In July 2015, Merrick Pet Care sold to Nestle Purina. Up until this point, Merrick had been privately owned and operated since its inception in 1988, when Garth Merrick created the company with just a small line of dog treats. The treats caught on, and in ‘92 the company branched into dry kibble and then opened a cannery in ‘95. With the introduction of each new line of products, Merrick promised an unwavering dedication to quality. They assured customers they would never use any ingredients from China. They pledged to produce their products under the strictest regulations, and they worked closely with the USDA National Organic Program to become the only Organic certified manufacturer of both wet and dry dog food in the world. The popularity of their products increased and they solidified a diehard group of followers.
You may be wondering, “If they were doing so well, then why sell?” We see it in all kinds of products, not just pet food: a company produces a great item, but monumental growth can be slow and expensive. A privately-owned label often can ‘t afford aggressive advertisement campaigns or meet national and world-wide supply demands, so they focus their money on producing the best product they can on a smaller scale and sell it to independent retailers. If they continue to do well, they’re presented with a choice: continue business as usual or sell out to a larger corporation that has the ability to multiply distribution and fund impressive advertisement. Oftentimes the allure of gross expansion and unlimited profits outweigh the loss of quality control, and with time we see original formulae tweaked to be “New and improved!” when in reality they are anything but.
Like most worldwide conglomerations, Nestle Purina hasn’t built the best name for itself in the pet care world. Its most prominent brands include Alpo, Beneful, Mighty Dog, and the Purina products (Purina Dog Chow, Purina Beyond, Purina One, and Purina Pro-Plan). Averaged together these brands scrape by with a two-star rating on dogfoodadvisor.com. What makes them rank so poorly? Poor ingredients, lax production protocol, and multiple recalls certainly don’t help. Each one of those brands has experienced recalls, mostly due to the presence of salmonella and melamine in the foods.
The existence of these toxins in pet food isn’t new; many brands that import ingredients from China succumb to recalls of this nature. Why? Currently, there are four groups in China charged with supervising food production: the China Food and Drug Administration; the National Health and Family Planning Commission; Ministry of Agriculture; and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspections, and Quarantine. They all work to establish that food is safe for human consumption. However, if you ask which group is responsible for establishing that food is safe for animal consumption, the answer is nobody. This is precisely what makes ingredients from China so troublesome: no persons or groups are assigned with the task of farm supervision, manufacturer licensing, quality inspections, or setting any type of checkpoint for animal food production. As a result, contaminations make their way overseas and affect our pets’ health as well as our own.
Of course, Merrick claims it doesn’t import any ingredients from China (for now). Sadly food sourced and manufactured in the United States isn’t impervious to contaminations; salmonella can rear its ugly head just about anywhere (although there are demonstrably fewer outbreaks here than overseas). Unfortunately, it also happens to be one of the more dangerous contaminants, as it’s considered zoonotic (meaning it can be transferred from animals to humans). In fact, small traces of salmonella won’t even phase most dogs; they’ll just express it through their feces without so much as a side effect. The bacterium is not so kind to humans. Simply by handling the kibble or receiving a kiss from a dog that just ate the contaminated food is enough to result in severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. For those with weakened immune systems, these symptoms can turn deadly, hence mass recalls whenever a product is even suspected of being exposed. And who is monitoring pet food production here? The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA)…kind of.
The FFDCA “requires that all animal foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled” (www.fda.gov). In practice this turns into an honor policy as no dog foods are required to receive any type of pre-market approval from the FDA, which means it’s up to individual companies to create and monitor their own health and safety regulations. Up until now, we’ve never had to question Merrick’s dedication to this process, but as we look over Nestle Purina’s track record, we’d be crazy to not be a little skeptical.
For the time being, a spokesperson for Nestle Purina said there were “no planned changes to management or operations” for the Merrick brand. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it wasn’t a promise. Factor in that they are not legally required to inform the public of changes to recipes, quality (of the ingredients, production, etc.), or testing routines, and our confidence in their commitment to quality waivers to the point of total cynicism.
Merrick Pet Food started as a problem-solving line of treats and food dedicated to producing the best quality for man’s best friend. Nestle Purina has proved time and again that quality isn’t their main, secondary, or even tertiary priority. And while we’re hopeful that “no planned changes” truly translates to preserving a great product, history has repeatedly taught us that quality is oftentimes outweighed by mass quantities and bigger paydays.
So what now? Do your own research. Dogfoodadvisor.com is a great place to begin researching brands. Stop by one of our stores and ask for alternative recommendations and samples (we love the Victor and Zignature lines as dry food replacement, and Evanger’s has quickly grown to be one of our best-selling canned foods). Above all, listen to your dog. Be vigilant to changes in health and behavior, and never hesitate to reach out for help or guidance. The world of dog food can be confusing; we’re here to help you navigate.