Are we entitled to know every single detail about a product we offer in our store? First, let’s look at the definition of entitlement: “the fact of having a right to something.” Do we have the right?
When I sell a product, I am a representative of the manufacturer. I need to have accurate information to answer a consumer’s questions. Many of those questions are the same ones I ask before bringing a brand to my shelf. Where is it made? Who formulates it? Where do you source your ingredients from? What are the safety protocols? Where is your third-party analysis? Do you do “test and hold”?
A few years ago, I asked a manufacturer all of these questions and he stopped me at one point and said, “We hope the consumer will trust we are doing the best for their pet and not concern themselves with the details.”
There are a couple of problems with that statement. The first problem is consumers do not trust manufacturers. After some pet foods were recalled in 2009 due to the death of many pets, consumers began to lose faith in pet food manufacturers. In the micro independent retail world, there is a distrust of manufacturers and an assumption that they will do whatever is cheapest. This isn’t just a micro independent issue though.
On the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) website, there is a statement to pet owners reading: “Nutrition on the Internet: most pet owners consider the ingredient list to be the most important factor in choosing a pet food. However, the ingredient list gives no information on the quality of the ingredients and can be very misleading on the overall quality of the food.”
So even WSAVA believes we should have a little mistrust of the manufacturers. On its website, the organization offers guidelines to selecting pet foods for consumers. Those guidelines recommend asking many of the same questions I ask a manufacturer.
Getting these questions answered can be difficult. It is much more involved than just asking your representative. Usually, the manufacturer’s representative does not have all the information needed to answer the questions. You will have to climb your way up the ladder to get to the right people with the answers. When you find the right people, it still may be a struggle to get the information. The blanket answer manufacturers like to hide behind is “That information is proprietary and cannot be released to the public.” That statement is just a way to try and get rid of us.
Years ago, I had a product line that I wanted to bring in that was co-packed, which means a contractor manufactured the line for them. I wanted to know who manufactured for them and was told it was proprietary information. In fact, the representative I was dealing with did not even know as it was kept secret from the sales staff. I loved the product line and wanted to carry it, so I got into investigative mode and figured out where it was made on my own. I was able to search the owners of the company and link them to a manufacturing facility. I took that information back to one of the presidents of the company, and since I had the information on my own, he confirmed it.
The reason provided for keeping the manufacturing facility proprietary was that as a small company, they were concerned a larger company would push them out of the facility. That is a very poor answer. If I was able to find the information, I’m pretty sure any manufacturer would be able to do the same. I was happy with the answers to the rest of my questions and with my own feeding trials, so I brought the product in. That’s where the micro independent must figure out where their line is. If you ask 12 questions and they answer 10 of them satisfactorily, but refuse to answer two of them because of proprietary reasons, are you still going to bring in the product?
Unfortunately, even if you get all the answers you were looking for and bring the product in, your investigation does not stop. Products change, sourcing changes, protocols change—and they should. We learn more about pet nutrition every single day, and hopefully the manufacturers are learning and making changes for the better. Sometimes changes are made because of growth. They must change the sourcing or put on another co-packer to keep up with demand.
I suggest keeping labels from products and dating them. From time to time, take out that older label and compare it to the label from the current product you get from the manufacturer. If you see changes, it will give you a reason to run through your list of questions with the manufacturer again. I also recommend asking the questions at the trade shows every year. Usually, the right people are at the big trade shows, so getting the answers is easier.
For micro independents, our right to the information we want is simple—if a manufacturer would like products sold in our stores, we have a right to the information we deem important.
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, and is a past 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.