Quality pet food choices dwindling – Bye Bye Natura

Mega-corporation Procter & Gamble is buying Natura Pet Products, which makes Innova, Evo, California Natural, Healthwise, Mother Nature and Karma. This is devastating news to those who try to feed the best commercial foods, and will reduce the current array of choices for decent quality pet food on the market by these 6 brands.

P&G bought Iams (which includes Eukanuba) back in 1999. At that time, the quality of both Iams and Eukanuba decreased immediately and dramatically, while P&G expanded Iams into grocery and discount stores. In recent years they have moved their veterinary products from the Eukanuba brand to Iams Veterinary Formulas, and have been heavily marketing them.

P&G posted a loss in their pet food sector this quarter; they’re losing market share to the growth in natural pet food. On the “if you can’t lick ’em, buy ’em” theory, they want a piece of the growing action. According to P&G’s announcement, the purchase of Natura “enables P&G to expand into the ‘holistic and naturals’ segment of the pet food category, complementing its current Iams and Eukanuba brands and helping the company advance its overall growth strategy of “reaching more consumers in more parts of the world more completely.”

Natura’s owners, who are in their 70s, are retiring and will not be involved  in the new venture. An email to their retailers states that the deal “highlights P&G’s commitment to continued growth and investment in the Pet Food Industry and in particular the Independent Pet Specialty Channel.” Don’t see any mention of quality or standards there.

Natura is assuring its retailers that, for the foreseeable future, Natura will operate as a separate business unit within P&G Pet Care.” Yeah, that’s what they said about Iams, too. As a lasting policy, this is about as likely as eating without swallowing.

Natura claims that their deal with P&G allows them to remain in charge of ingredients and manufacturing, and that their pet food formulas won’t change. However, the reality is that Natura will have to operate within new budget parameters set by their parent company. That has some serious implications for quality.

It is not widely known outside the pet food industry that there are multiple grades of ingredients–some better quality, others not so much. But on the label, the name is the same no matter what grade the ingredient. While Natura has always used U.S. sources of ingredients, this is likely to change, because it can be much cheaper to buy from overseas. That’s what caused the 2007 pet food recall debacle.  Now, there may be nothing at all wrong with products from other countries. Some countries actually have stricter standards than  the U.S. But consumers will not know where the ingredients are coming from.

So while the label still reads “chicken meal,” the source and price–and therefore the quality–can vary tremendously. This is how the cheapest “natural” brands manage to keep their label ingredients looking good, while spending a lot less on ingredients. Natura has already opened this door with their economy-brand pet food, Healthwise. P&G is undoubtedly counting on this loophole to reduce production costs and raise profits.

Expansion into the natural/organic market will require a big increase in the advertising budget. Where to get the money? Cut the budget for ingredients! That’s exactly what happened to Iams and Eukanuba when P&G took over. Expect a similar decline in quality for the Natura line–those big profits don’t come cheap!

So how can you know if the pet food you’re buying is really made from top quality ingredients? Can you tell if the product truly justifies its price? These days, one of the best ways to judge is by the company’s reputation. The impending takeover will erase Natura’s good reputation and exchange it for P&G’s extremely tarnished one.

Another, perhaps even more important, point to consider is another aspect of P&G’s reputation–animal testing. P&G continues to test its household products on live animals. They are unrepentant about it. They have no intention of changing. They also test their Iams and Eukanuba pet foods on live animals. Some of these tests are simple feeding tests and do not cause any discomfort to the dogs and cats, other than living in a lab kennel for months or years. Others are more invasive. In my files I have copies of all the published studies on dogs and cats done by P&G over the years. Believe me, you don’t want to know.

For years after the Iams acquisition, animal rights groups tried to work with P&G to eliminate the more egregious tests used in pet food production, without success. I was proud to participate in it. However, it soon became clear that P&G representatives were not at all interested in good faith negotiations, at least, not beyond agreeing to avoid the gruesome experiments they had already discontinued. P&G’s “negotiating style” consisted of absolute stonewalling, with no intention of stopping any of the animal testing they were engaged in.

Between P&G’s mercenary marketing, rampant animal testing, and clear lack of integrity, we have to recommend a boycott against all P&G products, including their pet foods. Natura, once a trusted and reputable company, will be no more as of the day the sale to P&G closes.

In short, once the sale goes through (expected to close in early June 2010), stop buying Natura products. In fact, if you haven’t switched your pets to homemade food, now would be a good time!

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