Creative dog food and creative dog food marketing have blown up in the last few years. Probably the first dog food on the scene that aimed to “shake up the competition” was Blue Buffalo. Pretty much the entire campaign is built on telling us to check the ingredients and see that chicken or meat is the first ingredient, instead of cornmeal or something like that. Dogs are carnivores, so their diet should be meat based, not grain based, and therefore Blue Buffalo is better because it’s not grain based.
The ingredients listed on dog food containers, as well as the ingredients on human food labels, are listed by weight. Therefore, we are supposed to assume that if chicken is listed first on a label, the food contains a whole lot of chicken. As well, Blue Buffalo is organic, and “all-natural.” The question is whether these over-the-top claims are true.
Purina Says Blue Buffalo is Lying
Well, Purina, the pet food giant, says they are lies. Purina has seen a decline in sales due to Blue Buffalo’s advertising efforts, which are so pervasive they’ve been parodied by Saturday Night Live(see video below), in a skit which features Seth Rogen and Cecily Strong as over-emotional pet-food philosophers.
Purina, now owned by Nestlé, has been in the business of pet food for 120 years and has a third of the market. Blue Buffalo is not the only brand that has captured some of Purina’s market. Premium brands like Hill’s (which I use), and Merrick have as well. But Purina says that Blue Buffalo is not just competition but is “built on lies.” Steven Crimmins, Purina’s chief marketing officer for the U.S. notes the primary claims that the Purina says are not true:
1. Blue Buffalo makes a big deal out of being “family run” but they actually are owned by a big Wall Street firm and outsource all their manufacturing.
2. Their key ingredients claims are not true, and they have a history of exaggerating what their products can do. Purina claims to have performed lab tests showing that Blue Buffalo uses poultry by-product meal, which Blue Buffalo has promised (again and again) to never do.
Purina feels that Blue Buffalo is engaged in a smear campaign, so, in May, Purina sued Blue Buffalo in St. Louis federal court for false advertising and commercial disparagement, and unjust enrichment. You probably understand false advertising and commercial disparagement, but “unjust enrichment” may need a bit of explanation. It is basically when one person (or entity) benefits and is enriched by chance, mistake, or another’s misfortune which is not due to the enriched entity’s own work or efforts. Purina brought up its lab reports and Bishop, co-founder and chairman of Blue Buffalo accused Purina of engaging in “voodoo science,” which, is not really evidence that their lab reports are wrong. Check out Business Week’s reporting on the Purina/Blue Buffalo suit.
Saturday Night Live ‘Blue River Dog Food’ Skit Parodying Blue Buffalo Ads
Serious Questions About Blue Buffalo’s Claims
For my part, I think Blue Buffalo is probably full of shit and is nothing more than slick ads done by a slick advertising guru. I do not believe their claims and find their advertising to be nothing more than emotional manipulation.
One thing to realize is that even if chicken is the “first ingredient” you still don’t know how much there is. I could make a small batch of food and put one ounce of chicken in it, then .99 ounces each of a bunch of other crap, and claim “chicken is the first and main ingredient.” While we’re at it, let’s consider other Blue Buffalo products besides dog food. Such as their Blue Bones: The first ingredient is whole ground potato. The second is whole ground rice. Then comes water and a mixture of fruit and vegetables with vegetable juice. Then sunflower oil, oat bran, and flax seed. After all that comes natural chicken flavor. And last a bunch of preservatives.
But, let’s look at their dog food. The first three ingredients, for example, in their Chicken and Brown Rice dog food are deboned chicken, chicken meal, and whole ground brown rice.
Whereas a competitor might list ground yellow corn, and chicken by-product meal first.
Here is when I let you in on a little funny math secret the pet food industry can rely on, but first, remember, the fact that the first two ingredients listed have something to do with chicken still doesn’t tell you how much chicken relative to other ingredients. However, the other little secret is that they must list the entire weight of the ingredient by volume, meaning they can’t take out the water weight. Chicken has a whole lot more water than grains.
So, while Blue Buffalo might be so quick to point out how some of their competitors have ground cornmeal as a first ingredient, the deboned chicken if it isn’t a meal might have a whole lot of water in it. If you compare both products on a dry matter basis, by first knowing the amount of water in the ingredients and then basically subtracting the weight of that water, we might well find that both products had comparable amounts of “chicken.” See, it is quite possible that the second product, even though it lists corn first, has more protein from chicken meal than the first product has from its deboned chicken and chicken meal since chicken meal has very little moisture left in it. And realize that Blue Buffalo, for all its angelic claims, most likely contains more protein from chicken meal than actual chicken.
Chicken, Chicken Meal, and Chicken By-Product Meal
See, chicken meal is not what we would consider chicken. It is a rendered ingredient that can include chicken muscle, skin, and bones. It is, as well, not what the FDA considers chicken, which explains why they cannot call it chicken on the label. It may contain other stuff that we would not call chicken, nor would we eat. Realize, however, that your dog is not a human, and has no problem with eating more of the chicken than we would, and this, frankly, may be more nutritious and contain more minerals.
Keep these facts in mind, while I explain what chicken by-product meal is. Remember chicken meal can have meat, skin, and bones. Chicken by-product meal is a similar product that uses portions of the chicken that is not included in the ingredient chicken. It can contain necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines. You may be all grossed-out now, but, again, none of this stuff is inherently bad for a dog. Dogs are not squeamish like we are. Now let me tell you another secret that I’ll bet Blue Buffalo would not like to advertise:
Chicken by-product meal, which Blue Buffalo says it does NOT use, is REQUIRED to come from slaughtered animals. In other words, it must come from chickens which are intentionally slaughtered to be used as food. However, chicken meal, which Blue Buffalo does use, at least in the product we’re examining, is NOT required to come from slaughtered animals. What does this mean? It means they can gather dead chickens off the chicken barn floor or cage, which could have died because of any number of things, and used them in the chicken meal. In other words, the already dead carcasses of chickens, who may have been sick, or infected, and could have been dead for who knows how long, can be used. This is a confusing thing since such animals are illegal for use in human or animal food. The question would then be whether this chicken-meal is USDA inspected and approved.
What this boils down to is that, when carefully considered, there is really no indication that Blue Buffalo is superior based on its ingredient list alone! You’d need to know a lot more information. Sure, it may not contain some of the chicken or animal parts that other foods do, and that is a cause for concern for some. But it still may contain bone and skin, and it may NOT contain MORE protein by dry weight.
While pet owners are getting so emotional about chicken versus chicken by-products or cornmeal, they are distracted from something they should be paying even more attention to, the actual crude protein amounts. While they go on about “wholesome grains,” which, frankly, a dog has no need for, and they are quick to jump on the “gluten free” bandwagon (have you diagnosed your dog with a gluten allergy?), they are sublimely ignoring the fact that the competitor may be delivering MORE PROTEIN, which your dog needs! A casual comparison of the Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe to a chicken-first formula by Hill’s revealed that Blue Buffalo’s analysis gives 28% minimum crude protein to Hill’s 36%. That is a big difference, folks. Not to mention that Blue Buffalo has more fat for every gram of protein, at 12% minimum, as compared to Hill’s 11%. Moisture is 10% max for Blue Buffalo as compared to 8% max for Hill’s.
I have serious questions about how genuine Blue Buffalo’s claims are. I am not an expert on pet food, and I do not have the knowledge on this subject that I have for human food, but, it certainly seems that things are not as clear-cut as they would have their customers believe.