A Missed Opportunity for Pet Food Companies: We Need Less Marketing and More Science.

Since the controversy surrounding grain-free food and the potential association to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, the marketing departments of nearly every pet food company have been working overtime. While each company has tried to create the illusion that they are transparent, independent and ‘ahead’ of the problem – two main campaigns exist amongst most of them (with a few valid exceptions) that tell a different story.

One of the familiar marketing campaigns advises that they have offered grain inclusive products all along. Since the FDA announcements, they’ve made a clear push to revamp, rerelease and/or repackage these products and offer them as the solution to concerns surrounding DCM. Sales campaigns have shifted from a cost-conscious and time-tested product stance to one that focuses on their products not having risks associated with them since they aren’t grain-free. The problem for them is that those of us that have read through FDA case reports, know that grain-inclusive foods are not an insurance policy against DCM. We see the marketing shift here, it’s exhausting and it’s disappointing.

Another campaign story includes those companies that predominantly offer grain-free products. These companies may not have traditionally offered a grain-inclusive product alongside their grain-free lines, or maybe they did – but it was never a focus for them. Many of these companies have rushed a grain-inclusive product to market – resulting in a wave of ancient grain options literally flooding the market. Do these ancient grain options offer much beyond the magical marketing claims? Likely not. In fact, they are likely creating and contributing to further problems.

The fact of the matter is, there is inadequate data available on the true digestibility of many of the ancient grains available in recent pet food options. Scary to think that some of these companies are claiming to solve the DCM risk with the inclusion of ancient grains. Are we ignoring the fact that fiber content can adversely impact the digestibility of many nutrients – including taurine and l-carnitine? Seems like they are. Couple this with ethical and sustainability concerns of some ancient grains and this could be the start of a new dilemma.

There is a greater concern that seems to have been missed or ignored by nearly every kibble company. The DCM concerns go far beyond any potential association to grain-free foods, and this will certainly not be the last nutrition-related concern we see in our lifetime. This entire situation points to a significant knowledge gap within animal nutrition – resulting from little advancement of knowledge, or challenge of the status quo. We’ve had an industry primarily led by consumer demand, without much science to back trend. Complacency is also to blame, with a low bar set for pet food companies to formulate to, without an adequate standard of testing, including macronutrient digestibility testing required in order to come to market.  These things make it easy for companies to formulate to trend, or media buzz fairly quickly.

It also highlights another major problem, one that many veterinarians have known to be true for a while: marketing companies have controlled and warped how the consumer is educated. Consumers believe much of what they read in the form of marketing to be factual and science-based, and now there is so much exaggerated and downright misleading information out there and it’s made for an extremely contentious and heated debate. Instead of leaning into marketing, companies should have leaned toward correcting bad information instead of amplifying and taking advantage of consumer vulnerability.

Giving the consumer what they want, or worse – what you think they want, is socially and ethically irresponsible. This is where science, (i.e. not the marketing department) should be stepping up to the plate and making the somewhat uncomfortable but needed movement to actually educate the consumer. Let’s be honest, adding a sticker calling out that you add taurine does absolutely nothing to create a solution – it just adds more confusion and distrust, especially for those who have taken time to dive into the data. Quite frankly, I find it offensive that companies expect me, and my clients and customers to believe that adding taurine solves any problems. By doing things like this companies actually make themselves part of the problem.

The private marketing companies and consulting groups are also just as guilty – taking advantage of an opportunity instead of contributing to a solution. 

What should have been done, and still can be done is for companies to make several changes leading in the direction of real, instead of perceived transparency:

  • Tell consumers who formulated your food. What are their qualifications and experience? 
  • Release both 3rd party digestibility data and 3rd analytical data for all formulas they offer.
  • Rethink before using the word proprietary with retailers and consumers – it’s certainly not an impressive or appreciated tactic and raises more questions than answers.
  • Focus on education and science: help consumers on how to understand these reports. Since data can be intimidating, don’t use it as a way to hide from answering the hard questions. And don’t use the fact that they’re complicated keep you from making them publicly available.
  • Admit that we have significant knowledge gaps that need to be addressed and examine how your company could contribute to bridging those gaps. 
    • Does that mean contributing funds to new and/or ongoing research?
    • Does that mean designing and conducting new research?
    • Or both?
  • Honesty still goes a long way, especially when it comes to our pets – nobody has all the answers!

At the end of the day, everyone needs a break from marketing. Retailers and consumers need to demand better. Demand that companies take time to examine, and re-examine the data, talk to the consumers and retailers in order to learn where education opportunities are – rather than marketing opportunities. Ignorance of these problems will only breed more of the same. It’s time to break the cycle.