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The latest on Grain Free & DCM (Heart Disease)

Many pet food manufacturers, retailers and pet owners breathed a sigh of relief when the recent Journal of Animal Sciences article was published titled, “Review of canine dilated cardiomyopathy in the wake of diet-associated concerns." This appears to be the holy grail of research papers absolving the industry of any link between ‘BEG’ (boutique, exotic, grain free) diets and a specific form of heart disease called DCM. But is it?


We all know the history of the DCM debacle which began with the 2018 blog titled “A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients.” This blog was followed by a commentary article in JAVMA. It’s important to note that this paper was not peer reviewed, and the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) disseminated it as gospel.  This is unfortunate considering 80% of veterinarians believe or look at AVMA as a source of truth even if an commentary article does not contain true or accurate science content. These articles were composed by Lisa Freeman, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist from Tufts University in order to warn the public and veterinary community about the imminent danger from ‘BEG’ foods. This blog caught the media by storm followed by the FDA launching an investigation into the matter. Soon there was a significant shift in what pet owners were feeding their pets.

JAS Article Summary:

The authors state, “based on this review of the current literature, there is no definitive relationship between these implicated diet characteristics and DCM.” While the public and veterinary associated communities made several further conclusions upon the articles release, it is important to realize that this paper largely identifies the numerous knowledge gaps within the field of canine nutrition rather than drawing concrete conclusions. While no link between ‘BEG’ (boutique, exotic, grain-free) was found, this does not mean that nutrition and other considerations are not at play. Considering these facts, one could argue this review is presented as a call to action for further research into the many types of DCM and related factors.

It’s Not Over

It’s well known that researchers out of UC Davis, Tuft’s University and others are also working on various projects and it’s likely that additional papers will be published both concluding and not concluding nutritional links. The ball will inevitably be passed around, and opinions and industry trends will shift as a result. If we want to look at this realistically, this paper is just the beginning of a long road ahead, because as discussed there are many knowledge gaps to be filled.

Manufacturer Take Away:

If you are a ‘BEG’ diet manufacturer this article does not free you from the DCM mess that is currently and will continue to loom over the industry. Simply hiding behind this article in defense will likely continue to contribute to the fundamental problem in the pet food industry: products are not adequately tested for nutritional adequacy before coming to market. In plain language, if manufacturers were validating their products, they would have been able to negate the entire DCM claims and investigation back in 2018. The issue was able to snowball into a media sensation and FDA investigation since companies were not able to defend the nutritional adequacy and digestibility of their foods. Period. This practice also left retailers vulnerable, and they were left to fight a battle defending your product to consumers and veterinarians. Aside from several press releases and company statement, manufacturers were largely silent letting the retailers fight the battle for them. 

Lesson being, that if you are a manufacturer and are not conducting 3rd party analysis and 3rd party digestibility studies on each of your formulas it is likely that another DCM-like event will affect you again. Taking it a step further, if you do not have safety protocols in place verifying safety of your inbound and outbound products you are increasing the risk for recalls due to contamination, formulation error and/or pathogens. Retailers should be recognizing all of these issues as potential liabilities and consider those when refining inventory.

Retailer Take Away:

As retailers, this article does not free us from the DCM mess. If we hide behind this article as proof that DCM is not related to ‘BEG’ we are doing ourselves and most importantly pets a disservice. I’m not saying that BEG causes DCM – the point I’m trying to make is much bigger than that. It’s the same point I made to manufacturers: lack of data from manufacturers opened the doors up for bad science behind the grain free and heart disease debate to flourish. Simply, bad science won because there was inadequate data to support the effectiveness of grain free food to provide adequate nutrition. To this day, manufacturers were and still are silent because they are unable to stand behind their products and support the retailers who sell their products. Harsh, but true.

DCM and vitamin D affected us negatively, followed by COVID and the grim reality is that a percentage of independent retailers are not expected to survive 2020 as a result. Are you positioned to survive another ‘industry crisis’? Most small businesses are not. So how do we prevent another crisis? There are several steps, but the foundation resides in stocking products with actual quality from companies with actual transparency.

Creating REAL Transparency & Accountability

There’s widespread lack of data across food, supplement and treat categories. There’s no benchmark to define what many of the marketing slogans mean –  Why? Because nobody has held these companies accountable to their claims. Manufacturers rarely need to provide data to support claims because nobody has ever really asked.

Further, many companies use transparency as a marketing tactic. Essentially, we are told they are transparent, and so we believe them without much of a challenge. Instead, we need to define what transparent is so they can meet our standards vs. manufacturers determining which standards they want to create or meet. The following list of questions can be adapted for all types of pet food, supplements and treats:

  • Do you have verification of your supply chain and origin of your ingredients?

  • Do any of your raw materials come from China? - This is not necessarily bad, if a company is inbound testing raw ingredients for contaminants and adequacy

  • Do you conduct inbound testing for active ingredients, pathogens and toxins for your raw materials?

  • Do you conduct a 3rd party analysis of the active ingredients/nutrients contained within the final product?

  • Do you conduct 3rd party digestibility tests on all your final products? Just select formulas? Or none at all? Are those reports public?

  • What is the digestibility of the macronutrients your final product?

  •  Do you conduct testing for pathogens and toxins for your final product? Do you hold those products from release (positive release) until testing results reveal it is safe to do so?

Even if a company touts stellar answers to the above questions, are they able to verify their procedures and transparency? Asking the follow question will confirm that:

  •  Does the manufacturing facility that makes your product(s) have a Global Food Safety Initiative recognized 3rd party food safety certification (i.e. SQF, BRC, etc) to verify that you are following the procedures you have in place? - If the answer is no, then their ‘transparency’ is likely smoke and mirrors.

Change is Coming:

Keep in mind that most companies will be unable to provide all the answers, and that the goal is to encourage change toward actual, rather than perceived, transparency. It will take time, but change will require asking these questions and ultimately basing buying and retail stocking decisions on the availability and willingness to provide satisfactory answers.

As a retailer, if you can offer products that you are intimately familiar with, made by manufacturers who answer the above questions that leave you comfortable feeding that product to your own pets you’ll see a dramatic shift in the way you do business. If you and your staff can fully believe in the products you offer vs. relying on sales tactics, you’ll see customer loyalty most retailers only dream about. You’ll see a passion in your staff that most business owners only dream about. You will be surprised how much weight uncertainty of the industry puts on our shoulders, and these questions are a way to alleviate some of that uncertainty.

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