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Begging for the Truth

'Premium' Pet Food's Unproven Claims

Makers of premium pet food claim that their products provide optimal nutrition for your pet. But there is little evidence that cats and dogs benefit from costly and unusual ingredients. And regulators seem to have little interest in holding pet-food manufacturers accountable.

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George Gerovac/Masterfile

Lamb and brown rice with rosemary extract. Turkey and duck stew with sweet potatoes and cranberries. Organic chicken with organic spinach and potatoes. If any of those combinations sound delicious and nutritious for you, think again.

These dishes aren’t gourmet offerings at a local bistro. They’re pet foods.

As the examples indicate, manufacturers of pet food increasingly claim that the best thing for your cat or dog to eat is premium food, such as those that contain special nutritional ingredients and supplements. But consumers should think twice before they shell out extra dough for any of the hundreds of brands and formulas that fall under the confusing umbrella of “premium” pet food. That’s because the biggest thing that differentiates premium pet food from lower cost options is not a proven health benefit to your cat or dog but marketing.

The marketing claims that pet-food manufacturers make about their premium brands often go unchecked by federal and state regulators, and there is little or no independent research to verify whether common pet-food supplements and once-atypical ingredients, such as apples, blueberries and brown rice, provide measurable health benefits for dogs and cats. Instead, industry researchers base many of their marketing claims and pet-food formulations on studies that indicate that these ingredients are beneficial to humans. But the independent experts whom we interviewed say scientists haven’t established such connections between human and animal nutrition.

It should be noted that none of our experts says premium pet foods are nutritionally bad for your pets. But if you’re going to pay extra for pet food—30 percent to 300 percent for premium pet food when compared with standard wet and dry pet food—your pet should get extra benefits, right? Experts say they aren’t sure what (if any) benefits premium pet foods provide over standard pet food. But consumers have every right to wonder whether premium pet food is worth the added cost.

FEEDING FRENZY. Premium pet food is the fastest growing segment of the $18-billion-per-year pet-food market, experts say. Although there are no precise statistics on the sales of premium pet food, dollar sales of products that are in that segment of the pet-food market have increased at about 8 percent annually in the past 4 years—roughly twice the rate of all pet foods during the same period, says David Lummis, who is an analyst for market-research firm Packaged Facts. Dollar sales of premium pet foods now make up about 40 percent of all of the pet food that’s sold in the United States, and sales of the most expensive natural and organic brands are projected to reach $2.5 billion by 2014, Lummis says. U.S. sales of organic pet food, which is the most expensive type of pet food, were $85 million in 2009.

But there is no official measure or regulatory definition of which pet foods qualify as “premium,” even though many cat- and dog-food manufacturers use that word on their labels. Premium pet foods do not have to meet higher safety or nutrition standards than do lower cost brands. Two experts whom we interviewed say the difference in the ingredients of low-cost and high-end pet foods is modest; one goes so far as to call pet foods “indistinguishable” in their basic ingredient mix. In general, market observers consider a pet food to be premium if it costs significantly more than standard brands do and if manufacturers advertise the product as having better ingredients.

For instance, last December a 34-pound bag of Purina Dog Chow was priced at $22 on the website of a national pet-product retail chain. The same-size bag of Purina ONE, which is the company’s premium line, was priced at $41. And don’t be surprised if you pay far more for other premium brands. On the same website, we found a 4-pound bag of Blue Buffalo turkey and potato kibble for adult dogs that cost $20—or $160 if you bought nearly as much food as the one bag of Purina ONE contains.

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