Aside from the broader and longer trend of natural, it’s hard to recall a bigger pet food success story than grain free. In the quest to innovate, differentiate and offer the most healthful options, pet food marketers have incorporated one novel ingredient after another into their recipes while limiting or replacing ordinary but time-tested ones. Grain-free pet food epitomizes that trend.
Starting around 2010, and in sync with other pet food trends including high protein, low carb, gluten free and Paleo, grain-free diets have racked up billions of dollars in retail sales and kept the superpremium pet food trend humming along. This stellar performance is based in no small part on the trendy marketing strategy and consumer premise that the dogs and cats of today have the same nutritional needs as their carnivorous ancestors of yore. Concomitant was the casting of traditional grains such as corn and wheat as unnecessary/to be avoided, if not outright detrimental to pet health—a rejection fueled by concerns that grains such as corn and wheat lead to allergies, skin and coat issues, and digestive upset. Complex issues and interactions were at work, nutritional science remains a work in progress, and grain free has been significantly propelled by positive consumer word-of-mouth, generating crosscurrents rather than any clear path.
In July 2018, the scene shifted with the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s release of an advisory warning of possible links between grain-free pet food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a serious and possibly lethal heart condition. More specifically, and perhaps more accurately, the FDA investigation focuses on certain ingredients that figure more prominently in some pet food products labeled as grain free, including pulses, a subset of legumes such as peas or lentils, other legume seeds and potatoes. Since then, the FDA has released two additional reports, the most recent on June 27 singling out from the broad spectrum of brands large and small under review the top 16—those with 10 or more associations—possibly linked to 119 canine deaths and five feline deaths across the 524 reports of DCM registered between Jan. 1, 2014, and April 30, 2019. At the same time, all three FDA advisories note that the issue is complex and likely the result of multiple factors, and that no dietary causative link has been proven at this stage of the investigation.
Understandably, the consumer media has picked up on the FDA advisories, reiterating the findings under at times sensational headlines such as "After FDA warning about grain-free pet food, what’s safe to feed our pets?," from ABC News on July 8 and "Dogs In Danger? 16 Brands Of Dog Food Could Cause Heart Disease, FDA Warns," from International Business Times on June 30. Meanwhile, the pet food industry reaction has varied widely at the manufacturer, marketer, retailer and ingredient supplier levels, with some saying as little as possible until further notice and others opting for as much transparency and providing of information as possible. Heading up the industry’s public relations response, the Pet Food Institute (PFI) has put up a web page addressing questions and emphasizing the absence of any definitive dietary causative link. Like the FDA, the PFI and a number of pet food manufacturers are also advising concerned pet owners to reach out to veterinarians.
As far as pet food sales go, that last part gives pause. Though often (and often rightly) criticized by pet food makers for minimal interest in nutrition, mainstream veterinarians are not, by and large, fans of grain-free formulas, leaning instead toward tried-and-true (read: grain-based) large-batch formulas backed by AAFCO-approved feeding trials across all life stages. With the FDA advisories, some veterinarians have adopted a decidedly "anti" stance. In its "Cardiology Service Nutritional Statement 2019," the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital recommends:
• If your dog does not have a medical condition requiring alterations in specific dietary ingredients, we recommend the owner feed a diet made by a well-established manufacturer that contains standard ingredients (e.g. chicken, beef, rice, corn and wheat).
• If your dog has been diagnosed with DCM and is eating a diet with non-standard ingredients, we recommend changing the diet as above and measuring whole blood and plasma taurine levels.
• If your dog does have a medical condition that requires a non-standard diet, we suggest a diet made by a well-established manufacturer that has undergone extensive Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trials.
In addition, the pet food industry has moved well beyond public relations in its multipronged effort to protect pets and business alike. Although most such activity is taking place behind the scenes, some pet food companies are reformulating grain-free products to reduce the amount of legume seeds until the DCM issue is resolved, while others are considering other starch sources, including grains. At the same time, many grain-free pet food makers are adding or increasing the level of taurine in their diets.
Even before the first FDA advisory on DCM, sales growth of grain-free pet food, while still well above the overall market average, had begun to moderate, due in part to market saturation and in part to the expansion of lower-priced options in mass channels and online. Also taking a little wind out of the sail is Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2018 State of Pet Health Report findings that food allergies, which grain-free pet foods are often claimed to help alleviate, are practically nonexistent in pets (affecting 0.2 percent of dogs and 0.1 percent of cats). Perhaps even more significantly, all along, a vocal chorus from within the veterinary community and even the pet food industry itself has pointed out that there is no scientific basis for the claim that grain-free pet food is nutritionally superior to its grain-based cousins. If anything, grain free makes better sense for cats, which are more purely carnivores but have been lower priority, with most of the market emphasis on dogs.
Meanwhile, the debate goes on. Grain-free pet food defenders cite the fact that millions of dogs have been eating grain-free pet food for years with no ill effect. Critics say the possibility of even one easily preventable pet death is unacceptable. The industry rightly points out that, with so much still unknown, it is unfair to characterize grain-free pet food as a whole, or single out certain ingredients, as unsafe. Critics want to know why, if the industry is unable to state categorically that certain products and/or ingredients are in no way at fault, they remain on the market pending further investigation.
Looking ahead, it could turn out that there is in fact no simple causative dietary link between grain-free pet food ingredients and DCM. This would be very good news indeed. But even if grain-free pet food and pulses are exonerated, the current state of affairs is a cautionary tale if ever there was one. Leading up to grain free, pet food (and treat) makers folded into their recipes any number of novel ingredients with good results, the thinking commonly being that if an ingredient is OK for humans and GRAS (generally recognized as safe), it’s fair game. But virtually overnight, grain-free pet food took the trend to a whole new level, spurring the biggest pet food formulation shift ever—and here we are.
Although grain-free pet food in one form or another is almost certainly here to stay, now might be the time for the industry to think more broadly about what constitutes superpremium, investing more robustly in environmental, social, and ethical issues such as sustainable, locally grown, fair trade and animal welfare. Given the pet market’s deeply rooted role in human and animal well-being, no other consumer goods category is better suited to lead.