Comparing Pet Foods Based Upon What Matters
-The First Study Of Its Kind In The Pet Food Industry-
Purpose: Anyone responsibly choosing food products for their family and pets must have health as the primary objective. Food can indeed impact health more than any other factor. Essentially every degenerative disease is now linked to diet in one way or another. Given that as the starting point, how does the public sort through the confusing clutter of pet foods the marketplace? Each one claims to be better and healthier than the others. But since pet foods are essentially nondescript processed artifacts that cannot be identified as a steak, drumstick, grain of corn or rice, or the like, a lot of trust has to be extended by the consumer.
Contrary to popular belief, regulators do not oversee manufacturing or formulations - rather, only what is said on the pet food label with regard to ingredient nomenclature and nutrient percentages. Regulators also do not control who becomes a pet food company - really anyone can. Since pet food manufacturers can make about any claim in advertising and brochures (and boot leather and rancid soap could create adequate protein and fat percentages, and a pinch of organic caviar and filet mignon in a formulation can make a "new organic caviar and filet mignon" diet), official-looking labeling and literature is meaningless by and large.
Intelligent consumers should be skeptical of all claims based on in-vogue sound bites such as: natural, high protein, breed specific, human grade, organic, no corn or soy, etc. Pet health cannot reduce to one singular feature in one particular packaged product regardless of how much profiteers would like the public to think so and regardless of how much a lazy public (solve all problems with a purchase, a pill, a surgery) would like to reduce it to such simplicity. Everything good in life takes effort. Feeding pets is no exception.
The ideal diet is that diet pets are genetically adapted to - the food in kind and variety they would eat if returned to the wild. That requires thought and meal planning, not just emptying a package into a bowl. This can be accomplished most perfectly by obtaining fresh food from the grocer and preparing meals. Manufactured foods and supplements can also be used but they should come from those who understand this simple archetypal feeding principle and are competent to make pet products as close to that model as possible. Instead, most pet food manufacturers, themselves naively believing nutrition and health come from packages, fill the market with an endless variety of savior foods with "special" ingredients and formulations. Choosing a pet food because a brochure says corn is evil or pets need special diets for their particular size and similar marketing hot buttons, are ruses at best or a show of company incompetence at worst.
This study is designed to provide criteria that cut through mere claims, marketing and propaganda to the core beliefs, credentials, philosophy and principles of the producer. The old adage, "You cannot get blood from a turnip" applies here. If a pet food company has no true health credentials and has an erroneous health and nutrition philosophy, how can healthy food and healthy pets come from that foundation?
Study Design: The following chart was compiled by requesting information from a wide range of natural pet food companies. We chose primarily those companies at the so-called premium end of the scale and those making claims about being innovative and healthy. Interviewers attempted contact by e-mail and/or telephone if the information required was not on the company's web site or in their literature. "NR" (no response) means the company did not provide adequate information in their literature, avoided answering the question when directly asked, or would not respond by attempted personal contact (at least 2 attempts). The significant NR gaps in the chart should be construed as a willful silence so as not to reveal damaging information, unresponsiveness, or an honest lapse in communication.
The 20 billion dollar worldwide pet food market is enticing to the business community. One could only imagine the heyday that would occur in the human food arena if people would apply the same foolishness to feeding their family that they do to their pets. If people would voluntarily eat only one "100% complete" food from a package at every meal, every day, think of the frantic race to capture that market!
Since virtually any person - regardless of nutritional or health skills - with capital can go to any number of private label manufacturers and have "shelf" formulas tweaked slightly to create a "new" brand, the pet food market is a flurry of wannabe moguls. They target a profitable niche and then create the illusion of newness, health, or danger to all pets that do not eat the new wonder brand. The gullible, convenience driven (want one solution in an easy-pour package) pet owning public is the target. It's a modern version of the old snake oil panacea ploy. Sadly, many aspects of the pet food industry have the flavor of a travelling snake oil medicine show. The discerning consumer must ask the appropriate questions of any producer claiming to produce healthy products. The fundamental issues that should be put out of the way before looking at such things as protein %, ingredients, methods of manufacturing and packaging would be the competency of the people in charge at the company, their nutritional philosophy and their efforts to responsibly educate the public. These logical and critical issues have never before been addressed. The reasons why will become apparent to the reader.
Questions That Matter:
- Credentials - What are the scientific and health credentials of the owner of the company - the person(s) who determine how the product is designed and promoted? Nutrition is a serious health matter and consumers would be no wiser trusting in the judgment and products from someone without health and nutrition skills as in entrusting brain surgery to a banker. Virtually every pet food company implies that they are expert or have consulted experts. This universal attempt at expert legitimacy in the industry should tell the consumer that it is indeed an important prerequisite to pet food production and marketing. All that is left for the consumer then is to sort truth from fiction. Claiming that veterinarians and breeders have been "consulted' does not qualify as competency since veterinarians have at most one course in nutrition (unless they self-educate postgraduation), and breeders may have no education whatsoever relevant to nutrition, health or food processing. Also, these stamps of authority can be easily purchased. Claiming that nutritionists are consulted only paves the way for balancing of nutrients for the fallacious and harmful "100% complete and balanced pet food" claim. Regardless of who is "consulted,"if the person in charge of the company does not have the competency to sort choices then how can one have confidence in the final product?
- The 100% Complete Myth - Does the company promote their product as 100% complete and advocate that it should be fed exclusively, or do they actively educate people that that is an inappropriate way to feed? No scientist knows 100% about anything, let alone nutrition! Exclusive feeding of "complete processed" pet diets is directly linked to a wide range of serious diseases and the practice has resulted in immeasurable death and disease to pets. The claim serves to bind consumers to purchasing a brand but does not advance health or consumer independence. Those who promote exclusive feeding of a processed pet food (regardless of its "special" ingredients) either are ignorant of the facts or are purposely deceiving and thus do not deserve consumer support.
- AAFCO Testing - Do they conduct animal testing, including AAFCO pet feeding trials? Nutritional correctness begins with the right philosophy – animals require what they are genetically designed for, and the feeding results require lifetimes to measure. Caging animals and feeding them test diets for several weeks neither proves the 100% complete claim nor does it show sensitivity to the very pets the company claims they care about.
- Education - Do they truly educate or merely market? Those putting themselves in a position to feed pets should have a clear and competent health message. At a minimum those presenting important health products (which pet food most certainly is) to the public should be skilled in nutritional science, biochemistry, food processing technology and health. They should be educating the public on how to become independently health sufficient through books, newsletters, presentations and articles, not merely promoting pet products with misleading sound bite laden marketing brochures or product labels. Pet food manufacturers claim to be about pet health and are thus posing themselves as doctors of sort. As a good doctor should be teaching patients what to do so that they do not need him, a pet-feeding "doctor" should be doing much the same, not attempting to create complete product dependence.
- Experience - Do they have a significant history of creating pet health and product innovation? Those new on the scene with no real and competent nutritional or health contribution beyond what is already present in the market are clearly opportunists. On the other hand, many years in business do not necessarily prove merit either. To be taken seriously a company must show educational and product innovations that truly advance health. Mere pet product aesthetics – form, shape, color, flavor – ingredient sound bites, and propaganda about completeness and balance do not qualify.
- Manufacturing - Does the company own their own manufacturing? Most brands are produced by the same private label manufacturers. In other words, essentially the same product (other than label and brochure claims) is coming off the assembly line but being put in different packages. Food processing can greatly impact the health value of food and a company that is serious about excellent products should either show innovation in manufacturing facilities they control, or have the expertise to properly monitor an outside manufacturer.
- Fads - Does the company promote sound bite fad issues in a beguiling and obvious attempt to lure customers, or even to turn them away from other brands? Examples of obvious marketing promotions include exclusive feeding of so-called 100% complete foods, exclusive feeding of breed- age- and size-specific brands, boasts about not having boogeyman ingredients such as corn, wheat, soy, by-products, meals, digests, poultry, beef, etc., claims about organic ingredients, natural, human grade, USDA, FDA, AAFCO approval, feeding trials, meat, protein, omega-3s, rawness, etc. Although there may be elements in some of these features that might have something to do with health, but taken as a singular focus by consumers they can do more harm than good. Fad nutritional ideas make consumers reliant on a product, not informed as to how to feed for health.
A cursory review of the chart demonstrates that only one pet food company scores properly in all criteria. Most companies were extremely hesitant to answer the questions. Many tried to obfuscate and many simply would not reply. (For example, why would a company want the public to know that their supposed complex health products are being developed by people who do not have scientific, medical, or nutritional expertise and competence?) Why are questions from consumers like this not reasonable? Why are they not being asked?
It is clear from the number of non-responsive (NRs) companies in our survey that the industry by and large knows what is right, they just are not doing it either because they don't care or it is too expensive to put resources into education to teach people to be health independent. Also, meaningful research and development requires staffing with capable people who are costly. It would also mean that the businessmen at the top would have to relinquish control of formulations and processing to those with competence and principles other than the bottom line.
This study may seem at first glance self-serving but it is simply the way the data falls because the focus of nearly the entire pet food industry focuses on profit and marketing related issues peripheral to true health. We could have used different criteria such as advertising effectiveness, marketing expertise, business expertise, financial resources, size of sales force, advocacy of 100% complete feeding, rate of growth, willingness to follow the market, promotion of nutritional fads – no corn or soy, human grade, no by-products, no meat meals, organic, natural and the like (See The Pet Food Ingredient Game) – prettiness of packaging and brochures, etc. (The company who won the present study would lose on that one...) Unfortunately money and fad ideas are the usual criteria to measure pet food company and product merit. Companies read business charts and profit and loss statements, not scientific and medical journals. On the other hand, using company resources to empower consumers with the knowledge to take control of their own health destiny is the furthest thing from their minds. Companies want consumer dependence, not independence.
No pet food company (other than one) has clearly brought the health of pets forward as the number one agenda. No other company actually teaches people how to be so health independent that they need not buy any processed packaged product. That is a measure of the underlying sincerity and honesty consumers should prioritize in their selection process, and a guide for where they should turn for honest health information.
Preface To The Chart:
Although the names of the companies have been X'd out, the data that remains reflects accurately the results (in spite of the fact that the contrast between others and Wysong is so remarkable). Since the information was gathered by telephone, e-mail and literature survey and those who responded (or did not) may not have properly represented the company in question, we decided that it would be most fair not to identify the companies. We also felt it best that you, the consumer, do the investigation. No argument ever defeats direct experience. Since many producers have been alerted now to the questions in this study and have had time to prepare, you may not get quite the same reaction our researchers did catching them off guard. Nevertheless the truth will emerge as you press them for answers.
Asking The Questions:
You must begin your investigation of a pet food manufacturer with distrust and skepticism. You cannot tacitly believe what is printed on a bag or in advertising. When money is involved, people (which companies are made of, remember) can mislead, distort, fabricate and outright lie. That is a fact of life. Just because a pet food package or brochure looks official does not mean that what is said accurately reflects what is really going on. There are no pet food policemen. Regulators only step in to make sure nomenclature on packaging is standardized. For example, they make sure that protein % is listed but they do not control what is actually put in the package that creates the protein. They make sure producers say "beef" and not "cow" but they do not control whether what is really in the product is ground up old leather coats or not. This is not to suggest that old leather coats go into pet food, just to say that it could happen and you, the consumer, would not know. Thus trust becomes everything.
An enormous amount of faith is extended when pet foods are purchased. Your job is not to find out which company "says" they are natural, holistic, organic, soy-free, human grade, veterinary recommended or the like, but to find out if what the company says should be trusted and if the company is really qualified to be entrusted with your pet's health.
These are the questions (left to right in chart) you need to ask companies to make your trust warranted:
- What are the credentials of the owner of the company - the person who has final say about how the products are made? Several tried to distract or obfuscate when the investigators in our study asked this one, and most just refused to respond. For those who do respond, you will have to decide if a tax attorney, used car salesman, former pet store worker or businessman (some of the actual responses we uncovered) are who you should look to with confidence for overseeing your pet's nutritional health. It is not enough to say that a veterinarian or some other expert designed the products. (Almost all of them cite an expert somewhere at some time they have used.) Anybody can say such things and experts can be paid to lend their name. You must insist on getting at the credentials of the person who makes the decisions. (One claimed an advanced degree in nutrition and work toward a "PhD" but we could not find the evidence for it, and the advertising and literature written by this person abounded with myth and factual errors not characteristic of someone with advanced scientific education.)
The only parallel in the human food arena to 100% complete and balanced pet foods is baby formula. The companies producing these formulas are staffed with doctorate level researchers even though the government has long ago prohibited the complete and balanced claim on baby formulas (too much sickness and death when a fabricated food is fed exclusively). But the pet food industry abounds with companies with no credentials - yet they are allowed to market "complete and balanced" pet foods. It is an enigma and a contradiction all in one.
- Does the company say, in one form or another, that their products can or should be fed exclusively because they are "complete and balanced"? This claim is intended to create consumer dependence and may be the greatest contributor to your pet's eventual failed health. (See The Myth of 100% Complete Processed Pet Foods, Wysong Institute) As Dr. Wysong's message has gotten out over the past three decades, some producers now hedge when asked the question. You will need to determine whether they actually teach people how to feed for health or just respond in a way to stay out of trouble on their indefensible position of feeding only one food meal after meal. If pressure from you the consumer mounts, companies will change their "complete and balanced" message. Some have already, but following the Wysong lead because of fear of losing customers is not a reason for you to extend trust to them.
- Do they attempt to prove that their food is 100% complete by performing caged animal AAFCO feeding trials? Not only is this faulty science since a few weeks staying alive in a cage does not prove true health merits, but it is inhumane to the caged animals. Also, attempting to prove the 100% complete claim is proof that the pet food company does not understand the nutritional and health consequences of feeding singular foods. Although some companies now make claims about how they do not do such feeding trials, merely following Wysong's lead for fear of losing customers is not a reason to extend trust to them. If your heart and knowledge is in the right place, you lead, not follow.
- Does the company produce literature that competently teaches people how to enhance their pet's health or is it mere product promotion? If a company's heart is truly in helping people and pets and they have important knowledge, then their literature should reflect that. It should make sense, accord with current science, be documented with scientific references and be abundant. Marketing brochures with polish, claims, endorsements, and lots of marketing hot buttons do not reflect an underlying interest in you, the consumer. Look for selfless information that helps you truly learn and become health independent, not just be a profit center for them.
- How long have they been producing products and information with true health merit? Over the past thirty years Wysong has been first in virtually every pet health innovation that could be considered truly natural or holistic. But dozens of companies have come on the scene since, taken a few of the Wysong ideas and ingredients, even "borrowed" Wysong product names and lifted phraseology out of Wysong literature and then made bold claims about being "first" or the "only." When an innovation is already in the market, those who come from behind and copy it in one form or another show their true motive - profit. If the heart and knowledge is where it should be a company leads, not copies and follows. You will need to decide if upstart companies who copy, or older companies with a new "natural" facelift, deserve trust that your pet's best health interests are theirs as well.
- Do they own their own manufacturing? Our researchers found that most all of the respondents were really uncomfortable with this question. Some refused to say, others did not answer and some misled. For example, one company with dried, freeze-dried, canned and frozen products said they manufactured all their own products. The facts we found were that they only did some of their own freezing but none of the dried, freeze-dried or canned - the vast majority of their business. All companies make claims about being "first," the "only" and "innovative," but it is pretty hard to support that claim when your products are being made in a private label manufacturer and are rolling off the same line as a hundred other brands. One newer company attempts to copy Wysong's important concept of cold processing by saying their product is cold produced. But their product is made in the same plant that heat processed foods are made in and on the same line!
It may be impossible for a growing company to gear up to produce all their products and meet demand, and thus using contract manufacturers may be necessary. Wysong must do some of that. However, we carefully stipulate formulas and processes in those circumstances. In the main we manufacture all of our own products and invest millions of dollars in research and in processing technology to do it. True innovation would be impossible for us otherwise. Most, however, find it much cheaper and easier to just talk the talk rather than spending the money and gaining the knowledge to walk the walk. You should press companies on this issue and form your own conclusions.
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NR - means the company did not reply, did not reveal the information in literature, refused to reveal when personally contacted or provided vague or misleading information. Partial/? - means the company only produces some of its products and has private label manufacturers produce the rest. Most would not reveal the percentage.
*Spokesman stated they were the manufacturer but other information revealed that at least their canned, freeze-dried and extruded foods were manufactured by an outside private label company.
**This company is a large publicly traded company. As such they usually have professionally skilled people employed but their efforts are usually toward such things as production efficiency, profitability, conventional reductionistic nutrition and product design to capture sales. We could not find information that they teach people the dangers of the 100% complete myth or how to be health independent.
1. The question of what is the academic and technical expertise of the CEO, the person(s) who makes the final decision about how the foods are made and what goes into them. 1a - B.S. biology/chemistry; DVM, former practitioner and surgeon, Researcher, Educator, Food technologist, over 200 health newsletters, 300+ health, nutrition and medical inventions; 1b - businessman; 1c - pet industry; 1d - network marketing; 1e - degrees in Ag Business & tax law, Executive Vice-President of Business and New Product Development has no professional food, science, or health background; 1f - animal advocate; 1g - former vet clinic manager; 1h - public accountant.
2. The question of whether the company advocates that their pet food be fed as an exclusive diet to pets or that it be fed continuously as part of any feeding program.
3. The question of whether the company attempted to prove nutritional merit or the 100% complete pet food claim by subjecting caged animals to AAFCO feeding trials.
4. Company information was examined to see if they offered non-product oriented educational literature that teaches people the dangers of exclusive feeding of processed pet foods and instruction on how to feed pets without purchasing any commercially prepared foods at all.
5. The question of how long has the company been producing innovative pet products focused on health and educating consumers on how to make product independent health choices.
6. The question of whether the company owned the manufacturing facilities that produced the pet foods they promote.