The U.S. pet food regulation is a very interesting and in-depth topic with a lot of complexities the average pet owner isn’t aware of. For example, did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (more commonly referred to as the FDA) is responsible for establishing and enforcing federal pet food standards? The FDA mainly regulates the following 4 areas of pet food –
- Safety – making sure pet food is safe is the top priority. We’ve seen many recent examples of dog food recalls due to unsafe, high level of Vitamin D in the dog food. We’ll talk about this more later.
- Effective – pet food should be nutritious and satisfy the needs of your pet’s dietary requirements. There are certain ingredients and minerals pet food must contain in order to be a called complete diet.
- Proper manufacturing – pet food should be manufactured in safe and controlled environments to aid with safety.
- Properly labeled – the FDA has many regulations around pet food labeling to ensure consumers aren’t being lied to about what they’re feeding their pets. This is another topic we’ll dive into more.
Just recently the FDA gave out some massive fines to suppliers selling ingredients to Blue Buffalo due to mislabeled products including lying about their product! Before we get into the specifics, let’s take a look at what the pet food labeling requirements are.
FDA Labeling Regulations
The product name can be a major factor in a pet owner’s decision on which food to buy. Pet food manufacturers often want their foods to sound as appetizing as possible and want to highlight the key ingredients of their food to try to lure in buyers. Pet food brand Taste of the Wild gives their dog foods imaginative names like “High Prairie Grain-Free” or “Southwest Canyon Grain-Free”. Most dog foods have more straightforward names though like “Lamb & Venison” or “Chicken Recipe”.
It turns out, there are regulations around naming pet food if you want to put ingredients into the name. The FDA describes their rules as the following –
“The “95%” rule applies to products consisting primarily of very few ingredients. They have simple names, such as “Beef for Dogs” or “Tuna Cat Food.” In these examples, at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient (beef or tuna, respectively), not counting the water added for processing and “condiments.” Counting the added water, the named ingredient still must comprise 70% of the product. Because ingredient lists must be declared in the proper order of predominance by weight, “beef” or “tuna” should be the first ingredient listed, followed often by water, and then other components such as vitamins and minerals. If the name includes a combination of ingredients, such as “Chicken ‘n Liver Dog Food,” the two named ingredients together must comprise 95% of the total weight. The first ingredient named in the product name must be the one of higher predominance in the product. For example, the product could not be named “Lobster and Salmon for Cats” if there is more salmon than lobster in the product.”
I bet you didn’t know the naming of pet foods was so highly regulated! Now that you have some background as to the rules, let’s get into how Blue Buffalo got wrapped up in a scandal that put inferior substitutes into their dog foods.
Blue Buffalo Under Fire
In 2014, Purina filed lawsuits against Blue Buffalo claiming they were using false advertising and mislabeling their products after they had a third party test Blue Buffalo dog food. The tests determined Blue Buffalo dog foods included poultry byproduct meal, grains, and corn. All ingredients that were not listed in the food’s ingredient list and broke FDA regulations.
Blue Buffalo initially rejected the claims, calling them “junk science” and stating they never use such ingredients in their dog foods. However, by 2015 Blue Buffalo had changed its tune when they realized that one of their suppliers – Wilbur-Ellis – had sold them poultry by-product meal while claiming it was 100% chicken meal! Instead of putting chicken meal in their dog foods, Blue Buffalo was putting a blend of chicken beaks, feet, viscera, feathers, and other junk parts into their dog foods instead.
Consumers Sue Blue Buffalo
As a result of this false advertising and mislabeled goods sold to pet owners, many class action lawsuits came to be. They were eventually consolidated and Blue Buffalo ended up paying out $32 million which was the largest of such settlements in history! Participants of the lawsuit received up to $760 in compensation.
After the lawsuit was settled, Blue Buffalo has since decided to try to get reimbursed for that $32 million from the supplier that provided them with the mislabeled poultry by-product meal which is still ongoing.
Criminal Charges and FDA Fines
The good news for Blue Buffalo is that the FDA did not pursue charges against them. Instead, the FDA went after Wilbur-Ellis who provided the erroneous ingredients. In 2017, the company and one employee were found guilty on 8 criminal misdemeanor charges related to misbranding their ingredients and “introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce”.
When it was all said and done, over a dozen charges were filed against all parties involved with over $7 million in fines. About $6 million of that money was paid back to Blue Buffalo as restitution.
Other FDA Actions on Excess Vitamin D Levels
Another recent case of FDA action has come from several dog foods with excess Vitamin D levels discovered in late 2018 and early 2019. At the time of writing this is still an ongoing investigation and the recall may be expanded further.
While Vitamin D is a necessary vitamin for dogs, too much of it can be extremely harmful. Vitamin D toxicity can cause symptoms such as vomiting, weakness, depression, blood in vomit, seizures, muscle tremors, abdominal pain, and more. These symptoms can even be fatal.
In order to detect Vitamin D toxicity your vet would need to test blood and stool levels. Treatment for this disease is very intensive. It requires the dog to be hospitalized and given IV fluids to help the excess Vitamin D leave the body. In extreme cases, it could even require a blood transfusion.
The FDA is the agency responsible for testing the dog foods reported to have these issues. They’re also responsible for issuing the recalls and alerting consumers. No legal action has been announced yet in relation to these excessive Vitamin D levels, but it’s a possibility if the FDA finds anyone broke the law.
What Should Pet Owners Do?
In the face of these kinds of scandals, it can leave pet owners with a lot of questions on how to safely feed their pets. When a company as massive as Blue Buffalo has issues, it seems hard to trust anyone!
One option for those with the time and energy is to make your pet’s food at home using ingredients you buy at the super market. Feeding your pets human grade food where you control all the ingredients certainly is a safe way to go about it, and plus it’s much more fresh than kibble. If you don’t have the time to make homemade food yourself, one new and popular alternative to dry dog foods is fresh dog food delivery. These companies deliver freshly prepared meals with limited ingredients right to your door so feeding time can be just as easy as dry food.
I would also recommend staying up to date with the latest FDA recalls to make sure your pet food brand doesn’t show up on the list and if it does, you can stop using the food right away. It’s also a good idea to monitor your pet’s activity level and their stool which can be a good early warning sign that something could be wrong with their diet. Always check with your veterinarian if you have concerns of the health of your pet or how to best manage their diet.
Author bio: Kyle Holgate is a dog parent of two large mixed breeds and writes about all things dog on his website Woof Whiskers.