Why I'm Super Excited About This New Pet Store Announcement

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

petco pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a surprising development, beginning this month through May, big box retailer Petco will phase out all pet foods and treats with artificial colors, flavors and preservatives
  • Just a few of the artificial ingredients Petco will no longer allow through the door include several FD&C food coloring agents, almost two dozen artificial flavors and several potentially toxic chemical preservatives
  • Hopefully, Petco’s experiment will be a success and they can eventually take nutrition for pets to the next level

Petco, the second largest pet retailer in North America (Petsmart is No. 1),1 recently made the surprising announcement that it will stop selling pet food and treats with artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in all its stores in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico. From the company's website:

"Love is never artificial. At Petco, we're taking a stand, as the only major retailer of pet food to eliminate artificial ingredients. That's the bold standard you set when you love pets. When you love pets, you do what's right for them. Which is why we're setting a bold new standard for nutrition. Welcome to the new Petco."2

According to the new CEO, Ron Coughlin:

"We'll start removing products that don't meet our new standards in January 2019, and complete the process by May. We're raising the bar and stepping out ahead of the industry. Not because it's an easy thing to do, but because we believe it's the right thing to do."

Now, admittedly, Petco is getting a tremendous amount of mileage out of this announcement from a marketing and customer goodwill standpoint, but I can't find anything to hate about it at the moment.

I would also like to point out that small, independent pet food retailers have curated relationships with pet food companies using more natural ingredients for the last 20 years (and these smaller boutiques are also where you will usually find more species-appropriate food recommendations from knowledgeable employees). 

Petco's 'New Standards for Nutrition'

If Petco stays true to its promise, it seems one or more things could occur:

  • Petco stores will carry significantly fewer brands of pet foods and treats for the foreseeable future (which will affect their bottom line to the tune of about $100 million annually, or about 2.5 percent of total annual sales of $4 billion)3
  • Pet food manufacturers will reformulate to meet Petco standards (and many are no doubt already working on this after receiving a heads-up from Petco)
  • Smaller pet food producers with more "natural" ingredients may get an opportunity to fill some of the empty space on Petco's store shelves

While I don't generally recommend processed pet food, even formulas claiming to contain only "natural" ingredients, I'm also aware that most dogs and cats are fed these diets because they are convenient and affordable. Petco's commitment to eliminating products with artificial ingredients seems, at least at first glance, to be a step in the right direction for pet parents and their furry family members.

Let's take a closer look at the particulars of Petco's "new standards for nutrition."4 The company says it used AAFCO and FDA guidelines as a reference to define artificial colors, flavors and preservatives as follows:

  • Artificial color — Any dye, pigment or other substance that can impart color to a food that is not derived from a natural source
  • Artificial flavor — Any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products or fermentation products
  • Artificial preservative — Chemical substances added to or sprayed on the outside of food to retard spoilage, deterioration, discoloration or contamination by bacteria and other disease organisms. Does not include preservatives that are derivatives of natural compounds
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Artificial Colors Getting the Boot

Petco lists the following artificial colors as not meeting its new nutritional standards:

Labels that just say "Artificial Colors"

Orange B

FD&C Yellow No. 5

FD&C Blue No. 1

Citrus Red No. 2

FD&C Yellow No. 6

FD&C Blue No. 2

FD&C Red No. 3

Titanium Dioxide*

FD&C Green No. 3

FD&C Red No. 40

Added Colors**

*Petco will remove titanium dioxide from most products by May 2019. Exceptions: Pro Plan and Science Diet Urinary formulas for cats, "as there is not yet a suitable artificial-free formula to address this common health issue faced by 1 in 10 cats."

**For purposes of transparency, Petco won't accept pet foods or treats containing "added colors" unless the actual ingredient used is named on the ingredient panel.

Artificial Flavors Being Axed

Artificial flavors that won't meet Petco's new nutritional standards:

Labels that just say "Artificial Flavors"

Cinnamaldehyde (cinnamic aldehyde)

Glycerol (glyceryl) tributyrate (tributyrin, butyrin)

Acetaldehyde (ethanol)

Citral (2,6-dimethyloctadien-2,6-al-8, geranial, neral)

Limonene (d-, l- and dl-)

Acetoin (acetyl methyl carbinol)

Decanal (N-decylaldhehyde, capraldehyde, capric aldehyde, caprinaldehyde, aldehyde C-10)

Linalool (linalol, 3,7-dimethyl-1,6-octadien-3-ol)

Aconitic acid (equisetic acid, citridic acid, achilleic acid)

Diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) Ethyl acetate, Ethyl butyrate

Linalyl acetate (bergamol)

Anethole (parapropenyl anisole)

3-Methyl-3-phenyl glycidic acid ethyl ester (ethyl methylphenylglycidate, so-called strawberry aldehyde, C-16 aldehyde)

1-Malic acid

Benzaldehyde (benzoic aldehyde)

Eugenol

Methyl anthranilate (methyl-2-aminobenzoate)

N-Butyric acid (butanoic acid)

Geranoil (3,7-dimethyl-2,6 and 3,6-octadien-1-ol)

Piperonal (3,4-methylenedioxy-benzaldehyde, heliotropin)

d- or l-Carvone (carvol)

Geranyl acetate (geraniol acetate)

Artificial Preservatives on the Way Out

Petco lists the following artificial preservatives as not meeting its new nutritional standards:

Benzoic acid (synthetic preservative)

Potassium metabisulfite

Erythorbic acid

Propylene glycol

Thiodipropionic acid

Propylparaben

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA, synthetic preservative)

Sodium metabisulfite

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT, synthetic preservative)

Sodium propionate

Calcium sorbate (synthetic preservative)

Sodium sorbate

Ethoxyquin (synthetic preservative)

Sodium sulfite

Dilauryl thiodipropionate

Stannous chloride

Methylparaben

Sulfur dioxide

Potassium bisulfite

TBHQ (Tertiary butylhydroquinone)

How Petco Can Take Its Nutrition Standards to the Next Level

Apparently, one of the inspirations for Petco's new policy was a survey of 1,300 pet parents (of dogs and cats). The survey results showed that 87 percent of pet owners feel pet food made with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives is important to their animal companion's health and well-being.

In addition, 95 percent of pet parents surveyed believe their dog's or cat's diet and nutrition is essential to their pet's overall health and wellness.5 Interestingly, another inspiration for dropping pet food and treats with artificial ingredients is independent pet retailers, according to Petco's CEO.

"We think that a lot of these retailers do a great job," Coughlin told Pet Business magazine, "and part of our ambition from a merchandise standpoint, particularly with food, is to be the scale specialty independent — meaning, we look out for the pet's nutritional needs and give informed nutritional guidance in the aisle. Some of these independent specialty players do that very well, and they set the bar that we are looking to match or beat."6

It will be interesting to watch this process unfold over the next several months at Petco stores. I think it's a good first step toward offering dogs and cats better quality commercial diets, assuming pet lovers know there are many other variables to consider when evaluating what foods to feed their animals.

Reducing unnecessary ingredients (including dyes and preservatives) is a step in the right direction, but other important questions to ask your pet food manufacturer include: where do the raw ingredients come from (and are they human-grade or feed-grade), what types of synthetic nutrients are included (and where are they sourced from), what's the nutritional shelf-life of the food, what's the glyphosate load, etc. Here's my list of necessary and unnecessary things found in pet food:

pet food evaluation

If Petco is truly committed to emulating independent pet stores and doing what's right for pets, I hope they'll also consider adding human-grade (versus feed-grade) pet foods and high-quality nutritionally balanced raw, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and gently cooked and refrigerated diets.

While I'm at it, I would also love to see their stores sell cookbooks featuring nutritionally balanced homemade meals (and homemade treats) for pets. My wish list for Petco covers much of what you'll find on my best-to-worst rankings of 13 types of pet food.