chicken or poultry by-product meals, an independent laboratory (hired by Purina) found that several of Blue's "Life Protection" formulas contained "significant percentages" of poultry by-product meal. Tests also found both poultry by-product meal and corn in Blue Buffalo's "LifeSource Bits," as well as rice hulls in products marketed as grain-free.

Purina also makes it clear that its lawsuit follows a March challenge made by another huge pet food producer, Hill's Pet Nutrition, to the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Hill's, which is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, alleged that Blue Buffalo was disparaging its competition in its advertising campaigns. NAD ultimately recommended that Blue Buffalo modify certain advertising claims; Blue Buffalo agreed to make one of the recommended changes, but said it planned to appeal the others to the National Advertising Review Board.

Interestingly, NAD has "National Partners" that it describes as "a diverse network of nearly 200 corporations, law firms and associations that have demonstrated their support for furthering ethical business practices and advancing trust between buyers and sellers." For what it's worth, both The Nestlé Group and the Colgate-Palmolive Company are listed as National Partners of NAD. Blue Buffalo isn't on the list.

Blue Buffalo Responds

On May 6, the same day Purina's lawsuit was announced, Blue Buffalo made a public response on their own website in the form of a letter to pet parents from founder and chairman, Bill Bishop. Bishop writes:

"We categorically deny all of these false allegations and will aggressively defend the integrity of our brand and our products. It is an easy thing to make unsubstantiated claims, put them in a lawsuit and then publish them all over the web to disparage and defame a company. It is quite another thing to prove those allegations."

Bishop then reiterates Blue Buffalo's advertising claims that his company does not use chicken or poultry by-product meal, ground corn, or artificial preservatives in any of their products. He says he looks forward to disproving the "voodoo science" that Purina relied on to make their allegations. And he asserts that Purina's "inability to compete successfully with natural pet foods is the key motivation for this frivolous lawsuit."

In a follow-up letter two days later, Bishop accused Purina of continuing to "rail away" by also making an issue out of where Blue Buffalo makes its products. He responds with:

"Well, unlike Nestlé Purina, each and every one of our Blue Buffalo products is made right here in the USA. And when you think about it, it's rather ironic for Nestlé Purina to even bring up the subject of manufacturing location, when just last year they had to recall all their Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch treats that were made in China with unapproved antibiotics. Now that's something that might be worth a little explaining."

On May 14, Bishop added a third letter announcing the company had filed its own lawsuit against Purina, demanding that "Nestle Purina be held accountable for their actions, and that they stop their carefully orchestrated P.R. campaign designed to erode the trust that pet parents place in our BLUE brand."

Bishop suggests Purina may be protected legally from revealing the details of their independent laboratory testing of Blue Buffalo products, but he assures readers "that we've never purchased one kernel of corn or one ounce of poultry by-product meal." Bishop goes on to illustrate some of the differences between his company and Purina, from his perspective, one of which is Purina's habit of producing "happy dog" advertising that focuses on attractive package design rather than the quality of a product's ingredients. He cites Purina's Beneful brand as an example, with packaging that features images of real beef, chicken or fish, contrasted with an ingredient list that starts with corn and chicken by-product meal at the top.

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Wondering What's Behind Purina's Lawsuit? Maybe We Should Follow the Money…

So what's really going on here? What's the backstory? Why is a pet food giant like Purina suing a much smaller industry player like Blue Buffalo?

It's impossible to know exactly what prompted Purina's lawsuit, but here's one likely piece of the puzzle, courtesy of the Seattle Times:

"…concern over what we feed our pets has transformed the industry in recent years. It also has a lot to do, observers say, with St. Louis-based Nestle Purina Petcare and its decision last month to challenge a smaller, but rapidly growing, competitor in federal court.

"The lawsuit, which accuses Connecticut-based Blue Buffalo of false advertising, is essentially a fight over the upper tier of the pet-food market — the fastest-growing segment of the $23 billion industry."

According to industry experts, almost half that $23 billion is spent within the premium pet food category, which includes Blue Buffalo. In addition, the premium pet food market is expected to experience impressive growth over the next five years, while the mid-priced category grows at a much slower rate, and the economy category remains flat.

Blue Buffalo came on the scene in 2002 and has grown quickly to command 5 percent of the U.S. pet food market. Last year, Blue's revenue was reportedly in the $600 million range.

Has Purina Opened Up a Can of Worms?

It seems obvious that both Purina and Hill's hope to shut down Blue Buffalo's ability to compare their products to "big name" products in their marketing and advertising campaigns. But while Hill's worked relatively quietly behind the scenes, using the National Advertising Division to try to restrict Blue Buffalo's product claims, Purina took their fight to the public.

By filing a federal lawsuit and simultaneously launching a website touting "Pet Food Honesty," it seems Purina might have positioned itself to draw even more unwanted attention to the quality of its product ingredients -- and also to its own questionable advertising and marketing tactics. Time will tell.

I have no car in this race, since I'm not an advocate of processed pet food no matter who makes it. But I do think this legal contest will be interesting to watch, and just might have far-reaching and unintended consequences for the processed pet food industry as a whole.