A Missed Opportunity for Pet Food Companies: We See Your Marketing, But We Need to See Your Science
Since the debacle 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.
The first marketing campaign story is where a company has 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 any 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 there are those of us that have actually read through the FDA case reports, we 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.
The second campaign story includes those companies who predominately 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 another problem.
The fact of the matter is, there is little to inadequate data available on the true digestibility of many of the ancient grains available in recent pet food options. Scary to think about given 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.
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 into correct 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 formulates 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.
· Help consumers how to understand these reports. Since data can be intimidating, don’t use it as a way to hide from answering the hard questions.
· Admit that we have significant knowledge gaps that need to be addressed and examine how your company could contribute to bridging those gaps.
o Does that mean contributing funds to new and/or ongoing research?
o Does that mean designing and conducting new research?
o 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 the marketing. Take time to examine, and reexamine the data, talk to the consumers and retailers in order to learn where education opportunities are – rather than marketing opportunities. You cannot buy the type of trust formed by honest efforts of education and research. These types of actions will create a robust community of those having a deeper understanding of the problems at hand, foster intelligent conversation, debate and elevate the quality of pet nutrition products and knowledge available. And those are positive things for all.