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Lesson Not Learned: Warning letters, lawsuits, dishonesty & recalls

Sometimes independent pet stores are our own worst enemy. How many times are we going to open ourselves up to become a victim of pet food companies not doing their due diligence, or simply taking advantage of us? Maybe they don’t necessarily mean to do it directly – but enough of them do. They do it because independents, or industry in general has not even pushed back, or truly held them accountable. This happens so often that at this point I would argue that many of our more recent ‘wounds’ are self-inflicted because we (independents) are failing to see the bigger picture and failing to learn from our mistakes. Let’s look at a couple of case studies:

Case #1: Evanger’s is reintroducing itself – again, and I wish that was a joke, but it’s not. Frankly, I’m not sure why we, as independents, are letting them. Taking a trip down memory lane, Evanger’s has had significant and widespread sanitary and food handling problems at their facility dating back to 2006. This was evidenced in citations and a lawsuit filed by The Village of Wheeling which resulted in restitution payments.[1] Further, other significant problems were regularly in the news from 2008-2017 surrounding both Evanger’s products and illegal business activity. These issues included Fair Labor Standards Act violations, utility theft, theft and money laundering. On the product front further citations, FDA inspections, permit suspensions, warning letters for sanitary conditions, adulterated products, misbranded products and contaminant recalls. This long chain of incidents was rounded out by the 2017 pentobarbital contamination incident which resulted in sick pets, some of which died.[2] Personally, as a consumer and a retailer I find these types of intentional, repetitive and egregious issues reckless and unforgivable. These actions killed and sicked numerous pets, cost us customers, damaged our reputations and created a whole lot of work for us. So why are we letting them warm their way into our hearts again?

Case #2: Champion Pet Foods is another recent example that has caused a number of issues for the independent pet channel – mostly arising from less than honest marketing tactics. Issues include but are not limited to: lawsuits involving contamination from heavy metals, false ingredient sourcing claims, and false advertising claims.[3–6] The most recent lawsuit against Champion brings into question the sourcing of their ‘wild-caught trout’ alleging that it is factory farmed after all.[3] Although, in my opinion these aren’t that bad in comparison to their response to the FDA’s announcement of an investigation into grain free foods and their potential association with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) – or should I say lack of response? Did they step up and make nutrition data for their food available? Did they do anything to help solve the problem? No. Did distributors push back to hold them accountable? Also no. Instead, they let the retailers fight the battle for them, and are potentially causing more issues for us with ancient grain options. As independent retailers we should have been furious, and so should have our distributors. Instead, crickets.

Oh, and how could we forget Champions grand entrance into big-box retail? This and the above-mentioned moves have helped to tarnish the trust and reputation small pet food companies and retailers have with consumers and veterinarians. Sounds similar to the history of Blue Buffalo and independent retailers. What’s worse? Other pet food companies seem to be blind to Champion and Blue Buffalo’s mistakes and are signing themselves and retailers up for the same fate.

Case #3: The second half of 2019 Canidae Pet Foods began a robust social media campaign, spending millions to target consumers to buy their products. They did this while telling independent retailers that they were the ‘independents first brand’. The only problem is that the majority of their social media ads pushed consumers to Tractor Supply, Amazon, Chewy, Petco and PetSmart. That same multi-million-dollar campaign continues to this day. It’s unfortunate, because what happens is independents are selling Canidae to existing and new customers only to have Canidae capture their customer data and redirect that business to online and big box retailers – sad.

But fret no more, because Canidae is releasing an ‘independent only’ line! I’m sure independents will be so relieved considering that same tactic worked so well for Blue Buffalo after they turned their backs on independents when they entered Target and grocery channels. Carnivora anyone? The new line by Canidae is really just a stopgap measure to try and satisfy independent retailers – but it offers no innovation, and lacks nutritional adequacy testing which would actually protect independent retailers from potential issues. I have asked several times and received zero of my questions answered. Much like Champion with DCM, Canidae was equally as silent, sitting back while the true independent retailers fought the battle for them. What a great way to thank them for their hard work with an ‘independent only’ line that potentially could create another problem for those very independents they are claiming to help. Only to have that ‘Indy only’ line inevitably end up everywhere else.

Case #4: Stella & Chewy actually has done the independent channel a significant favor making their newer kibble lines exclusively independent only – with a renewed commitment for at least another few years. They even went as far as not allowing it to be listed for sale online, even by independents themselves up until the COVID-19 pandemic. This not only incentivized retailers to carry their product with confidence, it kept the consumers coming back for it. Stella & Chewys does have a positive release program on all their products – releasing only once pathogen tests come back clean. While this is and will continue to be a win for independents, we’re still waiting for Stella & Chewy to conduct digestibility testing, nutritional analysis and make those reports available for us. It would be nice to see a company like Stella & Chewy raise the bar and provide us some science behind their product. They have indicated they were making steps to do so in early 2020, but we haven’t seen anything yet. Another unfortunate fact is that, they, like many manufacturers were largely silent in regard to DCM, instead opting to introduce new lines with ancient grains, added taurine and position marketing messages to highlight this– rather than rise to the occasion and produce a real solution.

Lesson Not Learned:

Independents actually hold the power to prevent themselves from becoming victim to issues listed above. In short, many of us tend to follow trend, don’t ask hard questions and balk at holding pet food companies accountable to their actions. When these examples are presented together, the totality of circumstances highlights how important for us to define our philosophy as well as a set of standards to hold ourselves and pet food companies to. It also makes it easier for us to reject products, and instead advocate for true innovation and transparency.

1. Village of Wheeling v. Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., 399 Ill. App. 3d 304 | Casetext Search + Citator. Accessed August 22, 2020.

2. Seattle FSN 1012 FAFF, Washington 98104-1008. Deadly barbiturates preceded by 9 years of pet food problems. Food Safety News. Published February 7, 2017. Accessed August 22, 2020.

3. Lawsuit over Champion Petfood wild-caught trout claims. Accessed August 22, 2020.

4. Champion Petfoods Not Liable for Trace BPA in Product. Accessed August 22, 2020.

5. Judge Dismisses Deceptive Labeling Claim Suit. Accessed July 18, 2020.

6. More phony “Made in the USA” pet food claims under attack; Multiple class action lawsuits filed | Poisoned Pets | Pet Food Safety News. Accessed July 17, 2020.

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