Consumer demand and federal regulations are driving the trend toward more transparency and oversight in the sourcing of pet products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to its website, received roughly 5,000 reports of pet illnesses between 2007 and Sept. 30, 2014, with many thought to be related to the consumption of jerky treats. The reports were predominantly about dogs and included more than 1,000 canine deaths.
The need for reform in the pet product industry was clear, as was consumer demand for more transparency in the manufacturing of those products—particularly food—and the federal government responded. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law. The FDA calls it the most sweeping change of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years, and it takes the proactive stance of preventing the contamination of human and pet foods, rather than reacting to contamination after it has happened.
Thus, from tragedy has come reform that covers many pet products, not just foods and treats.
“Responsible sourcing has been building as an issue for a long time,” says Samuel Cohen, vice president of marketing and sales for Healthy Pet of Ferndale, Wash., which takes a holistic approach to pet care and specializes in natural litter and bedding products. “Similar to demands for organic or natural foods and other products for people, the trend started slowly and picked up momentum after a few years.
“Some consumers have been focused on manufacturing standards and materials origins since the 1990s, while many pet owners really started paying attention after some of the big China-related recalls in the 2000s.”
Although it cannot pinpoint what caused the pet illnesses and deaths that spurred the recalls, the FDA believes they are linked to melamine, which has a number of industrial uses but is not approved for human or animal foods. An FDA investigation revealed that imported wheat gluten, which is sometimes used to thicken pet food gravy, was contaminated by melamine.
More recently, complaints received by the FDA involved chicken, duck and sweet potato jerky treats, tenders or strips, many of which also were imported. Given that, it is understandable why ingredient sourcing has become a concern among American pet owners.
“I do think it has leveled off some—but it hasn’t leveled off for me,” Mary Lewalski, category manager for pet products at Tops Markets of Williamsville, N.Y., says of public demand for sourcing transparency in pet products. “I’ve made it a policy that we do not buy or source anything that’s not made in the USA.”
Lewalski knows customers expect the products they buy from Tops to be safe. Although she says Tops has never had an incident in which someone’s pet was harmed by a product it carries, the supermarket chain simply won’t take that chance.
“I can say at this time there is nothing out there that could change my mind,” she says. “I don’t know if, someday, something will change, but I can say that today I’m not going to go there.”
On the other hand, some experts say that branding all manufacturers that source their products or ingredients overseas as bad guys because of the irresponsible actions of a few is not fair. “There are brilliant manufacturers that create very safe products in China [for example], just like there are in the U.S.—it’s a broad brush to apply,” says Fritz Goodnow, COO and partner at Rush Direct of Wood Dale, Ill., which manufactures chewy bones, treats, stainless steel food dishes and other pet products. “At the moment, consumers are very concerned about China because a lot of these problems have originated there.”
Carolyn Kennedy, owner of the consultancy CK Nutrition in Exeter, N.H., called the branding of Chinese manufacturers as bad guys “a generalization in the worst way.
“There are some very well-known pet food brands that have manufacturing plants in China, and I’m sure they follow very high quality standards,” Kennedy says. “It’s just about knowing where your products are coming from, I think, and having trust in that relationship.”
Of course, China isn’t the only foreign country from which U.S. manufacturers import products for pet foods. “I would say that it’s not just one country to be concerned about,” Goodnow says. “So, if you were to say that you were just not bringing in products from somewhere in Asia, you wouldn’t be doing a responsible job of sourcing. The responsibility of sourcing covers every bit of your product sourcing and your manufacturing environment.
“If you are making products sourced in the U.S., you still have a responsibility to make sure those products are made from the right types of ingredients.”
The importance of responsible sourcing is not lost on Nestlé Purina. “Responsible ingredient sourcing is a key focus area for Nestlé Purina,” Diane Herndon, the manufacturer’s manager in charge of sustainability, said in a statement issued by the company. “We’re focused on ensuring that our raw materials are produced responsibly – and it starts by working closely with our suppliers and others to better understand our supply chain, identify the issues and opportunities that matter most and improve our performance over time.
“Because each supply chain has its own characteristics and issues, across Nestlé and Nestlé Purina, we’ve implemented material-specific requirements consolidated in our Nestlé Responsible Sourcing Guidelines to help our suppliers improve their practices, where necessary, and ensure they meet international standards and Nestle policies.”
The statement also notes that the company is involved in the implementation of responsible sourcing guidelines for soy, and that the company has formed partnerships with non-governmental organizations to track the supply chain in Brazil, Argentina, Europe and the U.S.
Bolstering that effort are new tools given to the FDA by the Food Safety Modernization Act. Importers must now verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate prevention controls in place. The FDA has the authority to accredit third-party auditors who can certify that foreign food facilities are in compliance with U.S. safety standards.
The legislation also authorizes the FDA to deny entry into the U.S. of food from any foreign facility where the FDA or an accredited third party is denied access by either the facility or the country where it is located.
Beyond Food Safety
Cohen points out that while the responsible sourcing efforts are most prevalent in foods, other areas of the pet product industry are catching up quickly. “Consumers are concerned not only about the safety of products, but also the environmental and human-rights impacts as well,” he notes. “Similar to the growth of fair-trade products for people, there is a growing interest in natural rather than crude-oil derived textiles and packaging materials.
“Consumers are looking for litter and bedding products that are made from renewable and biodegradable materials without added chemicals.”
Given that, how do manufacturers deliver their responsible sourcing messages to the public? Consumers often make instantaneous decisions on what to buy, so the safety message must be clear and prominent. However, many consumers want even more information. They want to be able to go to the manufacturer’s website, learn about the products, and be able to decide for themselves what is safe.
That means the manufacturer must make lots of information available to satisfy the savvy consumer. And what terms are likely to resonate with that consumer?
“The buzzwords that are important, some of them are overused,” says Rush Direct’s Goodnow, who points out that “natural” is a term that is not as regulated as “organic,” where certain USDA rules must be applied. There are also certain guidelines that must be followed when labeling products as “Made in the USA,” he points out.
According to Kennedy, “[Consumers] are looking for a whole range of different things, so natural with added vitamins and minerals is a very big one. And they want to see there are no synthetic preservatives or colors in there. This really relates to the pet food consumer segment that is spending more on their pet foods. Economical pet foods may have colors or synthetic preservatives in them.”
This raises an interesting point: What separates an economy brand from a premium brand, and does it involve compromised safety standards in any way? Ultimately, the Food Safety Modernization Act should assure retailers and consumers alike that safety standards will not be compromised for any product, regardless of the price tag. ❉