How the ‘System’ Works Against Pet Food Consumers
Manufacturers, trade associations, veterinarians, pet store chains and even the regulatory system itself are all interwoven into a system where industry prevails and consumers (and their pets) struggle. The ‘system’ explained.
The image below briefly describes the largest manufacturers of pet food in the US. Take note of all the different companies these powerful pet food leaders own.
MARS Petcare is the top selling manufacturer, $17 billion in sales (2016). MARS brand Pedigree dog food is 11% of all dry dog food sold in the US. It is significant to note that MARS Petcare also owns the largest veterinary hospital chain in the US (Banfield). Nestle Purina is the #2 selling pet food manufacturer. Purina brand Beneful is 7% of US dry dog food sales, Purina One brand is 9% of US dry dog food sales. Purina also owns Pet Finder, the largest pet adoption website. Smucker’s entered the pet food business in 2015 purchasing Big Heart Brands from Del Monte. Smucker’s took an even larger share of the pet food industry with the purchase of Ainsworth Nutrition in 2018 (manufacturer of Rachael Ray Nutrish brand – 4% of US dry dog food sales).
Regulation of these pet food giants (and all pet food) falls on the shoulders of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and each State Department of Agriculture.
The FDA is tasked with enforcing federal law over pet food manufacturers, State Department of Agriculture state law. At this stage of the ‘system’ it is important for consumers to realize that the largest manufacturers of pet food have a certain amount of leverage with regulatory – especially State Department of Agriculture. That leverage is revenue. Each State Department of Agriculture is responsible for enforcing law – but their other responsibility is to promote ‘agriculture’ within their state.
One example. Kansas Department of Agriculture has a division titled “Agriculture Advocacy, Marketing and Outreach”. The state government website states:
The mission of the KDA Agricultural Marketing, Advocacy and Outreach Team is to serve all Kansans through innovative programming and delivering solutions designed to create an environment that facilitates growth and expansion in agriculture while increasing pride in and awareness of the state’s largest industry – agriculture.
Kansas Department of Agriculture is charged with both enforcing law over pet food AND “create an environment that facilitates growth and expansion” of pet food. It is certainly challenging for a regulatory authority to enforce law in pet food, while at the same time promoting the pet food industry.
Kansas – and every other state that is tasked with ‘creating an environment that facilitates growth and expansion’ of pet food – cannot write laws that directly promote industry (such as pet food ingredient definitions that allow processed diseased animals and/or non-slaughtered animals)…but they can have others do the job for them.
In pet food, the solution to regulate/promote pet food is accomplished through the private organization Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO writes the laws that State Department of Agriculture enforce, AAFCO also owns and copyright protects the legal definitions of all pet food ingredients (consumers have no public access). AAFCO pet food definitions allow the pet food industry to utilize waste (cheap) ingredients without disclosure to the consumer (promoting industry). Now, the ‘system’ looks like this…
But another influence plays a significant role in the regulation of pet food – that is industry trade associations. Below are the most influential trade associations in pet food…
The largest manufacturers of pet food are members of the various trade associations, and with that membership – pet food manufacturers are provided direct access to regulatory authorities (direct influence to alter/edit law). As example, AAFCO formed a working group to develop updates to pet food labels. A member of this Pet Food Label Modernization working group is MARS Petcare employee Jim Barritt.
Officially, a pet food manufacturer would not be allowed direct input on a committee that is writing future law. But the solution to that is provided by trade associations. Mr. Barritt is provided direct influence to the working group that will determine the information provided to consumers on pet food labels under the guise of the Pet Food Institute. Mr. Barritt – a MARS Petcare employee – participates on this significant working group as Mr. Barritt of Pet Food Institute. It’s smoke and mirrors.
Now consumers can begin to see the true pet food regulatory ‘system’…
The regulation of pet food – everything from the laws, the legal definitions of ingredients, the enforcement of law – is caught up in this circle. It’s consumers – and their pets – that are stuck in the middle.
But…it gets worse.
Next we consider another part of the ‘system’.
Veterinarians play a huge role in the ‘system’ as they are the most significant direct access to consumers. Almost 100% of the standard nutritional information provided to veterinarians (initial ‘training’ in veterinary school and ongoing training via AVMA educational events) comes directly from the largest pet food manufacturers. Veterinary schools receive ongoing financial support from the largest manufacturers including funding for pet food research. Veterinary association events also receive funding from the largest pet food manufacturers.
And of course we need to consider the largest retailers of pet food. Note all of the different companies that each of these pet food store chains own…
The largest retailers also have significant reach to consumers. Looking at Petsmart alone, this pet store chain owns 3 online pet food stores, a veterinary website, two adoption/rescue websites and a pet bloggers association. And…very significantly to the regulatory/promotion system of pet food – Petsmart owned Chewy.com is a member of the trade association Pet Food Institute. Which gives the largest retailer of pet food in the US a direct role in the regulatory process.
Now our regulatory/promotion ‘system’ of pet food looks like this, with consumers and pets VERY stuck in the middle.
The largest manufacturers of pet food (US) are regulated by FDA and State Department of Agriculture, BUT…the laws are written by a private corporation that openly allows industry to directly participate in the law making process through trade associations.
The largest manufacturers of pet food donate heavily to the veterinary industry, those same manufacturers provide nutritional training to vets which in turn relay that nutritional information to consumers. Veterinary schools publish scientific papers funded by the largest manufacturers – supporting the system. Veterinary continuing education programs are funded by the largest pet food manufacturers. The largest chain of veterinary clinics is owned by the largest pet food manufacturer.
Some of the largest retailers of pet food host veterinary clinics within their retail stores. Same largest retailers own multiple online pet food retailers and reach consumers through adoption/rescue organizations and blogger organizations. The largest pet food retailer is a member of a trade association provided direct influence to the law making process.
How does this effect consumers?
An unknowing pet food consumer – trying to do a little homework in selecting an appropriate pet food could go through all of these steps…
- Consult their vet;
- Consult the ‘nutrition expert’ in the pet store chain;
- Consult the adoption agency their new pet came from;
- Consult a few pet blogger websites;
- Consult a veterinary website;
- Consult a few veterinary school websites.
And VERY EASILY – this pet owner could be told the exact same information from all of these options; ‘corn is superior nutrition for pets’, ‘by-product meal is healthy and safe’, ‘pet food is THE most regulated industry (doesn’t violate law)’, and on and on. Why? Because all of the resources this pet owner consulted are intricately related – actively working together to promote Pet Feed. And…many of the resources this unknowing pet owner consulted are owned by the same company. Seemingly unrelated individuals and organizations – are actually VERY related.
The adoption website where the new pet was found on is owned by Petsmart, the vet the pet owner consulted was trained by Purina, the pet friendly blogger is trained by MARS Petcare via Petsmart Blog Paws, the veterinary website is funded by all of the largest manufacturers. It’s a vicious circle of pet feed promotion. And because a pet owner is hearing the same information from so many different sources, they believe the information they’ve learned is correct information.
And often – very unfortunately – when unknowing pet owners come across a different opinion on pet food…(because they have been basically programmed by so many other sources)…they have doubt. They don’t believe that corn comes with risk, they don’t believe many pet feeds violate federal law, and this goes on and on and on.
The ‘system’ also proactively works to silence all those that challenge them, causing more doubt in the minds of unknowing consumers. Just a few examples…
When Rodney Habib and Dr. Karen Becker (super hero’s of pet food!) began releasing scientific information about the risk of carbs for cancer pets, many members of the ‘system’ took aim to stop the carb bashing. Dr. Lisa Freeman – a board certified veterinary nutritionist from Tufts University – was one (of many) that spoke out. She said…
You don’t need to change your pet’s diet just because he or she has been diagnosed with cancer, but it is a good time to optimize your pet’s nutrition by ensuring adequate nutrient and calorie intake for overall health.
When the pet food documentary Pet Fooled was released, disclosing some of the secrets of the industry, again – the ‘system’ took aim at the film. One of the many attackers was Dr. Sarah Wooten who condemned the film, and bashed veterinarians Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Barbara Royal featured in the film (and raw pet food) in a post on DVM360.com titled “Hey doc, have your veterinary clients been fooled by this doc(umentary)?”
And me personally…when I wrote a post based on factual information received from Missouri Department of Agriculture about a MARS Petcare facility formerly located in the state – another member of the system took aim at me and kicked me out of AAFCO.
Personal Perspective: I personally do not support (buy anything from) any member of the ‘system’. I personally do not purchase pet food from a manufacturer that is a member of the Pet Food Institute or American Feed Industry Association or National Grain and Feed Association. I do not purchase products online and/or from any of the system major retailers. I choose a veterinarian that is holistic and actively supports food over feed for pets. I only support pet food businesses that do NOT participate in the system. My one exception, I do support the ‘system’ when I attend AAFCO meetings, but I have to go and provide consumers a voice.
The current ‘system’ is not in the best interest of pets (and their people) – the current system is in the best interest of big industry. Just as Kansas Department of Agriculture stated regarding their Agriculture Marketing program…the current pet food system “facilitates growth and expansion” in pet feed.
But don’t be too discouraged. We that believe in pet ‘food’ – real food – are piece by piece building a better system. A system of educated consumers, quality minded manufacturers, trade associations that only represent pet ‘foods’, holistic veterinarians, and pet stores that learn and share science with consumers (not marketing hype). Out with the old and in with the new.
Wishing you and your pet(s) the best,
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