As a retailer I see a flood of new pet food products entering the marketplace. When considering products for my store, I don't make those decisions lightly. I've made a lot of mistakes in the last 6 years, and I take each of the lessons I've learned seriously. Some of these lessons have taught me that new products are not always as nice as the packaging or ingredient deck seem. What do I mean?
The problem with many of new products today is that they contain unapproved ingredients. And many are not proven nutritionally adequate. The most recent rush started with the dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) debacle and ancient grain pet foods. If you’re familiar with my work the problem with virtually all of these ancient grain products is that they are unvalidated. This means that nearly all pet food companies who rushed ancient grain formulations to market have no idea if their foods are nutritionally adequate. In other words, we have no idea if these foods are going to cause other issues. Why do I bring this up? It appears that many retailers are woefully unaware that we have a couple looming issues that are likely to disrupt our business once again, so I’m going to lay them out for you.
We're about to enter another large battle and we're not done fighting the DCM one.
These points matter because virtually all of the grain-free products were similarly unvalidated and most retailers are not recognizing that this is why DCM became a debacle. Meaning that companies could not be bothered to spend a minimal amount of money (e.g. fractions of their marketing budgets) to run laboratory nutrient analyses and digestibility studies to prove that their foods were supplying adequate nutrition. So, manufacturers are literally cutting the same corners by releasing ancient grain foods into the marketplace without any data to back up the formulations. The lesson here, is that if you are going to stock, recommend and associate yourself with brands that offer ancient grain products you need to ask for validation that those products are adequate. Validation means a AAFCO nutrient analysis on the finished product AND a digestibility study to prove that the nutrients within the food are able to be used by the pet. Any excuse for not having these is unacceptable in today’s climate – sorry, not sorry.
Unapproved ingredients in pet food and treats mean that there is a potential for such products to be pulled from your shelf by state or federal organizations.
There is another looming liability lurking over the horizon for us as retailers. Are you aware that there are many existing and new products in the marketplace that are using ingredients that are unapproved for pet food? Crickets? Unapproved. Sprouted seeds? Unapproved. Fermented ingredients? Unapproved. Don’t believe me? Consult the latest AAFCO manual and see if you can find any such ingredients listed. Spoiler alert – they are not. So why does this matter to you the retailer, or the pet owner? Why should they be the ones concerned with making such significant changes to the industry? The simple answer is that we're the ones that have been the largest victims to most of the industry scandals. We're the ones left educating consumers and standing up for manufacturers while larger companies and big box are able to pivot and offer any product (without regard to ethics or quality) that suits their bottom line. We saw it with DCM.
Unapproved ingredients in pet food and treats mean that there is a potential for them to be pulled from your shelf by state or federal organizations. Why? Simply it is because their safety and adequacy profiles are unknown. There is not enough nutritional data to know if these ingredients are safe for pets. There is also not enough research or validation to know if these ingredients deliver the proper levels of nutrients and if they are metabolized appropriately. When any ingredient is put through a process that changes the original state, or profile of the ingredient it likely means that the nutrient profile or bioavailability of nutrients within the ingredient have changed. You may want to argue that if bioavailability of nutrients is improved, that must be good right? Not necessarily, because if vitamin D or vitamin A bioavailability is improved and raised to potentially dangerous levels that would not be good since there are toxicity concerns associated with elevated levels of such nutrients.
Some retailers are either tired or choosing to ignore some of the warning signs that some within the industry are trying to teach us. At the end of the day, the independent pet industry has some reputation issues – and in some ways they are deserved. Retailers are often left fighting the battles resulting from manufacturers not doing their homework. This is plain and simple. Example include: Evanger’s and pentobarbital, Diamond/Taste of the Wild with Salmonella, Hill’s and vitamin D, Midwestern with Aflatoxin and grain-free brands with DCM. We’re now nearly THREE years into the DCM debacle. Do we have the energy to fight yet another scandal FOR the manufacturer with little or no support? Or instead, should we be asking the right questions and holding manufacturers accountable so that we are armed with information when (not if) the next issue arrises? We’re about to enter another large battle and we’re not even done fighting the DCM one. I’ve called these scandals ‘self-inflicted wounds’ in the past, and they truly are. Each of them could have been prevented if we just put some standards in place. Yet, we keep falling into the same trap over and over. We need to agree that accountability for nutritional validation of all products (and ingredients) in and entering the marketplace is something that should be non-negotiable.
In summary, this means that for all new products entering your store: if a manufacturer is not able to provide data to prove adequacy of those products, they should not have a home on your shelf until it does. What about current products? Start demanding the information for those products as well, and don’t take any new products or line extensions until they do. If you start leaning into the brands that are doing their due diligence to protect pets and eventually the rest will start to catch on. They’ll have to just trim the marketing budget ….
Nicci is the founder & owner of award winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, in Connecticut. She is also the Founder & CEO of Undogmatic Inc. Her undergraduate and graduate education includes biology, chemistry, business and nutrition. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading international figures in the human and pet health industry. She regularly lectures at national conferences, including federal, state, and municipal K9 events. Her current research involves identifying pathogenic risk factors and transmission among raw fed pets through a comprehensive worldwide survey.