It was the shot heard around the world—for the pet industry, at least. When the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) released its bombshell report outlining the potential link between grain-free dog food and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs in July 2018, the nutrition segment of the industry was thrown for a loop. Then, when the agency released a follow-up report one year later naming specific grain-free pet food manufacturers, full-on chaos ensued. Sales of grain-free food plummeted, leaving retailers, manufacturers and distributors scrambling to find a solution.
Now that the tide seems to have turned, due in large part to the pet industry’s push-back against the lack of science supporting the purported link between DCM and grain-free foods, many in the industry have lost faith in the FDA due to its handling of the situation.
"My first reaction is not to trust the FDA," says Dr. Bob Goldstein, veterinarian and co-founder of Earth Animal. "They basically put out a word that really frightens all consumers, pet people, industry people and veterinarians without having any definitive proof of what the underlying cause is."
As a result, it has fallen on the pet industry—everyone from nutritionists to retailers—to pick up the pieces, move forward, do the necessary research and improve lines of the communication along the way.
A major part of the DCM issue stemmed from consumers taking the FDA’s report, and subsequent the reporting of it, at face value without conducting independent research. The report was massive and encompassed numerous pages, but the main takeaways were gleaned off of the first page. Had more pet owners done their due diligence, they would have seen that there’s no clear evidence of a direct link between DCM and grain-free foods, say many industry experts.
"[The FDA] just [wasn’t] clear enough from the get go that this was a very tenuous thing," says Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry/Petfood Forum. "This was kind of a, ‘wow, the FDA really doesn’t have our backs.’"
It was immediately apparent that there’s a glaring disconnect between all players in the pet industry. In order to create an open dialogue and obtain a better understanding of the FDA’s handling of the DCM crisis, the pet industry needs to first understand the agency’s responsibilities and obligations.
"The FDA is in a difficult situation; when they see a concerning trend, they are required to report it to the public," explains Rob Downey, founder and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods. "The FDA went public with their DCM concerns due to media pressure, but it turns the numbers were fairly small. We are in changing times that require us to not jump to conclusions regardless of media and public pressure. All we can do is assure [and] provide the current evidence—and right now there is little to share surrounding why this is happening with certain brands."
While both sides have the task of forming a responsible pet care community, there’s apparently been little to no collaboration on how information is shared between the industry and regulators. As the misinformation from the DCM report spread like wildfire, it highlighted that pet nutrition is incredibly nuanced.
"This was another illustration to the industry that there’s just so much about pet nutrition that we don’t know," says Phillips-Donaldson. "There’s pockets of research going on, but it was never a coordinated effort."
Part of that is due to the lack of public funding for research into for nutritional needs of companion animals. Even though there’s so many new products and ingredients flooding the market, the research is often sporadic or improperly/hastily conducted.
"The pet food industry has really become an arms race," explains Downey. "One of the first things a retailer will ask a pet food company is, ‘how are you new?’ or, ‘how are you different?’. Everyone wants the shiny new object, so many companies are rushing products to market without proper testing. Many of these new companies don’t have nutritionist on staff, so this can lead to poor formulation."
Poor formulation isn’t simply a result of a company working to push a product out as quickly as they can to keep up with the trends, though; it often comes down to budget issues. Of course, larger companies with deeper pockets are able to conduct thorough research to drive innovation, but they understandably don’t typically share their findings, which are proprietary.
"It’s not a surprise, it’s just an illustration of where and how we need more research, and we need to figure out a way to fund it because what we’ve been trying to do just isn’t cutting it," says Phillips-Donaldson.
If public funding is not an option, there needs to be an "open collaboration" between the veterinary field, the FDA, specialty clinics, universities and nutritionally-oriented people in the pet area, says Dr. Goldstein.
To that end, the Pet Food Institute (PFI) engaged its newly-formed Nutrition Subcommittee—consisting of technical experts from manufacturers with backgrounds in nutrition, formulations and food safety—to exchange knowledge and collaborate any historical science and research, explains Dana Brooks, president and CEO of PFI.
"One of our biggest reminders from this incident was that our pet industry stakeholders, from veterinarians to retailers, are all important partners during a crisis," she continues. "As pet food makers responded to questions and misconceptions about pet food categories (such as grain-free), there was a missed opportunity to further communicate and work with our counterparts across the sector."
In a community that’s as passionate and emotional as the pet industry, it’s important to remember that we all have the same goal: to provide the best nutrition (and life) possible for domestic pets.
"People need to do their research and work together before someone walks alone and makes a decision that impacts many others," says Maria Lange, vice president of cannabis and pet verticals at Nielsen. "What we learned is that it’s important to do research, and we all have to put the health of our pets first. We need to make sure we have all of our facts together and we’re looking at this from all sides before putting it out."
Maintaining A Diversified Portfolio
Retailers and manufacturers learned the hard way not to have all their eggs in one basket, explains Lange. While the companies that exclusively made grain-free foods had to quickly adapt and incorporate grain-inclusive recipes into their offerings, the companies that already offered those options were able to use marketing and re-branding to set themselves apart.
"[It’s] not just saying, ‘this is with grains,’ [it’s] making grains sexy, if you will," says Lange. "‘Grain-friendly,’ ‘ancient grain’ and ‘wholesome grain’ claims are now showing up on packaging. Whenever brands are bringing out or launching new products, they’re calling out, ‘supports a healthy heart’ or ‘has added taurine levels’—all to counter the bad press from grain-free."
As manufacturers realized the importance of maintaining a diversified portfolio and having a basic recipe, retailers also got an education in inventory management, says Mary M. Phillips, owner of retail store Pets Pets Pets in Califon, N.J.
Retailers learned to, "Offer quality foods from mostly domestic manufacturers with transparent sourcing and sound production practices at a variety of price levels; serve all customers, from fixed-income seniors to wealthy corporate executives; and strive to fit the food to the pet and pet parents, serving all forms [including] prey model, fresh, frozen, air-dried, freeze-dried, kibble and canned," she explains.
Aside from food options, retailers learned to keep supplements on hand to make up for areas in which certain pet foods might fall short. Dr. Goldstein explained that Earth Animal’s retail location, run by his wife and company co-founder, Susan, received "hundreds of calls per week" with questions surrounding the FDA’s report. He educated the store’s staff to advise pet parents with their hearts set on grain-free to come in and purchase the proper supplements to support heart health, such as taurine.
Brooks explains that the DCM crisis has served to remind the industry of how impactful messaging and communication is for pet care. When misinformation is circulating, companies can’t sit back on their laurels and wait for confused customers to approach them.
"I think one of the biggest things that the pet industry learned was that when a situation like this happens, you need to be proactive, not reactive, and get out ahead of it," says Downey. "Some companies seemed to bury their head in the sand and hoped it would go away. That made some of their customers uncomfortable and wary about lack of a response."
Part of this issue stems from a pet parent’s immediate reaction to seek their veterinarian’s advice on proper food nutrition instead of the companies making the products or even the retailers selling them. The "root" of the problem for this reaction, explains Donaldson-Phillips, is that there’s typically a lack of nutritional training for veterinarians. She explains that often veterinarians are offered samples of food from companies that sell their products in the veterinary field and, as a result, develop biases.
Of course, this is by no means intentional. When you think about how much a veterinarian has to learn going through school, says Downey, it’s no wonder that they may not be as educated on nutrition as pet owners would like them to be. In his four years of training vet school, Dr. Goldstein estimates that he had about three hours of nutritional training.
With this in mind, it’s important that retailers and food manufacturers provide pet owners with advice about nutrition. As Downey points out, "We don’t go to our personal doctor and ask for nutritional advice, [so] why do we think our veterinarian will know nutrition?"
The bottom line, according to industry experts, is that when a crisis fueled by misinformation develops, a genuine, unified response from all industry stakeholders is required.
"Being proactive and transparent when facing any crisis is critically important," says Downey. "A PR guru once said, ‘In crisis management, be quick with the facts, slow with the blame.’" PB