JustFoodForDogs Brings Us Some Classic Marketing Masquerading as Science

I have written about the issue of homemade pet diets here several times (1, 2, 3, 4). They are appealing to some owners because they appear more “natural” than commercial dry or canned diets, which is supposed to imply they are better for pets. And, of course, many proponents of alternative medicine make hysterical and unsupported accusations about the dangers of conventional pet diets.

People also equate conventional commercial pet food with what is typically called “processed food,” though they are entirely different things. Human snack foods and other processed foods are laden with excessive sugar, salt and fat and generally nutritionally poor. Commercial pet foods, if properly formulated and manufactured, are nutritionally balanced to a greater degree than our haphazard diet of whatever looks appealing in the moment, even when we the packaged junk foods are avoided.

Homemade diets can be perfectly healthy, and there are circumstances in which a diet formulated for the specific needs of a particular pet is better than any commercially available diet. And fresh food is certainly attractive to many pets. But the dramatic claims of health benefits made for them are entirely unproven, and the existing research suggests most recipes for homemade diets, even those promoted by veterinarians, are not appropriately balanced nutritionally and not ideal for long-term health. I encourage anyone interested in preparing food at home for their pets to consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for guidance.

I recently ran across a press release from a company which appears to be trying to cash in on fears of commercial pet food and the appeal of homemade diets in order to sell—you guessed it, their commercial pet food. Reminiscent of the “just like homemade” marketing approach often used to sell packaged foods for people,  JustFoodForDogs makes heavy use of terms like “scientific” and “evidence” in their marketing to suggest that dry commercial diets and the ingredients they contain are unsafe and that their packaged frozen cooked diets are better. While these diets appear to meet all the same standards for balanced nutrition of other commercial diets, including AAFCO feeding trial tests, the evidence offered for their superiority is so far scant.

One unpublished study funded by the company and run by one of their veterinarians is referred to in their press release as “groundbreaking” and “game changing.” Science by press release is always a bad sign (anybody remember “cold fusion?”), but the presentation of the study is clearly designed to maximize its marketing value without providing any of the information that would be needed to determine if the methods were really appropriate.

Twenty-one dogs of unspecified breeds were fed some of the company’s diets (the details are not reported) and basic bloodwork and exams were conducted at the beginning of feeding the diet and again at 6 months and twelve months. No control group, no blinding, no pre-specified outcomes or hypotheses, no reported accounting for repeated measures or multiple comparisons in the statistical analysis, no discussion of any other aspects of the dogs health or environment, and overall none of the hallmarks of an actual controlled clinical study. All of this would be fine of the purpose were merely to explore the effects of the diet and generate hypotheses. But the company clearly intends to present these results as earthshattering, paradigm-shifting research that (coincidentally?) favors their product.

And after setting up everything with no apparent effort to control for the obvious risk of bias, what were the reported results? One kind of blood protein, globulins, went up (by how much isn’t disclosed). Some kinds of white blood cell numbers increased (again, by how much isn’t disclosed, but the numbers were apparently still within the range of normal). And one measure of red blood cells increased, though another did not.

Given the comparisons of many different values with no explicit reason and no reported use of statistical methods to control for making them, it is almost guaranteed some values would change to a degree judged “statistically significant.” This is not the same thing as medically significant, and there is no evidence these changes had any clinical relevance, especially with no control group for comparison. But the company promotes the results as showing their foods “could benefit immune health” and that if the purported trends in the blood values continue for the animals’ lifetimes “we may see a decrease in chronic diseases such as cancer, renal failure, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, dental disease, etc.”These results certainly don’t support anything even approaching such claims.

The hypothesis that fresh foods could have health advantages over extruded kibble or commercial diets is not an unreasonable one, and I am open to the possibility this might be true. But this is not something we can simply assume without evidence, and that evidence does not yet exist. Furthermore, the claims made about the dangers of conventional commercial diets are rarely supported by evidence either, whereas there is abundant scientific research and real-world experience showing that pets can live long, health lives on these foods.

If the folks behind this company genuinely believe their claims about health and nutrition, and I have no reason to think they don’t, then they should make an effort to design and conduct properly controlled scientific research to evaluate their hypotheses. But they do a disservice to pets and pet owners when they perform “studies” clearly designed with marketing rather than science in mind, hype the results to an extreme degree, and then use this as a marketing strategy to promote their own products.

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68 Responses to JustFoodForDogs Brings Us Some Classic Marketing Masquerading as Science

  1. v.t. says:

    I’m going to assume Art was referring to the 1987-1988 findings, when taurine supplementation was alleged to be deficient in a few major brand pet foods, including Hill’s. Don’t scare me like that, Art.

    And yes, the risk of obstruction or repeat catheterizations or PU surgery is one owners aren’t likely to take, thus perhaps more beneficial to feed the food long-term than without.

  2. SMH says:

    Thank you Skeptvet, for this post and for helping to promote critical thinking about pet food manufacturing, marketing, and research. I wonder who it is posting on this comment thread on behalf of this commercial pet food manufacturer? Apparently not one of the authors of this study, given the third person references to the “researchers.”

    I suspect it is a marketing person (not surprisingly), given the myths and other misinformation pushed here to apparently promote their products, not to mention the unintentionally ironic insistence on proving Skeptvet’s point about using overreaching language to describe their findings and products. For example, the USDA does not appear to “certify” anything aside from the organic program (and a voluntary meat – beef, pork, & lamb- certification program that exists for marketing purposes: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/LSMeatGradingCertificationServices), so it seems using terminology like “USDA certified” NOT in the context of organic foods by this company is solely meant to promote subjective assessments of vague “quality.” If there is some certification program of USDA, please clarify.

    An additional example is the attempt to create a distinction between other commercial pet foods and the ones made by this company based on vague and unsubstantiated claims. I suspect that much of the meat that goes into pet food is not necessarily “rejected for human consumption.” Yes, a lot of this is byproduct from the culturally specific preferences of most Americans (desire for chicken breast over dark meat or organs, etc.); however, its also likely that the huge demand for large amounts of tonnage of meat in pet food means that much of this is produced specifically for the pet food market. Alternatively, its been “rejected” by the consumer, not by some regulatory agency (it cant be successfully marketed through groceries so goes to pet food). Of course, pointing this out wouldn’t be as “groundbreaking” as trying to shift public perception to suit marketing goals.

    It is also important to have conversations about pet food sourcing, marketing, and production due to the many impending issues regarding the sustainability of pet foods. It has been pointed out before, and must get more attention, that the use of human protein sources in particular is not ecologically responsible and is certainly not sustainable (in the true sense of the word). I wonder how this company, though, with a business model and bottom line that depends on selling consumers the idea that this specific approach to feeding their pets is inherently better, will address this important global issue. There are so many companies selling this type of pet food now, and I suspect that many will ignore these issues in favor of short-term economics. Here is more information (free access article) about sustainability in pet foods for anyone interested: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23493530

    Lastly, this private commercial pet food company seems to be benefiting from its close ties with a public university. Are the tax dollars of California residents helping to support this private company? Further, given that the students are involved in the company’s adequacy trials (and potentially the research discussed here?), this raises further questions of ethical research practices and appropriate use of public monies. Does this seem a little stinky to anyone?

    http://polycentric.csupomona.edu/2013/01/a_one_of_a_kind_partnership

  3. Connie White says:

    Apparently this group presented an abstract at 2014 ACVIM. I located what I think is their abstract thru a bit of googling (didn’t go to ACVIM this year).

    It’s here (I suspect) http://justfoodfordogs.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Effects-of-Fresh-Prepared-Whole-Food-Canine-Maintenance-Diets-on-Clinically-Measurable-Blood-Parameters-in-Healthy-Dogs.pdf

    Looks like they simply did a paired t test using time = 0, 180 days, and 365 days. There are a couple of issues with study design and analysis. We have no certainty that outcome variables were normally distributed and thus the choice of a parametric test is not clearly supported. A second issue is that, given two time points, a repeat measures ANOVA (or non-parametric equivalent Friedman) would have been a more appropriate analysis (with paired t test’s, one’s type 1 error is actually higher than the stated 0.05 alpha and kind of lets you go “fishing” for significant p values)).

    More substantively, these authors are using surrogate markers (creatinine, albumin, globulin, WBC, RBC) as indicators of overall health and suggest that immune function status improvement is indicated by a decreased albumin:globulin ratio. Since this study is relatively small, changes in sample means would have to be near sample standard deviations to be picked up. I calculate that an increase of creatinine of approximately 0.2 was needed to have a significant p value and I’m not convinced that increased creatinine is necessarily a good thing (personally, I enjoy having a low creatinine in the knowledge that my GFR is surpisingly good for a middle aged geek). Sadly, the use of surrogate markers is not confined to the commercial pet food research world. Hard to get funding to study outcomes data in pet population studies but sorely needed.

    I’m not as worried about blinding since it’s a within group comparison and I suspect the lab doesn’t know who’s sample their running but it does beg the question of sample collection and handling on days 180 and 365. We know that our own patients can vary not a little in some of these parameters (albumin and creatinine) depending on ambient temp, hydration, exercise etc.

    Authors seem to have affiliations with Cal Poly (animal science professor) which is a public institution and Western States (private) so the point about public/private collaboration is well taken. I like remember that
    most new patented human drugs are funded with ca. 85% government dollars in the form of NIH/NSF research grants so this may be a tiny drop in the bucket. Sad but true.

  4. Stef says:

    The sustainability argument is inane. That can be applied to everything. Is vet med ethical? Costs the same to make a vet than a md, is that right? Specialties in vet med? Waste of resources? Waste of smart minds? They’re just animals right? We should Close vet schools and make them all become doctors and work for free healthcare around the world.

    Or, keep vet med but make small animal practice illegal as it is a luxury not a need like food production. All vets should be food production vets or doctors.

    Are restaurants sustainable? Gourmet dining? Anything high end? Close that too it’s irresponsible. Ferrari shut it down. Lamborghini illegal. Public transport for everyone.

    I commend this company for starting the debate. So what if the marketers were too excited. As far as public funds and research …. Are u kidding? Look at who funds every nutrition residency in public and private schools nationwide. Western, ironically, is the only one without one.

  5. skeptvet says:

    So what if the marketers were too excited.

    Because it is inherently misleading to make claims without real evidence. I think it was HG Wells who said “advertising I legalized lying,” and while the folks who wrote up the release and made the youtube video genuinely believe in what they are saying, it is still misleading to characterize it as fact when it is actually a tentative hypothesis. People jump all over inappropriate marketing by Big Pharma, as they should, but for some reason seem very forgiving of the exact same behavior from companies with alternative or unconventional products.

  6. SMH says:

    “Look at who funds every nutrition residency in public and private schools nationwide.”

    Sorry, but you do not know what you are talking about. Some residencies in various specialities (including nutrition) are funded by private companies or corporations (such as private clinical practices), but not all of them by any stretch.

    Not that this gives them any say into the educational process anyway. This accusation is so tired, and it shows the weakness of your argument in general:
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-pharma-shill-gambit/

  7. Stef says:

    Id respond but I believe the internet is a valuable resource and time debating should only be spent on human issues.

  8. v.t. says:

    Id respond but I believe the internet is a valuable resource and time debating should only be spent on human issues.

    Then stop trolling this blog and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  9. Betty says:

    Just Food For Dogs recently released a “white paper” that claims to be an evidence-based analysis of the dog food industry. I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on this when you get a chance to review it.

  10. JustFoodForDogs says:

    SMH,

    Not sure what you mean by the USDA doesn’t certify anything. This simply isn’t true. “USDA certified” is the legal definition of meats that have gone through the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/e2853601-3edb-45d3-90dc-1bef17b7f277/Meat_and_Poultry_Labeling_Terms.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

    We use this language because it is the only language that has legal meaning. “Human grade” is not legally defined. Our meats and poultry are the same that go to restaurants, grocery stores, and on your plate just like all of our ingredients. They are inspected, approved, and graded, and thus legally, USDA certified.

    Hope that helps clarify this. If you have further questions you should contact the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

  11. SMH says:

    Maybe you can re-read what I wrote. As I said, the program exists, along with the organic certification, but is voluntary, and is used primarily for marketing (a familiar theme here).

    Certification and grading systems have NO nutritional meaning. My point was that your company was trying to associate the terminology with some sort of superior attribute that simply does not exist (ie classic marketing).

  12. karen says:

    Kudos to justfoodfordogs. I live in Illinois and don’t buy their prepared meals BUT they offer a DIY plan where they provide the supplements and recipes which I’ve done for almost a year now. I struggled for years with the concept of cooking for my dogs. I lost a beloved poodle to renal failure as a result of diabetes. My vet told me I “had to feed” her this certain commercial food. AS a nurse I should have known better but I was SO naive to have believed him. Her blood sugars were never under control. That food was basic crap as I learned too late to read labels. I still get recall alerts from dog food advisor OFTEN about different brands of dog food even though I no longer buy commercial dog food. Some even labeled as “5 star” – real scary to anyone who truly loves their dog. I now have 2 rescues AND a new vet. She honestly admitted they basically learn nothing about nutrition in school and still feels my dogs are “lucky” dogs. Companies of commercial dog foods are calling each other out because they aren’t any better than another. So then you even question the “high quality” dog food ingredients. Who do you believe. “LIFE” in general is a science…we are constantly in trial and error. When I feed my dog “homemade” @ least I know it is prepared in a clean environment, the food is in a visibly healthy state when purchased, is “washed” and prepared with love and concern for who it is prepared for, knowing that EVERY effort along the way to keep it healthy was met in my eyes….justfoodfordogs had allowed me to do that…thank you to justfoodfordogs!!!

  13. Bob Hunt says:

    For the past two months I’ve spent time and money trying to find a way to keep our dog from starving to death because nothing will stay in her digestive system. She has inflammatory bowel disease top to bottom. Hills worked for a short time then it too joined the other ejecta. We took every step available to reduce the inflammation to manageable levels and find a food that wouldn’t trigger the immune system – to no avail except to watch her lose 30% of her body weight. Then my son found JustFoodForDogs and we tried it. The lucky dog is now eating well and beginning to recover. Marketing is beyond irrelevant, it either works or it doesn’t. In this case, it does.

  14. skeptvet says:

    While I’m glad your companion is doing better, unfortunately such stories prove nothing about whether the product “works” or not. As I have pointed out many times, anecdotes like this exist for every therapy ever tried, including things like bloodletting and ritual sacrifice which no one today would recommend. They are inherently misleading, and the unprecedented success of modern science in more than doubling our life expectancy and improving our quality of life tremendously has come about by specifically decreasing our trust in such anecdotes and placing it in controlled research instead. Science works and stories don’t, so the reason to challenge stories like yours is to help people avoid being misled, as we have for thousands of years, by such stories.

    Why We’re Often Wrong
    Testimonials Lie
    The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine
    Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough
    Don’t Believe your Eyes (or Your Brain)

  15. Louise says:

    Bob,
    I have a dog with IBD also. Which food from JFFD are you using or did you have a custom formulation made. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

  16. dogowner says:

    Louise- I had a dog who too had this condition. She was fine on royal canin, the low fat stuff. Doesn’t mean that will necessarily work for your dog, this is only an anecdote/testimonial, all the usual caveats apply, but it might be worth a shot.

    Some pet shops or companies will supply small bags of food so that you can try different types of food and see what works for your dog. Matter a damn what it says on the bag or packaging, see if it works for your dog.

  17. Erik says:

    Hi Skeptvet, Thanks for your great articles. I am very interested in providing good nutrition to my beloved dogs. I believe there is finally independent studies going on regarding commercial dog food and fresh food. Here’s a link: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Anna_Hielm-Bjoerkman

    I know it’s nothing definitive. But at least it’s a start. Usually nothing gets studied unless there will be commercial value later (drugs, medical treatment, etc)

  18. skeptvet says:

    Thanks for the link. It looks like an interesting study, and I’ll definitely be following to see what comes of it.

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