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Dishing on Pet Food

Melissa Brookshire, DVM, has years of expertise in consumer relations issues impacting the pet food industry. Founder of North River Enterprises, Brookshire and her veterinary team provide customized consumer support solutions. She writes on timely industry topics impacting consumer relations.

Pet Food Market Trends / Pet Food Labeling
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Gaining regulatory approval to use new ingredients in pet foods is a crucial underpinning to many pet food companies’ business models. l Bigstock.com

Marketing claims for the natural pet food category

February 1, 2016

As growth continues in the natural and superpremium pet food space, the field at various price points gets more and more crowded, and differentiating a brand is a challenge that invites undue risk in the realm of marketing claims.

In addition, US state regulatory officials continue to surprise with various denials of particular language. Have you ever experienced complete success in registering your products with the exception of a single state? This seems to be happening more and more frequently in my experience.

Denial letters for a tagline or marketing claim are frustrating, time consuming and expensive to deal with. Anyone with printed packaging knows the expense associated with making a change. And this expense is difficult to justify when a single state objects to language, particularly when it appears across an entire line or brand. While many states invite the “pre-launch” submission of artwork, it is impractical to submit packaging to all states, with the hope of catching any potential objections prior to printing. Time constraints around product launches usually do not allow for this.

So what is the solution? If I stopped here and said there isn’t one, that would not be helpful, would it? Or if I said that it was best to use the most generic language and make no claims except the same exact ones that have been in use for the past 20 years, that wouldn’t be very interesting to read about.

Instead, first consider the broad terms that either are well defined or simply not allowed. “Natural” is one of those terms. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines provide a precise regulation surrounding the use of natural claims made on pet food packaging. Remember that treats require the same adherence to these guidelines. That being said, it is important to understand that class action litigation is occurring on a regular basis in the human food industry as well as the pet food industry surrounding natural claims. So even if you are in complete compliance with AAFCO guidelines, this does not mean you are protected from potential litigation.

Other terminology that is floating around, not well-defined, but commonly denied includes GMO claims, carbohydrate claims and glycemic index claims. I expect we will see further guidance for these claims in the future, but for now it is important to understand that “GMO Free” is not defined in the pet food space; using a service such as the Non GMO Project Verified program and emblem might be the best approach to achieving a claim. AAFCO currently has a carbohydrate working group to develop guidelines for low carbohydrate claims. While nothing has been published, some of the guidelines being discussed include requiring a zero nitrogen free extract (NFE) to qualify for “low carbohydrate” claims. Finally, glycemic index is not defined for pets and has been discussed in several blogs and articles on this site.

“Made in the USA” claims are regulated in the US by the Federal Trade Commission. If you choose to add Made in the USA claims to your packaging, you need to have documentation that not only are your products manufactured in the US, but all or virtually all of your ingredients must also be US sourced. So, products with proteins listed as the number one ingredient that are imported from outside the US do not comply with the Made in USA guidelines. Litigation in this realm is also popping up and will be something to watch in the future.

Managing marketing claims on pet food packaging and in other marketing materials (websites, brochures, social media, etc.) in the US is becoming more and more complicated. In the past, it has been enough to simply comply with AAFCO guidelines, state model bills and Food and Drug Administration regulations. Now it is important to consider the risk from a class action lawsuit as well. As frustrating as this is, it is the reality in which pet food now resides.

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