Are Retailers Standing By Grain-Free Dog Foods During the FDA’s Investigation?

When the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced its investigation into the potential link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets in July 2018, the industry could not predict just how it would impact business. After the FDA released another report in June 2019—in which the agency revealed the pet food brand names associated with the DCM cases reported—the industry got its answer.

Industry insiders report that concerned customers are inundating them with questions about grain-free diets and that sales of these foods have taken a hit. Still, many remain optimistic that this segment will continue to hold its own in the overall dog food market.

At Paws, a pet store in Redlands, Calif., president and owner Stephen Lehmann said the store has been swamped with customer questions.

Lehmann estimates that about 75 percent of customers who have come in with concerns about DCM have ended up sticking with the grain-free brands they had been using. Another 15 percent were open to reaching a better understanding of the issue, but still switched just to be safe, he noted.

"The remaining 10 percent of customers who voiced a concern about the foods and DCM came into the store with their mind made up after reading the FDA report, and they requested that we change their pets’ food to another brand, regardless of any facts or evidence we could present," Lehmann said.

Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash on Life, a pet store in Albuquerque, N.M., said sales of grain-free diets have "plummeted" since the FDA’s announcements, with grain-free dry foods taking the biggest hit.

"Many reputable grain-free brands are down 10-40 percent year-over-year," Shrout said.

Retailers are not the only ones reporting loss of grain-free food sales. Manufacturers are also noticing a downward sales trend.

The Honest Kitchen, a San Diego-based pet food manufacturer, is seeing sales of grain-free diets declining in specific regions where local veterinarians appear to be capitalizing on the FDA’s investigation by convincing dog owners that grain-inclusive diets prevent DCM, said founder and chief integrity officer Lucy Postins.

"This is obviously amazingly challenging for retailers to combat," she said.

Overall, Postins said independent channel sales remain strong across The Honest Kitchen’s product line, but growth is "not quite as robust" for its grain-free diets in comparison with its whole-grain diets.

Merrick Pet Care, a Hereford, Texas-based pet food manufacturer, reports similar trends. Jilliann Smith, director of communications for the company, said grain-free diets were the main driver of the pet specialty channel’s growth in recent years. However, Merrick Grain Free diets’ gains are slowing down, with momentum increasing behind the grain-inclusive Merrick Classic line, she said.

"We’ve received calls and emails from pet parents who are just confused and, like us, are looking for answers," Smith said.

Smith said many customers go grain free because of higher protein levels, and customers often report that their dogs have more energy or shinier coats when switching to a Merrick Grain Free recipe.

Most of the customers at Paws who choose grain-free diets do so because of food sensitivities, although some were steered to grain-free diets following the 2007 melamine recalls.

"Initially, grain-free diets were used as an elimination diet, to avoid allergens and allow an immune system under siege by food to calm down and attain a sort of equilibrium," Lehmann said.

For years, dogs thrived on grain-free diets, insiders noted, and despite growing concerns from consumers and the impact on sales, some retailers are not yet ready to dismiss the category overall.

"We remain optimistic," Shrout said. "Conversely, we are not in denial about the preliminary data. There could be some complicated physiological relationship between nutrition and DCM, but, in fairness, we must patiently wait for the science. Prudence, not panic, should be the primary action preceding actual facts."

Lehmann is also reserving judgment on the matter.

"This issue is in danger of becoming an ‘eggs are good for you, eggs are bad for you’ scenario," he said. "It illustrates what happens when you go to press with the most limited information to base your decisions on."

Postins said the FDA’s mid-investigation sharing of theories is premature and could lead to skewed data collection and bias in voluntary reporting. She pointed out that in other species, like humans, DCM can be caused by certain medications and toxins.

"It could be argued that there would have been a rather different way to run the study in order to take a more balanced and legitimate look at what could be going on," she said.

Investigators should look at the full picture of each diagnosed case of canine DCM, Postins said. In addition to examining the dogs’ diets, they should consider variables such as genetics, medications, vaccines, and flea, tick and heartworm preventatives.

"It might be possible to obtain more valuable data by going to each board-certified cardiologist in the country and obtaining the case notes of every diagnosed, confirmed case of DCM from, say, the past five years," she said.

Postins said the mainstream media has oversimplified DCM, in some cases misinterpreting or misrepresenting the facts before there is adequate scientifically validated information available.

"We are already hearing many reports of customers who were scared into switching to a grain-inclusive prescription diet due to mainstream media misreported or vet-practice email blasts now returning to the store with their dog sufferance from itching, hot spots, and GI upset such as gas and loose stools," she said. "They go back to a higher-quality, grain-free recipe, and the problems resolve once again."

Shrout noted that grain-free dog food is a very diverse category, with nutrient levels that vary widely and formats that range from raw to kibble to freeze-dried and beyond.

"It is implausible to classify all types together as a single entity, and then conveniently label them as ‘suspect diets’ that cause DCM," Shrout said. "… Without conclusive scientific evidence, it is statistically unimaginable—and many experts say ‘just plain foolish’—to lump these together as the sole cause of the recent cases of DCM."

On the Market

What’s New and Product Updates

Though the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) investigation of how certain diets, particularly grain-free pet foods, might be linked to canine heart disease has impacted sales of these diets, manufacturers are still innovating and making changes to existing products in the space.

In early 2019, The Honest Kitchen debuted its grain-free Whole Food Clusters, which the company calls "food too good to be called kibble."

The human-grade food "has really turned the world of dry pet food on its head," said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of the San Diego-based company.

Whole Food Clusters are made in the USA using a process that combines light roasting or toasting with dehydration. They are available in chicken, beef and turkey recipes that contain no byproducts, artificial preservatives, corn, wheat, soy or genetically modified organism ingredients.

Merrick Pet Care recently updated its Grain Free rabbit and venison recipes by removing chickpeas and adding sweet potatoes. Jilliann Smith, director of communications at the Hereford, Texas-based company, said these changes bring more consistency to the ingredients across the Merrick Grain Free line.

Merrick has also renamed one of its Grain Free recipes. The product formerly known as Merrick Grain Free Buffalo, Beef + Sweet Potato is now Merrick Grain Free Bison, Beef + Sweet Potato.

"We took this action to help clarify that we’ve always sourced bison, which is native to North America, while buffalo is typically native to Africa and Asia," Smith explained.

Consumer & Retailer Education

Food for Thought

Following the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) June 2019 update on its investigation of reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as "grain free," industry insiders report that more concerned consumers are seeking answers to a slew of new questions about grain-free pet foods.

Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash on Life, a pet store in Albuquerque, N.M., said the No. 1 question his customers are asking is, "Does grain free cause DCM?," and the second question is, "Which grain-based dog food brands do you sell?"

"We’ve spoken with hundreds of customers regarding this topic," Shrout said. "… The misleading media frenzy purporting grain free as ‘killing dogs’ has many conscientious dog parents asking questions and seeking out whole-grain formulas."

Retailers are asking questions, too. Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer for The Honest Kitchen in San Diego, said the most pressing questions focus on how to properly address and counter misinformation about DCM.

The company educates pet owners and retailers alike through its website and blog, and retailers can take advantage of its retailer training portal and in-person trainings.

Merrick Pet Care in Hereford, Texas, offers similar resources that can help retailers educate their customers.

It is important for pet owners to understand that the FDA has not advised diet changes as of yet, said Jilliann Smith, Merrick’s director of communications.

"Many pet parents see that their dog is thriving on a Merrick diet and just want us to provide reassurance that they can continue to feed our food with confidence," she said. "We aim to be upfront and transparent with our pet parents by sharing what we know and what we’re doing as a company to better understand this complex topic."

Information needs to reach veterinarians as well, as some are advising clients against grain-free diets prematurely, according to Shrout.

"Sadly, many of these vets may have limited research time as well as access to the latest and most comprehensive information about DCM," he said. "… Our overall goal moving forward is to work with local veterinarians while offering a variety of grain-based options to keep our customers comfort level at a premium and keep them coming back."

Stephen Lehmann, president and owner of Paws, a pet store in Redlands, Calif., also prioritizes customer comfort and said consumers are unlikely to return if they don’t feel confident in the retailer or the products they sell.

"No matter what I say as the owner, or what my employees say, if the owner of the pet is not confident about the product they are buying, we encourage them to switch," Lehmann said. "… We try to educate our customers on the issue, but if they have lost confidence in a product, it is our job to help them find a brand that they feel comfortable with."

Product Development

Not Jumping to Conclusions

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) investigation into how canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) might be linked to grain-free pet foods has caused very real concerns industrywide, and pet food manufacturers have been vigilant with their response. Some have opted to offer grain-inclusive options for concerned consumers, while others are not letting it directly impact their product development plans just yet.

San Diego-based The Honest Kitchen is not jumping to change its product pipeline or development plans in reaction to the FDA investigation, said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer.

"It would be premature to make changes before all the information has been gathered and scientifically validated in a proper way," Postins said.

Postins said the company regards every pet as an individual and recognizes that a food that works for one dog might not work for another.

"We will continue our 17-year heritage of creating a spectrum of grain-inclusive and grain-free recipes for pets, with a diversity of whole food ingredients, so that there are choices for every pet parent, no matter what ingredient they might seek to include or avoid in their animal’s diet based on food sensitivities or other health factors," she said.

Merrick Pet Care in Hereford, Texas, has recently introduced some new grain-inclusive foods to its Limited Ingredient Diets line, but director of communications Jilliann Smith said using ingredients such as brown rice, barley and oatmeal is nothing new for the company.

"We’ve been using healthy grains in our Merrick Classic recipes for more than a decade," she said. "They are easy for dogs to digest, are an excellent source of energy, and offer a good balance of carbohydrates and fiber."

Most of Merrick’s Limited Ingredient Diet recipes are grain free, but the new additions are Salmon & Brown Rice and Chicken & Brown Rice. They are free of peas, chickpeas and lentils, which have been called into question by the FDA investigation when used as main ingredients.

Retailers are also waiting for more information before adjusting their stock. "As a store, we have not gotten rid of any foods from the FDA list, nor have we brought in a slew of alternative products as a reaction to the DCM revelation," said Stephen Lehmann, president and owner of Paws, a pet store in Redlands, Calif.