Features January 2003 Issue

Dog Food Manufacturers and The Food Labeling Skepticisms

Many manufacturers don’t want you to know where their food is made. Now, how can that be good?

Frequently, we hear things about dog food companies that would curl your hair. And rarely, if ever, can we print anything we hear, because much of it is unverifiable and perhaps even untrue – lies made up or part-truths distorted by unhappy consumers or unscrupulous competitors. We take this stuff with a grain of salt.

But there is one troubling dog food industry rumor that we’ve heard numerous times, and from a couple of sources that we really trust. It’s troubling to us because it concerns a number of products that have appeared regularly in our “Top Dry Dog Food” reviews.

The rumor alleges that a number of the foods that we have promoted do not actually contain all of the fabulous ingredients listed on their labels. The scuttlebutt has it that some of the products are made in manufacturing plants that are physically unequipped to include ingredients that their labels claim they contain.

We’ll be more specific. We have repeatedly stated that containing at least one type of fresh, whole meat, fish, or poultry is a hallmark of a superior food. And in order to include fresh, whole meat or poultry in a food it manufactures, a plant must be outfitted with certain equipment, including refrigerated bins, “wet extruders,” and other apparatus not needed by manufacturers who use only dry ingredients. But some of the foods whose labels boast the inclusion of fresh meat were made at plants that – we’ve heard – lack the refrigeration and other units required to make such a food.

Hearing this sort of rumor about a number of foods, we were moved to call representatives for the food companies in question, in an attempt to confirm where the food is made. We then planned to call the manufacturing plant and find out whether, in fact, they are equipped to make a food that contains, for example, whole, fresh chicken. Investigative Journalism 101, right?

Unfortunately, this particular tack went nowhere, because to a man, the food company representatives said, “Gosh, sorry, I’d love to help, but we don’t disclose the location of our food manufacturing plant; that’s proprietary information.”

We don’t buy it
“Proprietary information” is a great excuse, one that most of us can understand. Corporations have to protect the things that make them unique and extraordinary, especially in a competitive market.

However, in this case, we have to press harder. Within the pet food industry, there really are not any secrets about the identity and location of pet food plants. Independent manufacturers advertise in trade magazines, for crying out loud! In our experience, every food company executive knows exactly where his competitors have their foods made.

No, manufacturing secrets are not being kept from competing food companies; they are being kept from us, the people who buy the pet food. Why would they want to do such a thing? Why aren’t companies who represent their foods as the “best of the best” proud and forthcoming about their products’ origins?

As it turns out, there are a few reasons why the companies don’t want us to know where their products are made. As whispered in the rumor mill, at least one of the reasons is dishonest and illegal: They don’t want us to know where the food is made because if we knew that, we’d also know that what they say is in the food is not in the food. And with pet food industry oversight and enforcement so incredibly lax, especially in some states, they run very little risk of getting caught.

Some of the other reasons why the origins of foods are often kept secret are more innocuous, but no more helpful to us, the consumers who buy them. To explore these reasons a little more, some background information is helpful.

Large and small companies
As a rule, the gigantic pet food conglomerates manufacture their own products in their own well-operated plants; they don’t make their manufacturing information a secret.

As with any sort of enormous-volume consumer goods producer, these huge pet food companies have made a science of churning out an incredibly consistent product. Open any bag of Purina Dog Chow, and the food inside will look and smell (and probably taste, although we wouldn’t test it) exactly like the contents of every other batch of Dog Chow – just the way a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes looks, smells, and tastes the same year after year after year.

Part of this is due to the fact that the manufacturing plants of the food industry giants are uniformly well-equipped, clean, and well-staffed. Part of it is due to the fact that these corporate giants don’t use the volatile, difficult-to-manufacture, fresh ingredients used by the “premium” companies.

Mostly, the giant companies, corporate cousins to the human food manufacturing industry, serve (partially) to spin figurative gold out of the “straw” leftovers from the human food side. The human food processors use the good parts, and the food fragments that would otherwise be wasted are put to good use in pet foods. The result is a consistent, inexpensive, not particularly healthy food that is readily available anywhere in the country.

In stark contrast stand the small pet food manufacturers, representing perhaps five percent of the total pet food industry. These companies have designated healthy pet foods as their mission, and they shun food fragment castoffs in favor of fresh, whole, and sometimes even organic grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, oils, and expensive vitamin/mineral premixes. It should be noted that this is a much more difficult manufacturing problem, and far more can go wrong with the process.

Once a company grows to a certain size, it makes financial sense for it to own and operate its manufacturing plants. Only a few of the largest “small” food makers have accomplished this – companies like Eagle Pet Products of Indiana, Old Mother Hubbard of Massachusetts, and Breeder’s Choice of California. Most of them manufacture more than one “line” of pet foods, each of them aimed at a different quality/price strata of the market, but all of them enjoying the quality control and oversight resulting from in-house manufacture.

Lacking the resources to own and operate manufacturing plants, smaller companies have to contract with independent plants to make their food for them. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this arrangement, although there are certain opportunities for bad things and good things to result.

Concerns and benefits of independent manufacturing
One big concern about independent food manufacturing is that the food company doesn’t have any control over the process. The owner of the food company can supply the plant manager with his list of ingredients and sources, and discuss the quality control techniques that will be used in his food’s manufacture, but the actual job is out of his hands.

Also, if the plant operators are unscrupulous, and substitute low-quality ingredients for the expensive ingredients the food company has asked for, the food company may be none the wiser.

On the other hand, there are some benefits to having an independent plant make the food for a small food company.

For one, it’s easier for a small food company to pay someone else to run a plant than it is to buy, staff, equip, manage, maintain, and run it themselves – especially when it takes only a couple of days a month to manufacture their entire month’s order of food. And if the plant fails to do a good job, the food company can always walk away and find a better-run plant somewhere else.

Another benefit is that the food company’s owner can shop for plants that are located close to the sources of the ingredients he wants, and/or the markets he wants to ship to post-manufacture. Since the focus of the “premium” food companies is high-quality ingredients, hiring a manufacturer close to the source of the expensive and volatile fresh food ingredients makes more sense than shipping them long distance.

Other reasons for prejudice
We discussed this topic with a number of pet food company representatives at the trade show accompanying the 2002 American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference. Some of the reps were salespeople; others were company owners and CEOs. We told each that we were planning an article about “where foods are made,” and asked, by the way, where are your foods made?

At one booth, a food company president and vice president told us they didn’t think it was fair to bring attention to the fact that not all companies make their own foods. Companies that use independent manufacturers, they said, experience considerable consumer prejudice against their products.

Russell Armstrong, president and cofounder of VeRus Pet Foods, of Abingdon, Maryland, agreed that there is some amount of prejudice against companies who don’t manufacture their own products. He thinks this is fallout from marketing pitches made by companies who do have their own manufacturing plants. “I’ve seen companies try to sell consumers on that very concept by asking rhetorically, ‘If a company doesn’t make its own products, how can they possibly have any quality control?’”

However, Armstrong feels that the prejudice can easily be overcome when consumers hear the flip side, and learn about the advantages enjoyed by companies who don’t make their own products.

“From the perspective of a small food company, especially one that is new to the market like I am, owning your own plant would be an expensive distraction,” says Armstrong. “Instead, we’ve been able to focus on finding and selecting a plant that has the capability and history of making good quality foods, and access to the sources of the top-quality raw materials that we wanted to use in our pet food.”

Armstrong’s opinions were seconded by another food company owner and CEO, Steve Brown, of Steve’s Real Food for Dogs, located in Eugene, Oregon. Steve’s Real Food for Dogs is a raw, frozen, meat-based diet, but Brown has years of experience in many aspects of the pet food industry.

According to Brown, “Extremely big companies have three or four manufacturing plants across the nation; you don’t want to have to ship either the ingredients or the finished product very far. Small companies can achieve the same effect by contracting out the manufacturing to one or more select plants,” he says.

In Brown’s view, small companies like his that are focused on quality actually enjoy an advantage by using independent manufacturers. “I can find great quality meat processors throughout the nation and use their expertise; I know that, properly supervised, they can do a better job than I can. I choose my plants carefully and specify everything. I confirm that they are using the ingredients that I asked for, inspect the plants frequently, and make surprise visits. And so I feel great about the job they do.”

Suspicion by association?
Some food company executives fear that if consumers learn that a food originates from the same plant as a low-quality food, they will conclude that the foods are equally poor. There may be legitimate reasons for this concern; in this case, birds of a feather may well flock together.

“Smaller plants have only so many bins for storing so many ingredients,” warns Armstrong. “I’d worry that one allegedly ‘premium’ food originating from a plant that doesn’t make any other top-quality foods does not really contain the ingredients it says it does.”

Another reason that similar-quality products might tend to originate from the same manufacturing plants – even if they were formulated by different food companies with different ingredients – has to do with the abilities of the manufacturing plant itself.

“There are probably 1000 dog food plants in the country right now. And of those 1000 plants, I’d say only about 15 or 20 are capable of make what I would consider to be decent food, and make it consistently,” says Armstrong. “I think every plant can probably make a good batch of food, but the inconsistencies get them down. I see lots of plants that don’t have the quality equipment, reliable sources of ingredients, and/or personnel to do the job right every time.”

When an independent manufacturer has made the investments needed to do a top-notch, consistent job for its food company customers, its prices will necessarily be much higher. Food company executives who are not appreciative of this quality are unlikely to be willing to pay more for their foods to be made there. In fact, only food companies whose owners are fully committed to producing the best possible food – and who are willing and able to pay more for its work, are likely to be found doing business at such a plant.

And, unless the ingredients of the food are of the very best quality, the food buyers – remember us? dog owners? – won’t be willing to pay the top prices that the product will necessarily cost. The food companies who do business with an expensive, top-notch manufacturer must have an amazing formula, marketing plan, or both, to be able to command the prices that such a food will cost.

For his part, Armstrong has made full disclosure an integral part of his sales pitch for his VeRus dog and cat foods. “We’re proud of our products, which are being made by people we trust in a place that we feel good about,” he says. “I can only imagine that those things are not true when someone won’t tell me anything about the origin of their products.”


Also With This Article
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-by Nancy Kerns

Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ.

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