By Tracie Korol
I recently took part in the National Canine Health Symposium that featured the best and brightest in the world of integrative veterinary medicine — vets, nutritionists and behaviorists. The keynote address was by pet food blogger and editor-at-large of Dogs Naturally magazine, Rodney Habib. The topic? How marketing hype is killing our pets.
Having owned a marketing and design firm in the Midwest for the first 22 years of my professional life, I know first-hand that what you see, hear and read, when it comes to what you want to purchase, is not necessarily the truth. Rodney was telling a story I understand all too well.
A trip down the pet food aisle these days will boggle the mind with all the wonderful claims made by manufacturers for their particular products. But what’s the truth behind all this marvelous hype? You might be very surprised.
Niche claims. Today, if you have tiny dog, a canine athlete, a fat dog, or a pet with a tender tummy or itchy feet, you can find a food “designed” just for your pet’s personal needs. Niche marketing arrived in a big way in the pet food industry when the wonders of a “science” diet began to appear in all brands. Humans like to feel special, and a product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a general product called “dog food.” But the reality is that there are only two nutritional standards against which all pet foods are measured — adult and growth/gestation/lactation. Everything else is marketing.
“Natural” or “Organic” claims. The definition of “natural” adopted by AAFCO (Association Of American Feed Control Officials) is very broad, and allows for artificially processed ingredients that most of us would consider very unnatural. The term “organic,” on the other hand, has a very strict legal definition. However, some companies are adept at evading the intent of these rules. If 10% of the very last product on the ingredient list happens to be organic, then legally it’s okay to print that on the bag even when everything else is chemical-laden, GMO fright food. Also, the name of the company or product may be intentionally misleading. For instance, some companies use terms like “Nature” or “Natural” or linguistic derivatives like “Naturo” in the brand name, whether or not their products fit the definition of what is truly natural.
Ingredient quality claims. A lot of pet foods claim they contain “human grade” ingredients. This is a completely meaningless term — which is why the pet food companies get away with using it. The same applies to “USDA inspected” or similar phrases. The implication is that the food is made using ingredients that are passed by the USDA for human consumption, but there are many ways around this. For instance, a facility might be USDA-inspected during the day, but the pet food is made at night after the inspector goes home. The use of such terms should be viewed as a “Hype Alert.”
“Meat is the first ingredient” claim. A claim that a named meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) is the #1 ingredient is generally seen for dry food. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight, and raw chicken weighs a lot since it contains a lot of water. If you look further down the list, you’re likely to see ingredients such as chicken or poultry by-product meal, meat-and-bone meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, or other high-protein meal. Meals have had the fat and water removed, and basically consist of a dry, lightweight protein powder. It doesn’t take much raw chicken to weigh more than a great big pile of this powder, so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with very little “chicken.” This has become a very popular marketing gimmick. Since just about everybody is now using it, any meaning it may have had is so watered-down that you may just as well ignore it.
Special ingredient claims. Many high-end pet foods today rely on the marketing appeal of people-food ingredients such as fruits, herbs, and vegetables. However, the amounts of these items actually present in the food are miniscule because real fruits, herbs and vegetables are expensive. The items that make it into the bag are usually scraps and rejects from processors of human foods — certainly not the whole, fresh ingredients they want you to imagine. Such ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and are really a marketing gimmick. You’d be much better served chucking a hunk of broccoli than purchasing kibble that has colorful pictures of vegetables on the bag. Every dog knows the orange triangles in his kibble aren’t carrots, but owners are not that smart.
Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely sophisticated recently. It’s important to know what is hype and what is real, so you can make informed decisions about what to feed your pets.