In Safe Hands
After a tragic wakeup call almost 10 years ago, the pet food industry continues to work at regaining and maintaining pet owners’ trust.
When it comes to product recalls, no industry is immune. Take the human food market as an example. It is repeatedly beset with brand-tarnishing recalls enacted for any number of reasons, from the accidental inclusion of nuts in products that are supposed to be nut free to spates of food-borne illnesses that leave manufacturers scrambling to pinpoint the source.
However, the deadly impact of the 2007 pet food recalls that rocked the industry had repercussions seldom seen in the human-food world. While product recalls happen with reliable regularity there, people don’t abandon their supermarkets, swear off eating spinach forever or refuse to trust a package of chocolate chip cookie dough ever again. On the other hand, the pet food recalls—and the pet deaths and illnesses that led to them—reverberated powerfully throughout the pet-loving population, putting consumers on edge and forever changing the game for pet food manufacturers and pet specialty retailers.
Nearly 10 years later, pet food manufacturers, still mindful of the need to build and maintain consumer confidence, have refined their production processes and their safety policies. They have evaluated and re-evaluated their ingredients and the sourcing of those ingredients, finding new ones when necessary. They have also tailored and polished their marketing messages, becoming increasingly transparent about ingredients and production processes.
Meanwhile, on the retail side, pet specialty stores have played an all-important supporting role by becoming the experts that pet owners can turn to for trusted guidance and advice about the value and integrity of the brands on the market.
Still, while the industry seems light-years beyond where it was in 2007, experts say that any trust it has built with the pet-owning public is tenuous and only as solid as a dog’s last uneventful and nutritious meal.
For example, Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, a manufacturer of raw dog and cat food, suggests that the industry’s relationship with its consumers is delicate and theorizes that the pet food market is not out of the woods yet. “It was a tragedy what happened, and it blew the top completely off the pet food industry in terms of transparency and food safety,” he says, adding that it opened a Pandora’s box for the pet specialty market. “It put brands in the position that they have to deliver and be transparent. And that’s what we need to do so that consumers feel that they are being treated the way they should be treated.”
Michael Levy, co-owner of Pet Food Express, a chain of 60 stores in California, concurs that the industry should recognize its still-shaky standing with the public. “Our industry’s reputation for caring about safety is still fragile, and a residue from the Menu recall—and others since then—remains,” he says. “Plus, the acquisition of so many food companies by large corporations and investment groups whose primary goal is to make money further fuels that concern.”
A Watchful Eye
This concern and lack of trust has been particularly evident in the proliferation of industry watchdogs dedicated to monitoring and reporting on commercial pet foods. Some are on a small scale—individuals with passion and a computer, who curate what they find on the internet to share with their followers. Others have become more established, most notably, DogFoodAdvisor.com, which bills itself as a public service website designed to help dog owners make informed buying decisions. It is often cited in the media as a reliable source for concerned pet lovers seeking information.
In fact, consumers these days, forever disabused of their previously blind faith in pet food manufacturers, are more discerning than in the past. They ask more pointed questions about the products they purchase, demand a higher level of transparency from food companies and have more stringent requirements for these products.
Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications at Wellness Natural Pet Food, says this increased awareness has yielded some positive results. “The recall spurred a consumer movement that has shaped the pet food industry as a whole, spawning natural and better-for-you brands with greater transparency, improved sourcing and higher standards of excellence,” she says.
Pet food companies have indeed been responsive to consumer demand for industry accountability and honesty. Many manufacturers, particularly those that call the pet specialty retail channel home base, have made it part of their mission to do all in their power to ensure the safety and integrity of their products, knowing that their prosperity and longevity depends on it. And while there are many facets to pet food safety, experts say it starts with the ingredients.
“Primal’s philosophy and commitment to the consumer is that we only use the highest-quality raw materials,” adds Koss, who explains that the company uses only human-grade ingredients—a choice that comes in with built-in safeguards not applied to non-human-grade food. “When you start with the highest-quality raw materials, you are already at an advantage on food safety because these products are highly inspected and regulated.”
The Wellness brand also proactively markets its commitment to high production standards and quality ingredients. According to Leary-Coutu, the company is exacting about its manufacturing procedures and other protocols, enabling it to produce safe and nutrient-dense food.
“Our ingredient selection process is also rigid, uncompromising and detailed,” she adds. “Each ingredient undergoes a rigorous selection process in which the quality, safety and nutritional value is carefully reviewed. Artificial flavors, preservatives and other chemicals are never included in our food.”
The manufacturer also outlines its food safety commitment on its website and stamps products with its The Wellness Way seal, which correlates back to the company’s safety and quality assurances and policies. “We believe in being transparent about how pet food is made and, frankly, we’re proud of the steps we’ve taken to ensure the safety of our recipes,” says Leary-Coutu. “To make it easy for pet parents to find the information they’re looking for about the quality and safety of Wellness recipes, we start with our website.”
The Honest Kitchen, which produces human-grade, dehydrated pet diets, is yet another example of a company in the pet specialty market that prioritizes safety as part of its core values. Founder and CEO Lucy Postins says the company invests heavily in food safety and quality control, and tests both its raw ingredients and finished products before they go out for distribution.
“We conduct third-party supply chain audits and, of course, our human-food-grade production offers an additional level of peace of mind when it comes to the safety and integrity of our finished products,” Postins adds.
Yet, while many manufacturers are being more diligent than ever in their quest to earn consumers’ trust and deliver unfailingly safe, high-quality products, some say not everyone is on the same page.
“That’s the struggle for us,” says Koss, speaking of the raw food segment, in particular. “We go through such lengths and such expense, and we have other brands in the categories that don’t, putting the whole category at risk.”
A Retailer’s Responsibility
Inconsistency within the industry represents both an opportunity and a daunting responsibility for pet specialty retailers, which are on the front lines of the industry. Pet owners often look to retailers for information and assurances about what brands they can count on. In order to live up to that expectation, retailers need to do their due diligence when it comes to vetting the products they stock.
Alison Schwartz, store manager of All Pets Considered, a pet specialty retailer and grooming salon in Greensboro, N.C., says the recalls of 2007 actually drove traffic into the store as people sought answers to the many questions raised during that time. “People came to us because they were seeking transparency and a place they could trust,” she says. “They felt that we were looking into things so they wouldn’t have to feel scared.”
It is a responsibility that the management of All Pets Considered continues to take seriously years later. The retailer carefully evaluates brands and products before including them in its inventory, knowing that customers depend on the store’s well-informed choices. Fortunately, says Schwartz, there is a wide selection to choose from when looking for reputable and trustworthy pet food brands.
“There are so many different natural pet food companies out there now,” she says. “I’ve seen the market expand just astronomically in the natural pet food department. You can’t carry all the really good foods—you can’t have room for all of that, but there are really great foods out there.”
For many independent pet specialty retailers, markers of a worthy product include a combination of sound production practices and wholesome, recognizable ingredients that are sourced responsibly and from locations deemed trustworthy. Naturally, retailers’ ability to determine if products meet their criteria greatly depends on manufacturers’ willingness to be honest and forthcoming with information on their production processes, the ingredients they use and how and where they are sourced.
“[Manufacturers] recognize the value of being transparent and stating where their ingredients are sourced from,” Schwartz says. “They steer clear of [ingredients from] places that they know consumers are scared of, like China.”
One of the most lasting effects of the 2007 recalls is many consumers’ continued distrust of foods that contain ingredients sourced in China, as well as products made there. Over the years, strong suspicions that there is a link between illnesses in dogs and pet treats made in China have boosted consumer demand for options that are made in the U.S. with ingredients sourced here or other more trusted nations, such as New Zealand or Brazil. The evidence is reportedly inconclusive as to whether the Chinese treats have caused pet deaths and illnesses, however, many retailers choose to take the most precautionary route by avoiding food products manufactured in or made with ingredients sourced from China.
Schwartz says All Pets Considered was a pioneer in this respect. “Several years ago, we removed any treats made in China,” she says. “We did this ahead of the curve, before the jerky scare happened, and we’ve gone further. We will not sell any dog toy intended for chewing—like puppy toys—if it’s made in China.”
While the decision to not carry any food items sourced from or made in China is rather black or white, setting and following up on other criteria used to assess the safety of a product may be more complicated, but just as necessary.
“We review [manufacturers’] food safety programs not only within their plants, but also what they require of their raw material suppliers,” says Levy of Pet Food Express’ efforts to weed out brands that don’t meet its standards. “We ask about post production testing protocols, how they deal with adverse event reports, and what resources are in place to serve customers with questions and concerns.”
Still, the fact is that however diligently manufacturers and retailers work to prevent food safety issues from ever occurring, occasional product recalls are inevitable. Anything from the discovery of the presence of mold in a product lot to salmonella contamination can trigger a recall. When this happens, both manufacturers and retailers need to be prepared to respond.
“Retailers and manufacturers alike should be fast-acting and forthcoming,” says Leary-Coutu. “Notices should be posted in-store and online, listing the affected recipes and reason for the recall, to spread the word and protect the health of pets who may be eating those recipes. Recipes should also be pulled from shelves immediately to ensure no other pets are potentially exposed to the food in question.”
Retailers, given their role as industry gatekeepers and their position on the front lines, will have to be able to explain to customers what the issue was and how they responded. So, beyond actually removing the product from shelves and following required procedural policies, communication with consumers is probably the most important thing retailers and manufacturers need to focus on.
Remembering an incident when a popular brand was pulled due to possible listeria contamination last year, Schwartz says it was important that the staff at All Pets Considered be able to discuss the issue with consumers.
“We wanted to be able to talk about what listeria is, how this could have happened, and what the importance of it was, but we also wanted to explain that customers should not get too afraid,” she says.
Of course, recalls do not need to sound the death knell for any brand or company these days, and many customers understand this.
“Consumers are used to recalls in the human world too,” Schwartz says. You have spinach recalls for e-coli, and things like that. It’s not as scary when it’s a bacteria. When it’s a deadly toxin, it becomes a whole different ball of wax.”
Still, retailers need to take every recall seriously with a swift and public response. For example, many stores, such as Pet Food Express, will offer refunds on products that were recalled after purchase. Pet Food Express takes it a step further, according to Levy, by accepting returns of recalled pet products whether purchased in its stores or not.
According to Levy, to further mitigate risk and offer consumers a sense of security, Pet Food Express also insists that vendors abide by its recall policy, which includes the requirement that, in the event of a recall, the manufacturer must provide “reasonable assurances and proof that the issue that triggered the recall has been rectified,” that the problem is unlikely to reoccur, and that non-recalled products were manufactured using different equipment or raw ingredients or materials.
The good news is that many of the top food manufacturers seem genuinely committed to preventing food safety issues, understanding all that they have to lose. Meanwhile, however, pet specialty retailers need to continue to hold their vendors accountable and regularly evaluate the brands they stock to ensure that they live up to reasonable safety standards. After all, customers are often depending on the judgment of those doing the buying for their local pet retailers.
“Place your customers’ needs and concerns in front of yours or the manufacturers’,” Levy says. “Take care of your customers and their pets without regard to how it affects your business in the short term and demand that the manufacturers do the same. By dedicating ourselves to this, we can rebuild trust.”