“Grain Free” Back in the News

by in Uncategorized March 16, 2024

Perhaps we are beginning to gain a better understanding of what may have happened to precipitate the great firestorm surrounding the claim made a few years back regarding “grain free” pet foods.   A class action suit was filed in February against Hills Pet Food and a key veterinary practice alleging a plot to recover market share by the pet food manufacturer by essentially fabricating a scare among pet owners that grain free foods were outright dangerous to their furry family members.   It is claimed that Hills used their close ties to the veterinary industry to invoke this fear.    The following is largely from an article in Truth about Pet Food explaining the premise alleged in the suit:

“Using the tools of professional science and Hill’s vast veterinary influence network, the goal of the scheme was to persuade American pet-owners that grain-free diets weren’t just “fad diets” but actually dangerous for dogs—an argument that, if successful, had the potential to eradicate the entire grain-free sector of the pet food market. They have been carrying out this wide ranging scheme ever since and it has been, by any measure, a breathtaking (if unlawful) success.”

The lawsuit complaint introduces the case with this information:

Hill’s is unique among these three so-called “traditional” pet food companies for three different reasons. First, it is the smallest of the three—its annual revenues dwarf those of most other pet food brands, but they are only about 20% of Purina’s revenues. Second, as by far the largest maker of “prescription-only” diets in the country and as the self-proclaimed “#1 Vet Recommended Brand,” Hill’s is tied much more closely to the veterinary community than either Mars or Purina. For Mars and Purina, marketing to vets and distributing through vet clinics are both relatively inconsequential parts of their sprawling companies; for Hill’s, they are a major component of the business.

The third thing that makes Hill’s unique among the three “traditional” pet food companies is its uniquely poor financial performance in the years leading up to 2018, when the misconduct at the heart of this suit began. During this period, the market for pet foods made by “non-traditional,” often independent, brands was growing explosively. For example, from 2011 to 2017, sales of “grain-free” dog foods, a leading category among independent makers, rose from 15% to 44% of all dog food sales in American pet specialty stores. Purina was so large and diversified that it weathered this storm successfully, growing steadily and preserving its market share from 2014 to 2017. But Hill’s did not. Over the same four-year period, Hill’s annual revenues were pancake-flat and its market share plunged by more than 20%. Long the third-largest seller of complete-diet dog food in the country, Hill’s fell to fourth in 2018, after being overtaken by Blue Buffalo, the largest of the new wave of “non-traditional” pet food brands.”

“Thus, beginning no later than 2018, Hill’s and a cluster of associated entities and individuals (collectively with Hill’s, the “Defendants”) embarked on a drastic and unlawful course to reverse this slide. They carried out a scheme to falsely convince American dog owners that a massive, unrelated, and hugely diverse group of dog food products—essentially any product made by any of the hundreds of independent firms that were collectively eroding Hill’s market share—all increase the risk and severity of a deadly canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (“DCM”).”

“To carry out the scheme, Hill’s, along with a group of closely bound academic veterinarians (the “Veterinarian Defendants”) and front organizations operating on Hill’s behalf, acted in a coordinated conspiracy.”

“First and most explosively, the Veterinarian Defendants fraudulently induced the United States Food and Drug Administration to launch a high-profile investigation into DCM.”

“The second strand of Defendants’ scheme: Hill’s co-conspirators, the Veterinarian Defendants authored study after study about DCM and then mischaracterized the findings.”

“The Defendants also created and fostered social media environments including at least one Facebook group that was an echo chamber, suppressing any contradiction of the propaganda campaign.”

Hill’s is owned by Colgate-Palmolive. In 2022, Hill’s annual revenue was approximately US$3,713 billion, according to Petfood Industry’s top companies database. This annual revenue made Hill’s the third largest pet food company on the planet, trailing Mars Pet Care (Pedigree, Royal Canin, Nutro, Iams, Eukanuba, Cesar and others), and Nestle Purina Petcare (Purina, Friskies, Beneful, Pro Plan, Alpo, Beyond, Chow, Fancy Feast, others) .  Hill’s denies the claims outlined above.

More than a year has passed since the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the agency found insufficient data to establish causality among pet food products and cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). 

Despite the FDA investigation’s effect on the pet food market, scientists didn’t find evidence connecting certain diets to cases of DCM. More than 150 published studies didn’t reveal to researchers any firm connection among cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free dog food. Veterinarians and others with BSM Partners, a pet industry consulting agency, published their review of existing scientific research on dog nutrition and its relationship to DCM in the Journal of Animal Science.

In December 2022, FDA investigators stated that they had insufficient data to establish causality among DCM case reports and pet food products eaten by afflicted dogs. 

We would encourage you to read the entire document filed in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas.   And the next time someone recommends AGAINST feeding a grain free diet just ask them “Why?”.    Any search engine looking for “Hills Class Action Lawsuit” should bring the 124 page document up or try the link below.

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