Stay safe from lawsuits over pet food marketing claims by avoiding particular terms while substantiating all statements, said Michael Annis, partner with Husch Blackwell, during his presentation at Petfood Forum.

“Stay away from trigger terms,” said Annis.

Trigger terms are specific words or phrases used in pet food marketing that may be open to legal action in various ways. Some terms may be loosely defined and open to interpretation by consumers and courts. Others of these marketing terms may be unsubstantiated or make unfounded claims about benefits and qualities.

Health-related trigger terms for legal action in the pet food industry

Legally risky marketing claims cover a wide range of popular trends in the pet food industry. Some terms refer to health effects or benefits from certain ingredients. Since consumers tend to consider “natural” as implying a more wholesome product, Annis categorized the term as a health effect. Several recent lawsuits have alleged that pet food companies didn’t live up to their natural marketing claims because the products contains synthetic ingredients such as citric acid. Other lawsuits have gone after natural pet food formulations for containing trace amounts of heavy metals.

Along with terms like “natural,” “all-natural” or “from nature,” other health-related trigger terms for legal action in the pet food industry include anything related to extending the lifespan of a pet. The Federal Trade Commission is paying special attention to life-extension claims, said Annis.

Origin-related pet food marketing trigger terms

Other claims assert the point of origin of an ingredient or product. One of the most common of these is Made in the U.S.A. However, the exact meaning of this is confused by varying definitions. For example, the FTC and the State of California place different requirement on labeling products as Made in the U.S.A. To avoid lawsuits related to national origin, Annis recommended using qualifying terms, such as “Made in USA of 90% US and 10% Imported Materials by Weight.”

Other origin-related pet food marketing trigger terms include, “local,” words or images of specific locations, foreign symbols and words, or images of farms and farm animals.

Quality-related marketing terms and pet food legal issues

Lawsuits against pet food companies have resulted from claims about the quality of the ingredients used, such as using poultry meal instead of chicken breast meat.

Other quality-related terms have to do with the methods used to produce a pet food or ingredient. Some of these terms include: artisanal, craft, handmade and small batch, he said. Since these terms lack regulatory definitions, pet food companies could face legal problems if their production methods don’t match consumers’ ideas of what artisanal or craft means.