When Buying Pet Food, Watch Out for This Trick

town hall meeting

Story at-a-glance -

  • Big pet food seems increasingly desperate to “educate” and communicate with their customers — or at least that’s what they say
  • If the industry really wants to fight “fake news and misinformation” about their products, they could start by being candid in their labeling, packaging and marketing
  • The industry is also notorious for being unresponsive to consumer questions and complaints; their public response to recalls could also use some improvement
  • It’s important for pet parents to ignore the pretty packaging and magical marketing used by processed pet food companies; learn what’s in those products instead, and whether they’re the best nutrition for furry family members

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

During an event called a “Petfood Forum Town Hall” held recently (which despite its name didn’t include members of the public), pet food industry experts discussed “…the disconnect among various industry avenues, academia and consumers, and the need for more and better communication to mend that disconnect.”1

They seem to feel that “mending the disconnect” would allow them to educate consumers about their “valuable” pet food research. However, as you know if you visit here frequently, pet food industry research is self-funded and self-serving — studies are conducted not for the benefit of the pets they feed, but for the ultimate benefit of the industry’s bottom line.

If industry experts actually believe pet parents would think more highly of them and buy more of their products after seeing their studies, they may be in for a surprise.

Big Pet Food Creates Its Own ‘Fake News and Misinformation’

According to one of the town hall panelists, there’s a need for big pet food “ … to fight the fake news and misinformation,” and “… get the industry together and educate the consumer.” In my experience, processed pet food companies actually create much of the “fake news and misinformation” about their products through their marketing and advertising.

One example is ingredient splitting2 — a bit of trickery used to make the ingredient label on a bag, can or pouch of food more appealing to pet parents. Let’s say we have a dog food that’s primarily made with corn and rice, which is quite common in low-quality, inexpensive brands.

Corn and rice are significantly less nutritious for dogs than meat (actually, they aren’t even in the same ballpark), making them inferior ingredients.

Before Splitting

Rank Ingredient Content (%)

1

Corn

30

2

Rice

20

3

Chicken meal

18

4

Etc.

5

Etc.

6

Etc.

7

Etc.

After Splitting

Rank Ingredient Content (%)

1

Chicken meal

18

2

Corn meal

15

3

Corn flour

15

4

Rice gluten

10

5

Rice bran.

10

6

Etc.

7

Etc.

Look at the ingredients in this dog food “Before Splitting.” It’s quite clear corn is the predominant ingredient, followed by rice. Chicken meal, presumably made from chicken meat and other chicken pieces and parts, which is what many pet parents look for at the top of the list, comes in third.

However, as you can see in the “After Splitting” example, when the manufacturer gets a little creative, using a couple of different corn and rice products, he can list them separately (split them), and lo and behold, chicken meal pops to the top of the list, which is enough to convince many pet owners the food is meat-based and high-quality.

I wonder how willing the processed pet food industry would be to “educate the consumer” about ingredient splitting? Or how about educating pet parents on the raw products used by the rendering industry to create meat and bone meal for pet food? My fellow pet nutrition advocate, Rodney Habib, exposes another gimmick the industry isn’t talking about called the Salt Divider, in this awesome Facebook Live.

It’s Hard to ‘Communicate’ and ‘Educate’ While Refusing to Answer Questions

In addition to deliberately creating “fake news and misinformation” about their products, big pet food also goes to great lengths to avoid talking to interested parties outside their industry bubble, for example, filmmaker Kohl Harrington who co-produced the “Pet Fooled” documentary.

As Kohl, pet parent to an itchy dog, explains in our interview, his initial goal was simply to learn about fresh versus processed pet food. The challenge he faced when attempting to talk to pet food companies is typical of what pet nutrition specialists like me, not to mention countless pet parents, have also confronted.

Among the many things Kohl learned during his research and while making the documentary is that the pet food industry promotes certain ideas that many pet owners disagree with and criticize them for. He thought that if, for example, pet owners are wrong about corn and it's really a great food for dogs as pet food companies insist, then those companies would be happy to meet with him and explain their position.

"That didn't happen," says Kohl, who kept a detailed log of all the pet food industry contacts he tried to make. He called company headquarters and left messages. He called media departments and left messages. He wrote emails, and he tried messaging through Facebook.

The only verbal response he received from a major company was from Hill's Science Diet. They left a voice message for him stating, "We don't want to participate in this film." Beyond that single voicemail message, Kohl never received any response from any of the pet food industry people he contacted.

"That says a lot," says Kohl. "You're being criticized by your customers for product claims and you're not willing to stand behind them, because you don't have to."

Big Pet Food’s Response to Recalls Is Consistently Disappointing

In his documentary, Kohl covers two pet food recalls — the 2007 melamine disaster and the never-ending jerky treat debacle. He interviewed several people whose pets had become ill or died after eating the toxic jerky treats. Most of the pet parents he spoke to had never thought to question what was in their pet's food or treats. They trusted the claims printed on the packages.

"The interesting thing was that none of the pet owners involved in the chicken jerky issue wanted to be involved in a lawsuit," says Kohl. "The only thing they wanted was for the product to be pulled off the shelf, the problem to be fixed and to move on. All they wanted was for the product to be recalled so it didn't kill more animals."

Each pet owner had called the treat manufacturer and been ignored. "That was a very shocking thing to me," says Kohl. "I called companies myself only to hear, 'Our treats have been tested. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't found anything.’” He also spoke to the FDA, and the agency acknowledged there is an issue, but they can't find the proof they need.

"What does that say?" asks Kohl. "You just allow the product to continue to be sold and continue to kill until you can find the smoking gun? You know it's killing. You've admitted it's killing."

Pet Food Advertising (Like All Advertising) Is ‘Cultural Conditioning’

As I mentioned earlier, Kohl’s experience was not unique. The pet food industry keeps talking inside its bubble about the need to educate and be transparent with consumers, but their behavior out here in the real world doesn’t back up their words. While doing research for his documentary, Kohl researched videos and happened to come across one of mine in which I'm talking about pet food ingredient labels. He appreciated my honesty, and that of my good friend, integrative veterinarian Dr. Barbara Royal.

"We found her in an audio file on a law website," explains Kohl. A law student who happened to be very passionate about pet food interviewed Dr. Royal after the 2007 melamine pet food recall.

"I had no idea who she was," explains Kohl. "I just knew that I liked the way she spoke about this topic. She was very upfront and honest. I needed that honesty about the topic. Because there are two types of people that you meet: people afraid to say anything and people brave enough to say something. The brave people are very few and far between."

As he continued to interview people and gather information, Kohl realized the pet food industry's position was beginning to take shape. If a certain pet food industry leader was touting a certain study about the benefits of corn, for example, he would find the study and read it.

"It was very clear they were cherry picking information from their research and using it to their advantage," he says.

It took two full years of research and interviews before Kohl had a good understanding of the issues surrounding pet food.

"We've been conditioned culturally through advertising to believe a certain way," says Kohl. "Companies are spending tens of millions of dollars to advertise their products. After awhile, it becomes a normal part of your thinking. It's like, 'I need a car. I'm going to go buy the one I saw in that commercial.'"

Kohl is absolutely correct, which is why I spend so much time here at Mercola Healthy Pets helping pet parents separate fact from fiction when it comes to pet nutrition. For more information on Kohl’s documentary, see my interview and article here: “When You Buy Pet Food, Are You Being Pet Fooled?” If you’d like to watch the documentary, it’s available for rental or purchase on iTunes, Vimeo and Amazon.