Pet food consumer advocates or fearmongers: you decide!

Are pet food consumer advocates really looking out for the best interests of pet owners and their pets, or are they simply fearmongers in disguise?

Ryan Yamka Headshot
Courtesy of Jim Galovski, co-founder of Guardian Pet Food Co.
Courtesy of Jim Galovski, co-founder of Guardian Pet Food Co.

What is a fearmonger? Fearmongers utilize scare tactics, fear and exaggeration to influence people into believing things and behaving a certain way (e.g., manipulation). For example, how many times have we heard the rumor that some pet foods may include rendered dead cats and dogs from animal shelters and veterinary clinics? These rumors typically resurface when products are recalled because of pentobarbital contamination; however, there is never any scientific data to back it up. Even investigated this urban legend and found no support for the claims.

Another fearmonger tactic is stating that “human grade” food is safer than traditional pet food. This was clearly proven to be another inaccurate statement in some recent recalls (Just Food For Dogs and Steve’s Real Food).

Bashing advocate agencies and individuals

Other tactics used by fearmongers include the bashing of state and federal regulatory agencies. How many times have you heard, “No one regulates pet food”? As we in the industry all know, pet food is among the most highly regulated of all food categories in the US, including human foods. All pet foods must meet the strict standards set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture and state regulators. In general, most recalls that occur in the pet food industry are before any pet becomes ill (with some exceptions).

Sometimes fearmongers will even take it further by attacking individual people within the agencies. This tactic is typically used to further incite consumers to act based on the fearmonger’s personal vendetta. Unfortunately, both of these tactics are the most detrimental since people begin to fear and mistrust the advocate agencies that are there to protect them. As a result, the consumer may disavow all government agencies and become reluctant to report issues to FDA — thus fueling the fearmonger’s agenda.

What is consumer advocacy?

Consumer advocacy is a term utilized by organizations and individuals that emphasize transparency and regulations in the best interests of the buyers, not the sellers or manufacturers. In the pet food industry, advocacy groups or individuals aim at transparency and regulations in food safety (ingredients, manufacturing and finished goods) and preventing deceptive advertising.

Organizational consumer advocacy: advertising

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an independent agency within the US government and has authority over packaging and advertising (e.g., social media, TV, print, etc.) to prevent deceptive marketing and claims, including within the pet food industry. For an example, see FTC vs. Mars Petcare (Eukanuba)

Additionally, there are advertising agency self-regulation organizations such as the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (NAD) and National Advertising Review Board (NARB). When companies believe that a competitor is utilizing deceptive claims against their own product, they will often file a complaint with NAD. If the defendant disagrees with the decision set forth by NAD, then they will go before NARB, which is the appellate body for advertising industry self-regulation (see Blue Buffalo vs. Hill's Pet Nutrition). If the defendant again disagrees, it could be sent to FTC for enforcement. To date, I am unaware of any pet food companies ignoring the recommendations of both NAD and NARB.

Organizational consumer advocacy: food safety

FDA is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the pet food industry, FDA is responsible for and enforces food safety for both pet and human health (raw materials, good manufacturing practices and finished goods). These are clearly demonstrated in the recent recalls for OC Raw Dog LLC, Vital Essentials and J.M. Smucker. For situations like that with Arrow Reliance Inc., makers of Darwin’s Natural Selections and Darwin’s Zoologics, failure to remedy and correct manufacturing practices after numerous recalls will result in an FDA warning letter with 15 days to respond and comply.

Individual consumer advocates

Similar to organizational consumer advocacy groups, individual consumer advocates should be free from any types of commercial influence, including and not limited to advertising, corporate or government funding, nor participate in any form of commercial sponsorship or endorsements. Said differently, a consumer advocate should be non-biased and should not support or profit from promoting any foods in the pet food industry.

Their funding should come from private individuals (consumers) and be in the best interest of the consumer, not the individual or organization itself. Additionally, they should be forthcoming and transparent in how the funding they receive is utilized to help support the consumer. They should help educate the consumer on the process for reporting issues and the proper agencies to contact. Lastly, they should be truthful with all their activities and not be swayed by rumors.

What is the difference between a consumer advocate and a fearmonger?

The answer is rather simple and can be found by asking the following questions:

  1. Are the individuals or the organization trying to tear down agencies that are there to protect the consumer?
  2. Are they selling lists of “approved” pet foods?
  3. Are they deeply involved in pushing, advocating or selling their “better” brands?
  4. Is there a lack of transparency in what the donations to their agency are funding? 
  5. Do they tend to exaggerate and play on emotions to get their point(s) across?
  6. Are they self-serving vs. protecting and educating the consumer?
  7. Do they let their ego(s) get in the way of helping advocate for the consumer?

If you answered yes to the questions above, you found a fearmonger.

In summary

Reaching out to consumer advocates and reviewing their websites are great ways to check on the pulse of the industry and help fulfill consumer needs (e.g., Dog Food Advisor, Little Big Cat and Poisoned Pets). Additionally, consumer advocates will educate consumers on how to report issues and to which agency — and not encourage fearing or mistrusting these agencies.

Lastly, they can also be a source of positive influence. Has any company ever thought about bringing a consumer advocate on a plant tour and educating them on the manufacturing of your products? The education and transparency should be a two-way street.

Got topics?

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