outrageThe false advertising lawsuit between Nestle Purina and Blue Buffalo celebrated its one year anniversary last week.  The milestone date was met, shortly thereafter, with an admission that a “substantial” and “material” portion of Blue Buffalo pet food sold to consumers over the past few years contained poultry by-product meal, which runs directly counter to the claims Blue Buffalo has historically made in an effort to build its franchise.  The admission, according to a Purina press release (see link here), was necessary to enable Blue Buffalo to file an Amended Complaint in the litigation to include its suppliers as a Defendants.  Blue Buffalo’s own press release (see link here) stated that it “requested permission to bring a claim against this former supplier and others involved for intentionally mislabeling ingredients and unjustly enriching themselves.”

What I find most interesting about the latest turn of events in this saga is the clear lack of outrage from, frankly, anyone other than Purina and a handful of class action lawyers.  While Blue Buffalo appears to be acting within the legal guidelines as it relates to product recalls (since the mislabeling poses no health, safety or nutrition issue a recall is not mandated by the FDA) and customer notifications, it is hard to see how their handling of this situation is good business practice. That said, the pet industry seems to be taking this in stride, in direct contrast to past pet food ingredient disclosure scandals.

In 2007, when the pet food industry was rocked by recalls related to contaminated vegetable proteins, imported from China in 2006 and early 2007, used as pet food ingredients, the response from the industry was visceral.  Sadly, thousands of dogs were affected by the associated product contamination, and many died as a result, justifying such a strong reaction. These deaths led to increased governmental oversight of the pet food supply chain as well as widespread recalls from pet food brands of all sizes operating across both geographies and sales channels. Consumers made their voices heard online and in the stores, resulting in a myriad of brands experiencing a decline in shelf space and, in some cases, expulsion from pet retailers.

To be clear, the situation with Blue Buffalo is not 2007 revisited — the ingredient mislabeling has not been linked to the deaths of any companion animals. However, if you have followed the fine print of this situation two things are notable — a) that it appears unlikely that Wilbur Ellis was the only party providing Blue Buffalo by-product meal and b) Blue Buffalo was not the only manufacturer receiving these shipments. The later of these statements we know to be true based on disclosures by both Blue Buffalo (see link here) and the FDA (see link here). I believe the former to be true because Blue Buffalo now states that they intended to bring claims against “this supplier and others”, with the former being Wilbur Ellis. Further, Blue Buffalo previously stated it sourced chicken meal from multiple parties (see link here), so it does not seem logical that a “substantial” and “material” portion of their pet food could contain by-product if Wilbur Ellis was the only one mislabeling these shipments.  I don’t know this to be the case but I would have expected Blue Buffalo to be emphatic about that fact pattern if it was true.

Yet despite these observations and incongruities, we have not seen the level of discord in the market that one might have expected given historical precedent. In fact we have not witnessed any discord. Yes, there are blog posts here and there making hay of Blue Buffalo and their handling of the mislabeling situation, but the vocal minority exists everywhere online.  Notably, retailers we talk to are not intending to remove the product, nor are they seeing any decline in sales. Further, we are not hearing a groundswell of consumers demanding other brands that received the by-product meal disclose the fact they may have mislead their customers as well. I would like to think that consumer advocacy does not require pets to perish in order to gain momentum, especially at a time in society where moral outrage against opaque corporations and public institutions has never seemed more elevated.

What I am left to believe from the fact pattern above is that a broad set of consumers are either unaware or don’t care. Further, I am also of the mind that the benefit the industry’s retailers receive outweighs the cost of taking a stand. I can’t blame them either. Their job is to be responsive to customers, not to think for them. However, the industry has done so (think for them) in the past when the risks outweighed the rewards (China sourced chicken jerky as an example).

Surely this cannot be the last we have seen in this epic. Maybe a definitive judgement will result in more fervor, but I would not wait for outrage, because it is not coming.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

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