It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) released an advisory citing a potential link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets. While the FDA has since acknowledged that there is no clear evidence linking the two, and that DCM is indeed a scientifically complex, multifaceted disease, the impression of the suspected correlation has had far-reaching effects.

“Since DCM made headlines in 2018, it seems most companies changed their formulas to better meet the expectations of customers,” said Jason Ast, co-owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, N.C. “Most pet food companies have either added taurine to their existing formulas and/or added new ‘grain-in’ options to their offerings.”

Taurine supplementation, according to industry insiders, may reduce the risk of dogs developing DCM, which is why some pet food manufacturers have either added or increased the level of taurine in their products.

Nicole Cammack, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co., a pet store in Cheshire, Conn., saw the change as well.

“The DCM debacle accelerated the pace of formulation changes, and for the first time ever, we saw manufacturers pivot and try to market these changes as positives when they really weren’t,” Cammack said. “We saw many grain-free brands, particularly the 16 brands that were in the FDA chart [of brands that were most frequently cited in DCM cases reported to the FDA], at least add taurine. Others added grains, reduced legume content, potato content or otherwise completely reformulated.”

However, some brands added taurine to grain-free options before it was ever concluded whether or not DCM was caused by taurine deficiency, Cammack said.

“Turns out, taurine deficiency was not the cause of DCM, and the FDA went as far as to analyze several foods, and all of them had sufficient taurine,” Cammack added. “This is a classic case of reacting before knowing the full details of the situation. … What we ultimately learned was not only that taurine was not the issue, but that measuring taurine itself had a lot of unknowns, including that varying breeds have different requirements and thus differing taurine status. Now we have all these formulation changes in the marketplace, and we still largely have no idea what is going on with DCM. The most glaring concern that everyone seems to miss is that nearly all of these formulations are in the marketplace without ever being validated for nutritional adequacy or digestibility. In other words, it means that these foods could potentially cause the same, or more serious issues.”

Acana, manufactured by Champion Petfoods, is one of the brands that added taurine.

Jeff Johnston, senior vice president of research, innovation and product development for Champion Petfoods, which is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, explained that it was added to the food in 2018, but acknowledged that there is no proof connecting taurine levels and DCM.

“Champion has standards for the amount we require in our foods. While high levels of taurine naturally occur in many of the ingredients in our foods, including fish, meat and poultry, if our minimum standard is not met, we add more taurine to our recipes to ensure dogs who eat our foods are getting the complete nutrition they need,” Johnston said. “That said, data are currently inconclusive on whether there is a causal relationship between taurine levels in dog food and dilated cardiomyopathy. At Champion, we made the decision to add taurine to our food since some dogs may need it and it’s not harmful to dogs that don’t.”

On (and Off) the Shelf

These changes in formulations, no matter the brand, sparked different reactions among retailers.

“In the cases where companies cited DCM as the reason for making formula changes, I actually removed most of these from our shelf because there was no—and still isn’t—any scientific reason or rationale behind these formula changes,” Cammack said.

Ast didn’t pull any products, but over time has added to his pet food shelves.

“We didn’t rush to pull foods from our shelves after the FDA’s DCM statement,” Ast said. “Mostly because it was obvious that the research simply wasn’t sufficient to draw a conclusive opinion as to the root causes of DCM. … However, we have added some new grain-in options to ensure we had options for those customers who wanted to stay away from grain-free foods. Yes, there are customers who refuse to feed grain-free foods, and for those customers, we want to ensure we have ample options for them.”

Having options is why Champion Petfoods has received positive feedback from both pet owners and retailers, Johnston said.

“When recipe updates are nutrition and science based, like they are at Champion, retailers and pet lovers appreciate knowing pets are getting the best food possible—and that’s our goal at Champion,” Johnston said. “We make both premium grain-inclusive and grain-free foods so consumers can choose what is right for their pet’s unique needs. Retailers and pet lovers appreciate that Champion will continue to offer choices that help enhance pet health and that new products are based on new findings in pet nutrition, all making it easy to work in rotational feeding with options pet lovers can trust.”

Sometimes it’s the frequency of formulation changes—whatever the reason—that may give retailers pause.

“Certain brands seem to change ingredients a little too often, in my opinion,” Ast said. “This is obviously a red flag in my book, as well as many customers’. … Currently, we are considering removing two brands from our store, simply because they change their ingredients too often, or their pricing and/or bag sizes too often. I don’t enjoy ‘selling’ around third-party vendors and their production problems, so I’d rather remove them from our store than continue to explain these changes to our customers. Consistency matters.”

And let’s not forget the one who is actually eating the food. How do dogs feel about formulation changes?

“It’s not uncommon for dogs to turn their noses up when they notice a change in their food—and this has caused dog moms and dads to look for new food options,” Ast said. “While many dogs can swap foods with no worries, others have difficulties making the change. GI [gastrointestinal] upsets and picky eaters are the main negative results we see from food swaps.”

Formula changes, according to Cammack, actually happen more frequently than one might imagine.

“I would say that most brands do go though some evolution of their formulas at some point,” Cammack said. “However, the reality is that most companies make formulation changes all the time and most people in [the] industry are largely unaware. What many retailers and consumers don’t realize is that many times companies make these changes without notification. They don’t let the retailers know, and they certainly don’t advertise it to the consumer, which really just means companies are experimenting on our pets when they don’t fully validate the new formulations—no mater how slight.”

If retailers are planning to take stock of their inventory shelves, B.C. Henschen, a partner in Platinum Paws, a pet store and grooming salon in Carmel, Ind., and columnist for Pet Product News, has some advice: “I encourage you to look beyond the label when picking which products get your shelf space,” Henschen said in his column When to Remove a Product from Your Store’s Inventory. “Is the company truly transparent? Do you know where it’s made, how it’s made and why it’s made? That’s one of the favorite questions I ask sales representatives: Why is this food made? Does it bring something special to the market that’s not available in the hundreds of other foods out there?”

Champion Petfoods Addresses Retailer Concerns over Formulation Changes

Some retailers have expressed concerns about pet food manufacturers changing formulations in response to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s initial advisory about the potential link between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets. While the FDA has since acknowledged that there is no clear evidence linking the two, the impression has lingered.

Pet Product News (PPN) reached out to Jeff Johnston, senior vice president of research, innovation and product development for Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Champion Petfoods, to get his take.

Pet Product News: Some retailers have expressed concern over formulation changes related to the FDA reports, saying that such changes are based more on marketing than science. What is your response? How would you ease retailer concerns?

Jeff Johnston: Champion’s formulations are, and have always been, science based. We have a team of pet nutrition experts to ensure any updates made to our recipes or any product introductions are done because the science is there and warrants it.

One of the many advantages about our Acana and Orijen foods and treats is that there’s a great variety for pet lovers to choose from, so whether they are looking for a grain-free or grain-inclusive option, we have what they need. What drives our innovation is that pets need variety in their foods, just like humans. We encourage pet lovers to practice rotational feeding, so pets get nutrients from a wide range of ingredient sources to support overall health, which is why we offer choice and variety using recipes that are science based.

The last update from the FDA about DCM brought more understanding to the issue, indicating that multiple factors can cause the disease, including breed, genetics, pre-existing health conditions, digestive issues and nutrition. In fact, the FDA has found no evidence that any specific pet food products are definitively linked to causing DCM. If they had found this to be the case, they would have been required by law to pull those products off the market, and they have not done so.

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