In Defense of Boutique Pet Foods

I found myself in bed, not wanting to go to work the other day. I’ve been going into the store almost every single day for 15 years with a smile on my face. I love what I do, I love our industry, I love our clients, and I love all the pets I get to interact with. So why am I now struggling to go in? 

As I lay there trying to unravel my feelings, I realized I’m tired of all the attacks on the boutique, exotic and grain-free pet diets I sell. Of course, this is nothing new. Most micro independent stores get opposition from the veterinarian community and "big pet food" manufacturers in regard to the super premium high-end foods we offer. It’s usually easy to counter the negatives that are spread around with education and current studies. Many veterinarians are using information and data from 30 years ago, so I actually love giving my customers new information and knowledge about the foods they are feeding their pets.

I suppose if we look deeply into the issue, I would have to put the blame on the internet. I love the internet, but there is a lot of misleading information at our fingertips because of marketing spin. An article in the journal Medical Economics in 1976 titled "Don’t Waste a Crisis—Your Patient’s or Your Own" explained that a medical crisis can be used to learn and improve situations related to the crisis. That title has been used a lot in politics lately, but it also applies to the pet food industry. We certainly know the pet food crisis of 2007 was used by the smaller manufacturers to explain co-packers and to get consumers to read labels. Advocates used the pet food crisis of 2007 to push for legislation and new pet food safety laws. A lot of good came out of that crisis. 

A few months ago, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning saying it is investigating a possible link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. This gave "big pet food" and "small pet food" another crisis. The warning spread through social media, and it seems every pet industry person who has a blog, a Facebook page, Twitter or an Instagram account put their spin on it. "Big pet food" was able to spin it into a more exciting headline such as "grain-free foods cause canine heart disease" and the "small pet food" guys were able to promote their raw, freeze-dried and fresh foods because the warning was specific to kibble only.

One of these industry bloggers wrote a piece linking the FDA study to "BEG diets" (boutique, exotic ingredients and grain free). That article had 180,000 views the first week. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is trying to spin this FDA warning into a piece that fits their outlook. If you love feeding a raw diet, it would be easy to use this notice as support. If you do not like grain-free diets, there’s your research to quote. The problem is nobody is quoting the right words. The FDA wrote, "At this time, it is not clear what it is about these diets that may be connected to DCM in dogs. Taurine deficiency is well-documented as a potential cause of DCM, but it is not the only cause of DCM. Nutritional makeup of the main ingredients or how dogs process them, main ingredient sourcing, processing, amount used, or other factors could be involved." 

I really don’t know what is going on with DCM, but the more we learn about how these ingredients work together and survive the manufacturing process, the better foods we get. If you look at all the grain-free diets that hit the market about 12 years ago, almost every one of them replaced the grains with potatoes. Look at the bags on your shelf now—very few are still using potatoes. There are many reasons for the switch from potatoes, but I believe manufacturers did not like what they were hearing and seeing from consumers. Further studies and evidence led them to look for low-glycemic alternatives to potatoes, and now our grain-free foods are loaded with legumes that are lower on the glycemic index. I believe the high-quality grain-free foods on the market today are much better than the high-quality grain-free foods we started with. 

This article isn’t really about DCM, grain-free diets or manufacturing. I’m happy to talk with my customers and lead them through that mess. I’m great at that, and I love doing it. This column is about the constant attacks on BEG diets. Customers often tell me how their veterinarian told them that the larger pet food companies have more knowledge and do more research than the boutique pet food companies. The big manufacturers love to market that they have full-time board-certified veterinary nutritionists on their payroll. If you read a lot of these blogs or follow the marketing pieces, it always appears they are trying to insinuate that BEG diets are formulated in somebody’s garage by people with no education in pet nutrition. 

That is not the case, and most of the pet foods you see on the shelves have had animal nutritionists involved with those products at some point. Some companies might not employ their own, rather they use an outside consulting firm comprising nutritionists, or they might rely on animal nutritionists employed by their co-packer. Even "small pet food" is big business, and that means there are investors, bankers and insurance agents looking at every angle of a product, and they want an animal nutritionist involved, even if it’s just for review. 

The website for Champion Petfoods, one of those BEG manufacturers, says it employs two full-time people with Ph.D.s in food science, a Ph.D. in animal nutrition and two companion animal nutritionists. 

I did not want a crisis to go to waste, so I used this opportunity to reach out to Christine Pendlebury, who is the health and nutrition manager for Champion Petfoods. Not only did I learn she is a real person, but I also had a great conversation about what she and her team do. Her team is involved with the formulation of the pet foods, but that is only one part of its activities. The nutritionists have to help with development of new products, continue research on existing products, and basically handle all the nutrition questions for the company whether they are from veterinarians, customers, retailers or some "micro independent" columnist. 

There is a very popular pet nutrition blogger who has told her readers to not read the ingredient list on pet foods, but I know better. I asked Pendlebury if she thought consumers should be reading the ingredient panel. Well, of course, she answered absolutely yes, and went on to talk with me about how it’s the easiest place to compare pet foods, but she mentioned that the ingredient panel is only a piece of the pet food puzzle. You really have to look further to assure you are getting the quality of product you are looking for. For example, pet food company A could be using wonderful free-range chicken, while pet food company B is using scraps from a chicken that has never seen the light of day. Both of those would have "chicken" listed on their ingredient panel. There is no way to compare quality of ingredients from the label. 

I want to thank Pendlebury for her time, which was really just for me to prove to the world she exists. I try to fight off burnout and depression by writing this column and talking to my peers, and I hope if you find yourself getting burned out, you do the same. Always feel free to reach out to me as well. We are selling the best products that are going to help pets live longer, healthier lives. 

B.C. Henschen is a well-known champion for pet owners who want the best in their pet’s food. He is the Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF) consumer advocate at Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), serving on the Pet Food Ingredient Definition Committee, and is a director with the World Pet Association (WPA). Henschen is a popular speaker at industry events and meetings. A certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, he is a partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf.