Recall Sheds Light on Pet-Food Industry's Little Secret
BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- The massive national pet-food recall stemming from deaths of at least 10 pets is also letting consumers in on one of the industry's well-guarded secrets -- that some of most premium pet-food brands in the U.S. use the same manufacturer that processes dozens of low-price private-label products.
Though the formulations may be different, canned or pouch pet food for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Iams and Eukanuba, Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Science Diet and Nestle Purina's Mighty Dog brands have been caught up in the same recall by processor Menu Foods as private labels for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores, Food Lion and Meijer.
Deaths in 'tasting trials'
The deaths of nine cats and one dog confirmed so far all were reported by Menu Foods. At least seven of those came in "tasting trials" the Canadian manufacturer began on about 40 or 50 pets in February, a week after it first heard of consumer complaints about the food, officials of the Food and Drug Administration said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.
"We anticipate those numbers [of deaths] will increase as the investigation continues," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. The recall affects 60 million products in all, produced between Dec. 3 and March 6 and sold under more than 80 brands, the vast majority of them retailer private labels. He said the affected products include about 1% of all pet food sold in the U.S.
While there have been widespread pet-food recalls in the past involving food that killed pets, they've been limited to private-label or fairly minor brands. Most recently, in late 2005, a dry product produced by Diamond Pet Food led to the deaths of 100 dogs.
Same stuff, higher price
"Branded companies for years when they used co-packing arrangements have tried to keep that their little shoppers' secret," said Burt Flickinger, principal with the consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. "But now this whole scandal can dismantle the pricing architecture for branded products when consumers can see that branded is essentially the same stuff with a higher price point."
"Most consumers will give them the benefit of the doubt that they must have separate formulas for expensive Eukanuba," said Laura Ries, president of marketing consultancy Ries & Ries. "In many cases you know with private labels that those products are coming off the same belts as the branded products, and in some cases there is very little difference. ... But most people want to believe in brands, buy brands and trust brands."
Depending on how long the story stays in the news, however, she said more consumers may "become a little more wary about spending extra for the premium brands."
P&G said in a statement that "Iams and Eukanuba dry products are not manufactured at Menu Foods and are not affected by this recall. Only a small portion of our wet canned and foil-pouch products for dogs and cats are affected by this recall." A spokesman declined to comment on whether the company had been contacted directly by consumers about the problem. The spokesman also declined to comment on what effects the scandal could have on the Iams and Eukanaba brands.
Recalling 68 items in total
In all, P&G is recalling 43 Iams items and 25 Eukanuba items in what appears to be the most extensive list of products from any single marketer involved in the recall. But wet food is a relatively small part of P&G's $1.8 billion overall pet business.
In its statement, Menu Foods said its largest customer, which it declined to name but said represented 11% of the company's annual revenue of $300 million plus, "received a small number of consumer complaints and has initiated its own recall. ... For the time being, the customer has put future orders for cuts and gravy products [the type involved in the recall] on hold."
According to Menu Foods' 2004 annual report, it entered into a 10-year agreement at the end of 2003 with P&G to supply all of the company's canned and pouch pet food in the U.S. and Canada. In 2004, P&G accounted for 12.7% of Menu Foods' volume, according to data in the report.
Besides P&G, Colgate and Nestle Purina were the only other companies to issue separate recall notices, and they had far fewer products listed in their recalls.
Five Science Diet items
Colgate's Hill's Science Diet also declined to comment beyond its statement, which listed five Science Diet items affected by the recall. Like Iams, Science Diet mostly sells dry pet food unrelated to the recall.
A spokesman for Nestle Purina noted that 5.3-ounce pouches of Mighty Dog moist food were the only products in the company's assortment affected by the recall. "We have no indication of any quality or safety issue related to that pouch product," he said. "No other premium products are involved or affected in any way. ... Mighty Dog canned products are not affected. ... The pouch variety is a part of the business where at this time we don't have the existing capacity at our facilities to make it, so it makes sense to use a co-manufacturer."
The other major players in branded pet food -- Mars and Del Monte -- so far have escaped any association with recalled products or Menu Foods. But FDA officials said on Monday that the issue remains under investigation. As part of that investigation, officials are looking into whether a supplier of wheat gluten suspected as a possible cause of the problem may have supplied any other manufacturers.
Started a month ago
FDA officials said Menu Foods received its first report of a problem with the food Feb. 20 and began conducting "tasting trials" with pets eating its products a week later, on Feb. 27. On March 2, one pet in the trial died, and at least six more in the trial died subsequently, FDA officials said. Menu issued the recall two weeks later -- March 16. The names of all the brands involved weren't reported until March 17.
Neither Menu Foods nor the FDA is sure of the exact cause of the sometimes-fatal renal failure in affected pets, though Menu Foods said the problem coincided with it contracting with a new supplier of wheat gluten.