It’s often said that while accusations make front-page news, retractions are relegated to the back pages. That has certainly been the case when it comes to reported connections between grain-free foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in pets. Recently, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) quietly conceded that there is no scientific evidence that grain-free foods are dangerous—a concession that has received a fraction of the media attention that was given to the agency’s warnings about these diets over the past couple of years.
Of course, it was not a complete reversal, as DCM is a scientifically-complex disease that can be caused by an array of factors, including nutrition, but it’s a step in the right direction of de-stigmatizing grain-free diets—and pet industry experts are optimistic about the development.
“We are pleased the FDA has brought more understanding to this issue, indicating that multiple factors can cause DCM including breed, genetics, pre-existing health conditions, digestive issues and nutrition,” says Jeff Johnston, senior vice president of research, innovation and product development for Champion Petfoods. “In fact, the FDA has found no evidence that any specific pet food products are definitively linked to causing DCM.”
The question we’re left with is simple: What steps need to be taken to bring awareness to the safety of grain-free foods to pet parents?
Education for Retailers
After issuing its first public alert in 2018, the FDA sent the pet industry on a two-year whirlwind as retailers and manufacturers alike scrambled to clarify the information. To wade through all the rumors and reports, many pet parents turned to their trusted retailers for support.
“[The] report was frightening and confusing for pet parents,” says David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic. “Thankfully, many [turned] to their incredibly knowledgeable independent pet retailers for help.”
With this new update, pet stores are once again expected to become pet parents’ primary resource for DCM and grain-free-related information. Retailers are in the unique position of being able to speak to consumers face-to-face to not only correct misunderstandings, but also to re-educate shoppers.
“Retailers play a key role in educating consumers about the best options for pets,” explains Johnston. “They can assure consumers that if FDA had found a causal link between DCM and any pet food, it would be required by law to have those products removed from the market—which it has not done.”
Johnston adds that retailers should mention the complexities of DCM, highlighting that it impacts about one percent of the 77 million dogs in the U.S., whereas cancer will affect 25 percent of dogs, and obesity will impact 33 percent.
“The perception for many consumers is they look at a label and see legumes or lentils, especially up high in the ingredient list, they’ll automatically go away from that,” says Dr. Bob Goldstein, veterinarian and co-founder of Earth Animal. “Retailers should say that grains and legumes are good and nutritious—the overuse of them is what causes the problems.”
Seeing as this new crop of pet parents is more educated than ever before, retailers have to be able to match wits with consumers. Something as simple as condensing the information into social media posts can lend itself to establishing a pet store as a local authority.
“Pet parents are heavily investing their time, energy and money into learning about their pet’s health,” explains Lindsay Tracy, vice president of business development for Redbarn. “Publishing well-researched nutritional blogs and sharing them on social media channels is a great way to show and share their knowledge with customers.”
The best way to integrate this online content is by strategically placing links on social media pages and online, particularly if e-commerce is offered. Additionally, QR codes have seen a bump in popularity, so retailers should link their online content to codes displayed in key areas throughout the stores.
Still, with so many pet food options on the market and all the FDA updates, shoppers are ultimately looking for clarity. After all, there’s no “one size fits all” option when it comes to purchasing dog food.
“We’ve all heard the phrase ‘option paralysis,’ but with pet food, it’s important each unique pup has something suitable and affordable so they can live a happy, healthy life,” says Tracy. “Stores can really set themselves apart from competitors by having clear messaging to not only highlight different features and benefits of whole grain vs. grain-free vs. air-dried vs. wet food, for example, but spending time talking with customers about the unique needs of individual dogs and how they’re reacting to their current diet.”
As grain-free foods will continue to represent a large part of the pet food market—25 to 30 percent, notes Johnston—many pets will thrive on the diets for years to come. Retailers are in a unique position that allows them to stay on top of the latest trends, as well as provide shoppers with updates and recommendations.
“Independent pet specialty retailers have been responsible for driving most of the improvements our pet food has seen over the years,” says Yaskulka. “They are always leaders in finding ‘what’s best’ and ‘what’s next’ for pets.”
To that end, manufacturers and others in the pet industry believe the FDA has learned its lesson. The hope is that the misinformation surrounding the DCM reports helped open a line of communication between the FDA and the pet industry as a whole.
“I believe the FDA, especially from this latest meeting, has learned its lesson and now, going forward, I think the good news is they will begin to report in a proper way that’s truthful and not damaging to pet brands,” says Dr. Goldstein. “The negative part is the overall distrust of the FDA, because the FDA is a regulatory body of pet food; the good news is that the FDA has sort of apologized and put out a bridge to work with the veterinary and pet community to gather data.”
As communication between the pet food industry and the FDA (hopefully) improves, pet parents who shied away from grain-free options may start to embrace these diets again. Manufacturers can help drive this new awareness by constantly innovating and providing high-quality grain-free pet food, and remaining transparent about their ingredients and manufacturing process.
“For those who may have questioned the benefits of grain-free, we are hopeful they regain their confidence in these foods and that the industry will continue to innovate across all pet foods in the interest of pet health,” says Johnston. “We are optimistic many pet lovers are believers in the benefits of grain-free foods because their pets have thrived on them.” PB