Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Another David vs. Goliath Battle: Now about Pet Food Marketing

Remember my comment dated back the beginning of February this year “David vs. Goliath in 2009 - Let the battle commence: Nestle/Purina vs. the Natural pet food industry (Featuring: Wysong as "David")” and a follow-up comment written on 04/03/09 “Purina vs. Natural Pet Food Industry. It’s all about what? Probiotics? “? No big deal if you don’t, you always can refresh your memory by clicking the links. There is actually no news to report on that subject, I guess the lawyers are diligently working the deal and hopefully get it straightened out before too much money is being thrown out the window and Wysong pet food prices have to go up to cover the additional and unnecessary expense. But while all this has been going on, it appears as if there was another similar battle developing in another corner of the pet food industry. This one is between Hills Science Diet and Blue Buffalo. Susan Thixton of the reported on her site and in her newsletter earlier today on this development
Apparently Pet Food giant Hill’s Science Diet has filed a complaint against Blue Buffalo with the BBB (Better Business Bureau) National Advertising Division (NAD). The Science Diet NAD complaint challenges several advertising methods utilized by Blue Buffalo Pet Foods.

Well, whatever it is, we are getting into more details in a second, it must have left a great impression on Susan. She, who usually does not appear to be afraid of anybody and anything (visit her site for her constant ongoing efforts for better pet food regulations taking it all the way up into our government), before she even starts writing her comment, publishes the following disclaimer:

“This article does NOT imply any pet foods discussed are high in quality or inferior in quality. The intent of this article is simply to report on the misgivings of regulations that govern pet foods in the United States.”

After reading this I was thinking that maybe I myself should keep my mouth a little more controlled and be careful with what I am saying in my comments. I know I, or better, our on-line store couldn’t afford having to get involved in a legal dispute with one of the big guns. But then again, sometimes I can’t help it but to scream loud about the misery existing in this industry. And then again, I am not the only one who notices the problems. There have been many experts long before I came along sharing my opinion (or did I share theirs?) And as you all know, it is one of my missions: To educate pet owners so they can make educated decisions when it comes to pet nutrition. So much for freedom of speech, I guess if you dish out you have to be prepared to take the heat.

But let’s come back to the actual topic here. To me the story is highly interesting for various reasons. First the fact that another Goliath is attacking a David in itself to me indicates that the Goliaths out there do take the Davids very serious and are at least to some degree concerned about not just their existence but also their increasingly well doing in the business. And it appears as if they think throwing in some road blocks may change things. Secondly I am interested in what is going on with Blue Buffalo because it is one of the brands I see as fitting the philosophy of our on-line store and offering an outstanding product line. We do not offer this brand in our store yet, emphasizing “yet”. And third, it also shows very clearly that there are problems with the existing rules and regulations, otherwise the entire issue wouldn’t even be one.

Susan, at least on the last point feels the same way. She writes:

“In July 2008, Hill’s Science Diet (third largest pet food producer in the world, owned by Proctor & Gamble), filed a challenge with the NAD against Blue Buffalo Pet Food. The NAD’s mission is “to review national advertising for truthfulness and accuracy”. “Policy and procedures for NAD are established by the National Advertising Review Council (NARC).” No agreement could be made between NAD, Science Diet, and Blue Buffalo; the advertising challenge has been referred to “the appropriate government agency” for possible law enforcement action” (The Federal Trade Commission).

As many pet owners are aware, pet food advertising is not known for its ‘truthfulness and accuracy’. AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) regulations allow dog food and cat food labels to “include an unqualified claim, directly or indirectly” (PF7a). Thus an advertising challenge from one pet food manufacturer against another, seems difficult at best to prove and quite the oxymoron (a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms). The Pet Food pot calling the Pet Food kettle black.

Science Diet Pet Food had several ‘beefs’ about Blue Buffalo’s advertising. The he said/she said banter between these two pet food makers is lengthy in documents provided to by the NAD.

The biggest issue challenged by Science Diet was Blue Buffalo’s claim of “No Animal By-Products” in their dog foods and cat foods. “The challenger (Science Diet) took issue with the advertiser’s express claims that none of its pet foods contain animal by-products. It also took issue with the implied claim that BLUE pet foods are healthier for pets than competitive foods that contain by-products.”

Here begins the mass confusion thanks to AAFCO ingredient definitions. AAFCO defines ‘meat’ to be exclusive of any animal material resembling by-products. However, AAFCO’s definition of ‘meat meal’ (such as ‘fish meal’, or ‘lamb meal’) allows any animal part to be included except ‘hair, hoof, horn, hide, manure, and stomach’. One more definition to add to the confusion is ‘poultry meal’ (such as ‘chicken meal’ or ‘turkey meal’); ‘poultry meal’ unlike ‘fish meal’ or ‘lamb meal’, cannot include animal intestines, poultry heads or feet. The term ‘meal’ implies, according to AAFCO regulations, the moisture is removed from the ‘meat’ prior to manufacturing of the pet food. Pet owners would think that a ‘meat meal’ is what AAFCO defines as ‘meat’ with the moisture removed; such is not the case.

In an attempt to explain this confusing ingredient definition mess…’meat’ is nothing similar to by-products, a ‘meat’ meal such as ‘fish meal’ or ‘lamb meal’ can include intestines which anyone in their right mind would consider a by-product, but another type of ‘meat’ meal such as ‘chicken meal’ or ‘turkey meal’ cannot include intestines but can include other internal organs that AAFCO defines as a by-product (liver as example).

Whew! Are you lost yet? Buckle your seat belt, it gets worse…

AAFCO defines ‘meat by-products’ (such as ‘chicken by-products’) to be completely exclusive of meat (“includes but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, stomach, intestines”). Despite by-products having their own definition, by-products can be (at the sole discretion of the pet food manufacturer and without the knowledge of the pet food purchaser) included in other safe sounding pet food ingredient names such as ‘fish meal’ and ‘chicken meal’.

One more twist…all of the above pet food ingredient definitions can come from animals rejected for use in human foods, again at the sole discretion of the pet food manufacturer. Each of the above AAFCO definitions includes “it shall be suitable for use in animal food”; any animal rejected for use in human foods, regardless of why, is ‘suitable for use in animal food’ per regulations. This does NOT mean that all pet foods that contain ‘meat’, or ‘meat meal’ ingredients includes animal intestines or is sourced from diseased, rejected for use in human food animals; it means that some do and some don’t. It also means that those pet foods that do use inferior sources of ‘meat’ and ‘meat meal’ ingredients, don’t have to tell you.

Back to the ‘challenge’ presented by Science Diet. Science Diet stated Blue Buffalo’s ‘no-animal by-products’ advertising is false and thus misleading. The NAD agreed. “NAD therefore recommended that the advertiser discontinue its ‘no animal by-products’ claims when made in reference to pet foods containing fish meal, lamb meal, and/or liver.”

The following statement is provided in the fine print of the Blue Buffalo website ( “In addition, all BLUE healthy canned dog foods contain NO animal by-product, artificial preservatives, corn, wheat or soy. As “by-products” are defined in The 2009 AAFCO Official Publication”

Another advertising ‘challenge’ presented by Science Diet regarding Blue Buffalo is the Blue statement “Because the leading pet foods did not meet our standards, we developed a two-part product that combined a nutrition kibble with our exclusive LifeSource Bits – active nutrients and antioxidants ‘cold formed’ to preserve their potency.” Science Diet claimed the Blue statement was implying Blue Buffalo Pet Foods are superior in nutrition than Science Diet Pet Foods.

The interesting aspect of this part of the ‘challenge’ begins with the following quote from the NAD report: “Although the claim does not explicitly state that Blue pet foods are more nutritious than competing brands, it is established NAD precedent that advertisers must not only substantiate their express claims but also those that are reasonably implied.”

While keeping in mind that Science Diet objected to Blue’s ‘superiority claim’, the Hill’s Science Diet website states the following as the home page title: “Superior Nutrition for the Quality of Life of your Pet.” I personally interpret this statement as Science Diet’s own ‘superiority claim’. Here are a few other claims from leading pet food brands that seem to be making similar superiority claims as Science Diet and Blue Buffalo...

Iams: “Iams is veterinarian recommended.”
Pedigree: “Really good food.”
Nutro: “Natural Super-Premium Dog & Cat Food.”

AAFCO regulations allow pet foods to make all types of ‘superiority claims’. Despite the NAD agreeing with Science Diet that Blue’s ‘superiority claim’ is not substantiated through clinical proof, this is one of countless in the pet food world. For one pet food manufacturer to challenge another pet food manufacturer on this particular issue, consider regulations allowing all to make "unqualified claims" seems…well…ridiculous.

Lastly, Science Diet challenged the Blue claim “Feed your pet like you feed your family”. The issue of concern is the implication of ‘human food’ quality; a big no, no in the pet food world. AAFCO regulations do NOT allow a pet food manufacturer to state the grade or quality of dog food or cat food ingredients. Just to be clear, AAFCO regulations ALLOW dog food and cat food labels to make “unqualified claims, directly or indirectly” yet do NOT ALLOW dog foods and cat food labels to state their use of human grade meats. These regulations, accepted by the FDA, keep pet owners completely in the dark as to the true quality of their pet’s food.

After closely looking at almost 1300 dog foods, cat foods, and pet treats, I can honestly say there are few to none that don’t market (advertise) to the pet lover’s instinct wishing to feed their dog or cat just like the rest of their family. All Pet food manufacturers are well aware of these human instincts and most openly advertise to this instinct.

Regardless of Science Diet’s challenge of Blue Buffalo’s advertising, pet owners continue to be misled by most pet foods advertising and label claims. AAFCO ingredient definitions would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious. Top that off with a government agency (the FDA) not enforcing Federal law where pet foods are concerned. In other words, pet owners are left defenseless.

Some pet foods use only the finest ingredients, the very same ingredients you WOULD feed to any member of your family. The pet food that I provide my gang, uses only human grade chicken breast in its chicken meal (no bone, no skin, no by-products, only breast meat), yet they are NOT allowed to tell customers this on their label or in their advertising. Another pet food can imply all types of unqualified health claims on their labels, when they use intestines and diseased chickens in their chicken meal. It doesn’t seem fair does it?

This isn’t quality of potting soil or house paint, this is quality of nutrition that is supposed to enhance the lives of our furry family; family that solely depends on us to provide them with quality nutrition.

Truth in pet food labeling and advertising doesn’t exist. Existing regulations do not require it.

Our pets on the other hand, do tell us the truth. Recently a pet owner shared with me her experience of changing pet foods (from a well known pet food brand to a lesser known brand that uses human grade meats – but can’t advertise they do). As recommended, she slowly introduced the new dog food and cat food; mixing only a partial amount of new food in with the old food. Her cat “ate around” the old food, eating only the new food. Her dog politely spit out every kibble of old food all over the kitchen floor, eating only the new food. When this ‘mom’ followed instructions and did not provide her dog and cat more of the new food for this meal, both animals refused to eat the old food and thus had only a small portion of their regular meal – all new food.

This dog and cat get my vote as President of AAFCO and Director of Pet Food Safety at the FDA. If they were in charge, things would be different.”

Thank you Susan, well done. If anybody thought Wysong’s probiotics story was a complicated one, this one is not less complicated and it is not even scientific. I for my part wish Hills would leave Blue Buffalo alone and let them concentrate on continuing what they are doing best: Making great pet food. It also could be beneficial for Hills to look into the option of making better foods. At the end, it only would benefit our companion animals and what is wrong with that?

To me it’s all a waste of time and money, money which could be spend in much better ways all day long. Let’s hope, with this being the second battle now going on that we are not at the brink of pet food world war.

Please visit Susan’s website to learn more about her opinions and work, her endless efforts on behalf of our pets for better and stricter regulations and also for her greatest accomplishment, the enormous and really eye opening pet food review database

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