What the FDA Actually Said: Are Boutique Foods to Blame? On Pets And Tricks

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On 27 June 2019, the FDA updated their investigation into a potential link between certain diets and canine DCM. The update is about 14 pages long and has been updated to include charts and name brands. We dug into it and pulled out 5 things that the FDA was actually saying about the investigation.

The rest of the update is simply documenting the data that they have found; a lab report. It is interesting information, but ultimately of limited use. Seeing as we don’t know the baseline occurrence of the disease, we should all be very careful about drawing conclusions.

The update does bring up some big questions though, and we will be using the FDA’s actual data to try and see if we can answer them.

Are Boutique Foods to Blame?

TL;DR: Maybe Yes, Maybe No. But Mostly No.

Let’s start by clarifying what generally constitutes a “boutique” food. When we hear “boutique” we are typically using shorthand for “boutique, exotic-ingredient and grain-free.” It appears as though it is intended to cover any type of food that deviates from the standard chicken/beef protein + corn/wheat/soy kibble combination. Raw? Home-made? Vegetarian? BEG, BEG and more BEG. The important thing here is that we aren’t just talking about the protein, but the grain or grain substitute as well.

Let’s have a look at the charts from the FDA here.

What the FDA Actually Said Are Boutique Foods to Blame

Food Types

Let’s start with the red chart on food types. It shows that kibble (at 86% of all types) is the most prominent in the FDA’s data. It also reports that of the cases in their database, 2% were being fed raw diets.

Here’s where we need to be careful about drawing conclusions. What we really need is the occurrence rate of DCM by food type. Unfortunately since we don’t know how often DCM actually occurs, so we can’t gain any insight into the relative safety of these food types. Is your dog more likely to develop DCM while eating kibble? Based on this chart (and all of the charts in the section) we just don’t know.

If we want to extrapolate at all, the best we can do is look at sales data by food type and compare the percentages being sold to the FDA’s data. Our sales data would suggest that more than 2% of the dogs in Central Oregon are being fed raw diets. Meaning that the DCM rate of occurrence in pets on raw food is lower than other food types.

Brands. All 70 of Them.

On to the green chart that calls out specific brands. This chart shows 16 brands, and that’s what the headlines certainly picked up, but in total, 70 different brands of food were named in the FDA’s data.

4health, Abound, Acana, American Journey, Annamaet, Authority, Blue Buffalo, Blue Wilderness, California Natural, Canidae, Castor & Pollux, Crave, Diamond, Dr. Gary, Eagle Pack, Earthborn, EVO, Farmina, FirstMate, Freshpet, Fromm, Halo, Hill’s, Holistic Health Extension, Holistic Select, Home, Honest Kitchen, Horizon Pet Food, Iams, Instinct, Kirkland, Lotus, Loyall, Merrick, Natural Balance, Natural Instinct, Nature’s Recipe, NRG, Nulo, Nutrish, NutriSource, Nutro, Orijen, Pedigree, Performatrin, Petcurean, Pinnacle, Primal, Pro Plan, ProPac, Pure Balance, PureVita, Purina, Rawz, Rayne, Redford, Royal Canin, Sportmix, Taste of the Wild, Unknown, V-Dog, Victor, Wegmans, Wellness, Weruva, Whole Earth Farms, Whole Hearted, Wild Calling, Zignature, ZiwiPeak

We see the names from the headlines (Acana, Zignature and Taste of the Wild) but we also see Pedigree, Purina, Blue Buffalo and Royal Canin as well. In general, if someone is going to feed a grain free diet, they aren’t going to go to the big 5. They will go to Acana, Zignature or Taste of the Wild. They are grain free foods at a good price point.

Brands That Weren’t Named

What we don’t see here are other big selling grain free foods from Nulo or FirstMate. This was surprising but there may be a couple of reasons.

  1. The data the FDA has may be regionally biased in addition to being breed biased. (Perhaps FirstMate and Nulo don’t sell well in the regions that their reports are coming from).
  2. Maybe there’s something different about Nulo and FirstMate that set them apart.

We don’t have any data on where the FDA’s data is coming from so no luck there, but we do know that Nulo and FirstMate get over 80% of their protein from animal sources. Nature’s Variety was named in 2% of the FDA’s entries and they advertise over 70% of their protein is animal based.

Peas and Lentils and Potatoes, Oh my

The purple chart shows that the vast majority of foods in the FDA’s database had peas, lentils and/or potatoes in them. Remember, we do not know the general occurrence of DCM in the entire pet dog population. This chart does show that 91% of the pets in this dataset were eating a diet that included peas. This chart and topic of discussion warrants its own post. Stay tuned.

Chicken, Lamb and Salmon Aren’t Boutique Proteins

The last chart here shows the prominence of protein type per pet in the FDA’s data. The top three proteins are chicken, lamb and salmon. These are not “boutique” proteins. They are standard use proteins that have been in pet food for decades. Just like the other charts though, we cannot gain any insight into the occurrence rate of DCM per protein type. So while we can talk more about the role of peas, lentils and potatoes in pet food, we are at a dead end here.

Whew! The End. For Now.

Alright, that was a LOT to type out and really we’re just scratching the surface. The big takeaways here are:

  1. We don’t know how food type is related to DCM, but a far reaching stretch could show that dogs on a raw food diet may have a lower rate of DCM development than dogs on kibble.
  2. 70 brands were named in the FDA’s data, not just 16, and they included “the Big 5.”
  3. Grain free brands that weren’t named (or rarely named) were ones that had 70-80% of the total protein coming from animal sources. Meaning that they aren’t heavily relying on peas or lentils as a protein source.
  4. The occurrence rate of peas and lentils in the FDA’s data was very high, but there was enough to talk about on this topic that it warranted its own post.
  5. Standard animal proteins were the most commonly referenced but that doesn’t mean they are safer or less safe than kangaroo, venison or other non-traditional animal proteins.

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