In November 2018, Petco made the announcement that they would be “the first and only major retailer of pet food to not sell pet food and treats with artificial ingredients.” For many of us who have been formulating and working in the pet food industry, we knew this was a very bold statement and started imagining how Petco would actually achieve this goal, if ever.

Busted! Then damage control

About four months later, I assessed Petco’s progress toward the goal. My blog post calling their initiative fake news discussed their cue card for transitioning out the “nasties,” how Petco’s careful wording gave them plausible denial via their “Better Nutrition” link and some of the artificial ingredients they had decided were okay to have in pet foods. I also addressed the importance of Petco being completely transparent if they were truly trying to “set a bold new standard for nutrition” and position themselves as a trusted advisor to help their customers by leading them to healthier choices.

My follow-up blog post a month later examined Petco’s attempt at damage control after my previous criticism. This included their discussions with me, during which I pointed out the misleading and false statements, the new asterisk that appeared on their marketing materials proclaiming their turning away from artificial ingredients, plus other misleading claims. (For example, do any ingredients in their products come from China?)

More importantly, I also listed all the ingredients that did not make the “nasties” list that was footnoted by their asterisk – marginally highlighting just how deceptive their campaign actually was.

Still fake news

I’ve waited a year to follow up on Petco’s progress toward its original goal. What I’ve found to be most troublesome all along is that Petco did not change their consumer-facing messaging, with the exception of the asterisk, after my initial criticisms.

What do I mean? Their original messaging was brief and concise: “Turning our back on artificial food.” Since then, the only difference has been that every time you see the term “artificial” in their advertising on shirts, banners, website, etc. (with the exception of their TV commercials), they have a prominent asterisk.

There is less fine print in car commercials where I know I will never qualify for 0% financing! How can a consumer seeing a shirt, banner or other advertising not tied to a computer know what the asterisk stands for and see all the fine print? In fact, on Petco’s website, it takes a while to drill down to the “asterisk” messaging, which can be found on betternutrition-ingredients.

The words behind the asterisk

On this ingredients page, you can finally see the fine print behind the asterisk, which reads in part:

*Artificial ingredients initially planned for removal are those Petco defines below as artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, determined by referencing guidelines provided by AAFCO and FDA. Substances that are derivatives or mimics of natural compounds are not included. In addition, substances that may fall into categories outside the Petco definition of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are not included at this time. While Petco reviews ingredient panels of our products in determining which products meet our nutrition standard definition, we cannot guarantee the absence of trace impurities from soil, water, air or the ingredient supply chain in any product. As Petco continues to evaluate and develop our nutrition standards with a focus on what is best for our customers’ pets, Petco reserves the right to re-evaluate these standards and to continue to refine ingredients.

The bolding is mine, highlighting the misleading, plausible denial, escape clause for why they did not deliver on the original promise in their November 2018 statement. In short, Petco is saying they are only removing artificial ingredients that they want to remove, not all of them. Some may question this nuance; however, within my “fake news” post, I did point out the irony of Petco’s using some of these artificial ingredients in their own house brand foods. Again, not that transparent.

Reaching out to National Advertising Division

In May 2019, I wrote another blog post discussing who keeps pet food marketing honest. When companies or, in this case Petco, make false or misleading claims, where is the accountability? After doing research, I found out the National Advertising Division (NAD) monitors national advertising in all U.S. media, enforcing high standards of truth and accuracy. Incidentally, NAD is part of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) which is “pay to play.”

Unfortunately, that means NAD is also pay to play when it comes to enforcement. That’s right, to keep companies (food companies, stores, etc.) honest, you must pay to be part of the organization to file a claim. Since I as an individual am considered a “non-national partner” with annual revenues of less than US$1 billion, I would have to pay US$20,000 to file a complaint. Such “non-national partners” also include small companies and independent stores.

However, NAD may decide to open an investigation themselves – and fortunately for the little guys, that’s what happened in the Petco case.

The outcome and aftermath

On April 22, 2020, NAD issued a press release about their investigation into Petco’s misleading claims, covering video advertising, internet advertising, in-store signage and the “better nutrition” linked landing page on Petco’s website. The 17-page case report concluded the following:

  1. Petco admitted its removal of products does not include “[s]ubstances that are derivatives or mimics of natural compounds” or those that “may fall into categories outside the Petco definition of artificial flavors and preservatives.” Because such statements directly contradict the unequivocal statements that Petco is removing “all” artificial ingredients or that there will be “no more artificials” in any dog food or treats, NAD recommended that such claims be modified.
  2. NAD determined that the claims “no more nasties” and “bye bye bad stuff” cannot be used because they cannot be considered puffery. This is because these claims describe the pet food being removed from Petco (but sold by its competitors) in language that clearly matters, but is deceptive, to consumers. Consumer preference evidence showed that dog and cat owners care and are concerned about artificial ingredients in dog and cat food and treats.
  3. NAD also noted that Petco did not submit evidence comparing the health benefits of dog or cat food containing artificial ingredients to those that do not have artificial ingredients (or their nutrition profiles), or that pet food containing these artificial ingredients is in fact “bad” for (or should not be consumed by) pets.
  4. Finally, NAD concluded that the evidence in the record was insufficient to provide a reasonable basis for the claims that, as a result of their initiative to remove artificial ingredients from their store shelves, Petco provides “better nutrition,” and recommended discontinuance of such claims.

What is the ‘new standard for nutrition’?

People take marketing claims seriously and make decisions based on what they believe is the truth. Although NAD did agree that Petco is “setting a bold new standard for nutrition,” we should ask, what is the new standard? Not believing store claims like people do not believe other pet food company marketing claims?

NAD will continue to evaluate and hold Petco accountable to their “new standard for nutrition” claim to make sure it is truly supported by a reasonable basis. From my standpoint, the truly disheartening thing is allowing marketing to violate your company’s advertising practices in your very own code of ethics and conduct, titled “Consumer’s First, Always.” (See below.)

Petco-ethics-ad-code

Petco’s “Code of Ethics and Conduct: Customer’s First, Always” section (page 9). l Courtesy of Petco,

Accessed May 20, 2020.