It’s not uncommon to hear pet food industry experts and professionals in related fields lament the lack of understanding – or even acknowledgement of – the science behind pet nutrition and pet food. “If only we could make consumers (and others) aware of the science and get them to accept it, rather than believing all those myths and misinformation they read on the internet,” the narrative goes. (Yes, I’m guilty of espousing it, too; and we now have a blog on our website by Ryan Yamka, PhD, specifically focused on that concept.)
“Information needs to be science based, not based on perception, marketing or other things,” said Daniel McChesney, PhD, director of the office of surveillance and compliance for the Center for Veterinary Medicine, part of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That was his response to a question – “What do you most want consumers to know?” – posed to a panel of regulatory experts during the Purina Beyond the Bowl Symposium for media in mid-September 2017.
Other people made similar statements during the symposium, just as experts have been doing at industry events for several years now. While I agree with them, the problem with that line of thinking is that in today’s culture and environment, a growing number of people seem to not believe scientific information or to not trust it or the people and organizations releasing it. That seems to definitely be the case with pet food and nutrition.
Building a bridge to science: the by-products example
One expert recommends building a bridge to the science for pet owners. “I'm a scientist, I would have said the same thing 10 years ago,” said Cathy Enright, PhD, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute and another member of the regulatory panel, in response to McChesney’s statement. But because consumers today don't trust institutions and science, she explained, the industry also needs to communicate its passion for helping pets and reasons beyond science for how pet food is made, ingredients are chosen and similar issues.
“I agree that science is the base, but the industry needs to do a much better job of explaining its values and reasons for using specific ingredients (e.g., by-products) or not using some (grass-fed beef) – for example, for sustainability reasons,” Enright said. “That's the bridge to the science story.”
The industry’s goal shouldn’t necessarily be to change people’s minds, she added; rather, the goal should be to provide better information and education to try and open minds to information other than what is available on the internet. For instance: “We can’t change the name on by-products,” Enright said. “That ship has sailed; critics would accuse the industry of trying to hide something.” So we need to better communicate about by-products, not only what exactly they are (and what they are not: roadkill, downed or deceased animals) but also how they are highly nutritious, bioavailable and palatable for pets, while also being very sustainable.
“This is all defined in the Official Publication (OP) from AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials], but that needs to be more available and accessible,” McChesney added.
Figure out how to simplify the complex
To McChesney’s point, for some people, a distrust of science may stem from feeling overwhelmed by something complicated. “The science of food is very complex. It’s hard to process all the information that’s out there, let alone distill and interpret the latest science,” said Trace Sheehan, producer and writer of “Food Evolution,” a documentary released earlier this year about GMOs and the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. “When something is complex, we as people tend to substitute simple questions for complex ones, and that’s what I feel is happening in this [GMO] debate.”
I believe you could apply that analogy to many of the debates and beliefs about pet nutrition. The science behind it often isn’t available or accessible to the average consumer; most definitely wouldn’t buy the OP or feel comfortable trying to decipher its terms to better understand specific pet food ingredients. (To wit: “Maltrodextrin: a purified concentrated aqueous solution of nutritive saccharides, or dried product derived from said solution, derived from starch having a dextrose equivalent of less than 20.”)
To be fair, AAFCO has a website aimed at consumers, AAFCO Talks Pet Food, but the organization acknowledges it needs to be updated, and that tends to be a lengthy endeavor. (AAFCO just formed a committee to look into it; based on history, they will not move very quickly.)
Some experts believe veterinarians can help provide another bridge to the science for pet owners. The most common question vets get are about nutrition and behavior, said Kurt Venator, DVM, PhD, Purina’s chief veterinary officer and a practicing vet in upstate New York, USA. As such, they often have to dispel myths on the internet by providing nutrition facts and science, which he believes they are more willing and able to do today. “I think the pendulum is swinging to where vets are educating themselves more, seeing this as part of their job.”
Advice from another industry: choose your battles
Finally, perhaps the pet food industry can look to other industries for similar situations and solutions. For example, in the poultry and egg industries, producers, restauranteurs and other providers are having to deal increasingly with consumer demands related to animal welfare – whether or not those demands are based on science. In many cases, companies need to consider not only the science but also the optics of their practices, says Terrence O’Keefe, editor of Egg Industry magazine and content director for WATT Global Media. (Full disclosure: WATT is Petfood Industry’s parent company, and O’Keefe is my colleague and boss.)
His advice? Choose the “hill you really need to defend,” the one issue in a debate that is most crucial to the animals’ well-being and, at least in the long run, best for consumers and the industry. Avoid fighting battles over less significant issues, especially if those battles will damage your credibility with consumers.