For most pet foods there’s lots of charm but little truth in advertising

Posted by
June 26, 2012

Of all the cases of food identity theft in the supermarket, some of the most deceptive and easy to find are located in the pet-food aisle.

The advertising and marketing of pet food is big business, and since most brands contain basically the same ingredients – corn, soy and a variety of by-products –  they are marketed using romantic stories, sham chefs, pretty pictures of vegetables and, of course, adorable dogs and cats. But as many consumers found out during the widespread recall of melamine-poisoned pet food in 2007, a significant number of brand-name foods, such as Nutro, Alpo, Science Diet, and Iams were all actually being produced (at least at the time) by one private-label Canadian company, Menu Foods.

As Marion Nestle noted in her book Pet Food Politics, “To make the different brands, Menu Foods used 1,300 different recipes, all formulated to AAFCO (more on that in a minute) specifications. Such recipes may differ in proportions of ingredients, but the basic ingredients are much the same. So the recall produced this revelation: the contents of pet foods are much alike, and the most important difference between one brand and another is not nutrition; it is price.”

Part of the price, of course, is the cost of advertising. Purina, which dominates the pet food market, does some of the biggest and slickest ad campaigns, such as its commercials for Chef Michael’s Canine Creations.  If we are to believe these ads, a professional chef with a beautiful home and an adorable dog uses his cooking skills to create this “chef-inspired” nutritious dog food.

“My name is Chef Michael,” says this faceless fellow, “and when I come home from my restaurant, I love showing Bailey how special she is.”

Sounds like this “Chef Michael” can’t wait to get home from his chef job to cook up one of his delicious culinary creations for his best friend. If that’s the case, his restaurant must serve entrees made from meat-by-products, soy flour and corn gluten meal – all found in Canine Creations.

But apparently, Chef Michael is merely a figment of the marketing minds at Purina (or its ad agency), as Susan Thixton, who runs a site called truthaboutpetfood.com, found out.  Writing to the company about his identity, she received this reply: “Please know that Chef Michael is not a real person, but a reflection of the many people inspired to make mealtime special for their dogs.”

Same stuff, different names

Another Purina brand, Beneful, takes the prize for great marketing and beautiful packaging showing giant pieces of veggies and meat, and offering several subcategories of the Beneful brand, such as “Playful Life,” “Healthy Radiance,” “Healthy Fiesta” and “IncrediBites.”

While there are some differences in the formulations, the first five ingredients on all are the same, starting out with ground yellow corn and chicken-by-product meal. The Beneful line also features a popular pet food ingredient called “animal digest,” officially described to be the “chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis” of “undecomposed animal tissue” with no specification of what animal the tissue may have originated from. That wouldn’t look too good on the packaging now, would it?

One of the Beneful selections is described as being “accented with vitamin-rich vegetables” (found in the ingredient listing down under the the animal digest and preservative) and also as having “six distinct pieces that represent real, wholesome ingredients.” I guess that’s an upgrade from regular, or perhaps, original Beneful, which only contains six “food-shaped pieces.”

Probably all of the pet food you’ll find contains the reassuring statement that it’s “complete and balanced nutrition,” but what does that mean, exactly?

The “complete nutrition” statement comes from an organization you’ve probably never heard of that has the biggest influence and impact on the United States pet food industry, AAFCO, which stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

Although it’s a voluntary agency and has no authority to regulate, nor does it test, approve or certify pet food, most states adopt its rulings and regulations into law.

One of AAFCO’s main duties is to create ingredient definitions and nutritional guidelines – for which pet foods must meet at least the minimum standards.  And as we’ve seen with the corn refiners’ failed attempt to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar,” there’s a lot of benefit in having a ‘cleaner’ name for an ingredient. The rendering industry, for example, has been unsuccessfully attempting to ‘clean up’ the “by-products” name for some time now, asking AAFCO to change “poultry by-product meal” to the nicer-sounding “poultry protein meal.”

Pet food advertising and marketing has gotten a lot slicker than it was in the 1960s when consumers sang along with, “My dog’s better ’cause he eats Ken-L Ration.” But if you want to know what the product is made from, just like with “people food,” you need to pay attention to the ingredients, not the advertising hype – or be distracted by all those charming images on packages and in commercials.