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Retailers and Manufacturers: Are you part of the problem or the solution?

For those unfamiliar - this week Global Pet Expo, the largest pet industry trade show, is wrapping up in Orlando, Florida. The event spans about 16 football fields of products from the U.S., Canada and beyond that include pet foods, toys, grooming, supplements, services and more. The event attracts retailers from around the United States, but also around the world to view the latest and greatest in pet product innovation from nearly every category imaginable. The show is closed to the public, and functions as a large buying show for retailers of all sizes – including independents, chains like Petco, and even online retailers such as Chewy and Amazon. It also offers education for retailers on the ins and outs of new products, trends, marketing, retail support, social media strategy and more. However, all retailers utilize what the show has to offer quite differently.

The Expo as an opportunity for retailers to purchase products at competitive prices in order to boost the bottom line. Others take advantage of seminars, note trends or seek new products. I used to take advantage of finding new products, as well as buying opportunities – however in recent years I buy very little, instead using the opportunity to talk to other retailers, manufacturers, industry experts. I’ve also learned to analyze marketing campaigns and learn more about the research and development behind new products coming to market. This has opened my eyes to knowledge gaps and deceptive marketing tactics that make it hard for consumers, retailers and veterinarians to determine fact from fiction.

Shifting Dynamics

This year, dynamics of the Expo are quite different from previous years, as the FDA investigation into grain-free foods and the potential association to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) has disrupted the products, trends and buying patterns of the industry. The FDA report and subsequent media frenzy has resulted some pet stores lost sales and it has forced some to either scale back their business and in some cases even close their doors all together – and this has left many with flat or declining sales starting to panic. Manufacturers, especially those named within the most recent FDA update, have also felt the impact of pet owners choosing to switch from grain-free pet foods. The show is overcome with ads from companies offering foods and supplements that offer a “new standard”, “heart healthy” and “ancient grain” options that have arguably been rushed to market, have little to no testing or validity to back up these claims.

It is important to note that for several months after the initial FDA announcement regarding DCM, many grain-free manufacturers were and still are largely silent to both the retailers and the consumers from an education perspective. Along with this lack of support, many have added to the confusion and panic by releasing a variety of ancient grain pet foods and “heart healthy” supplements into the market – without the data to support them. I have to admit that I’m disappointed to not only see some of these ancient grain industry trends, which I more appropriately refer to as “knee jerk” reactions to lost sales - but also some of the buying patterns that retailers and lack of homework by some fellow retailers. These manufacturer and retailer response may not be the ideal situation for the consumer – or their pets.

An unpopular fact is that introduction of new ancient grain lines or rebranded grain-inclusive foods to lineups with a focus on the marketing, rather than the science of nutrition and education of the consumer is a problem. In fact, some have even made some bold claims in order to ease the consumer and the retailer that their food is has no risk of contributing to DCM. This is concerning, especially because there is no data to support that grain-free pet food has a causative relationship to DCM, a position which most companies claim to agree with. However, it’s a bit hypocritical to have that stance while still offering grain-inclusive lines, and supplemental products which feed into consumer fear and perception of a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

Examples like Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals claiming to prevent taurine deficiency with their foods – while also boasting new grain-inclusive varieties and positioning themselves as a strong brand with increased sales, in part due to an exclusive relationship with independent retailers. As a retailer, this food sounds like a ‘Superman’ product, not only offering the comfort of sounds nutrition through added methionine for conversion to taurine, but also the ability to protect sales since the product isn’t offering in big box or large online retailers. The problem is that it gives a false sense of security – because these claims are worthless without long term food trials to determine if the foods prevent taurine deficiency. In addition, they do not provide 3rd party digestibility profiles, or 3rd party typical nutrient analysis to retailers or the public, which likely means they do not conduct them, or the results are not ideal.

Why Ancient Grains

After 2007-2008 consumers largely shifted away from pet foods utilizing corn, wheat and soy due to the melamine contamination recall involving multiple pet food brands which sickened or killed a large number of pets. The grain free market as we know it was from this large recall, catapulting ingredients like potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, peas, tapioca and others. Grains like oats, barley and rice were also largely left behind due to association – not necessarily a melamine risk. Now with the shift away from these due to the DCM scare, both traditional grain products and grain-free products have negative connotation – hence the industry promotion of ancient grains as safe, healthy and nutritious.

The fact of the matter is that little data exists to support the use of grains like millet and quinoa. In fact, this is just one of many examples of pet food companies leaning into marketing rather than science. What nutrients to ancient grains contain that grain-free foods or other traditional grains do not? What about them would prevent DCM? The problem is that most of the companies offering ancient grain products, and the retailers bringing them in haven’t done their homework.

Where is the Data?

When it comes to ancient grains – as I can find, zero of the companies who have released ancient grain foods in response to DCM concerns have not run 3rd party digestibility or have typical nutrient analyses available – at least to the public. I have asked nearly a half dozen this week alone, and they either don’t have them, try and hide behind a targeted analysis or hide behind “proprietary” claims – but how does this make the consumer or retailer trust the nutrition behind the product, and that it won’t result in a nutritional deficiency or toxicity? How can they guarantee, or at least do their due diligence in helping to prevent another DCM-like issue? In the instance that these companies have run digestibility and nutrient analysis postproduction, do they not want to release those numbers because they show low digestibility? It’s likely! If retailers would have done some homework, they would have been able to see the lack of information to support these products. They would have also realized that most of these companies rushed their ancient grains product to market in order save market share.

It’s disappointing to see retailers not only buy into the ancient grain trend but buy into it in a big way. The past 3 days I have visited several booths asking if the ancient grain lines have been popular, and I was actually surprised to see the stacks of orders placed for these new foods. It is apparent that retailers have not asked questions regarding the validity of these foods, and if they had they would find that data does not exist to support feeding dogs’ foods which contain grains like quinoa and millet. In fact, available data shows less digestibility than more common grains such as rice. Not to mention, many of the brands are utilizing these carbohydrate sources in high percentages and the excess fiber can cause major deficiencies – including taurine – which is a concern that we have data to support.

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