Blue Buffalo admitted the truth in court yesterday: A “substantial” and “material” portion of Blue Buffalo pet food sold over the past several years contained poultry by-product meal, despite pervasive advertising claims to the contrary. Blue Buffalo asked the Court for additional time to file an Amended Complaint in the litigation, naming its ingredient suppliers as Defendants.
The admission came almost one year to the day when Purina filed a lawsuit against Blue Buffalo for false advertising after testing revealed the presence of poultry by-product meal in some of Blue Buffalo’s top selling pet foods.
In its original suit, Purina alleged independent tests showed that Blue Buffalo uses chicken by-products, egg shells, rice hulls and artificial preservatives in its products — despite claims to the contrary. Blue Buffalo has continued to make claims in its advertising that none of its pet foods contains animal by-products thereby implying that Blue pet foods are healthier for pets than competitive foods that contain by-products.
A lab report by Windsor Laboratories, which Purina submitted in the civil lawsuit, alleged several of Blue Buffalo’s pet foods contained poultry by-product meal which contained “between 22 and 24 % poultry byproduct meal, egg shell and raw feather.”
THE BY-PRODUCT BLUES
Animal by-products, the much-maligned pet food ingredient, probably tops most consumers list of ingredients to avoid: A concern that Blue’s advertising campaign exploited. Indeed, when Blue Buffalo commissioned consumer research and discovered that pet owners have strong ideas of what they don’t want their animals eating—above all, anything called a by-product– they discovered the basis for their marketing campaign: “Consumers just don’t like the sound of ‘byproduct,’ says Bill Bishop, the Chairman of Blue Buffalo.
What is chicken (or poultry) by-product meal? Generally speaking, it’s ground-up chicken necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines and it’s not supposed to include feathers (although Purina’s testing found feathers). Animal by-products generally are thought to include organs — lung, spleen, kidney, brain, liver — blood, bone, fatty tissue, stomach and intestines. Which, under certain circumstances, could be perfectly fine ingredients, as long as they were not rendered. Unfortunately, meat meals are typically the result of rendering, a process involving one of the meat industry’s most revolting aspects of dealing with slaughterhouse waste.
But, the central issue is not whether by-products are bad for pets to eat, it’s about Blue Buffalo’s insistent claim that their pet food did not contain ground-up chicken intestines and feet, when in fact it probably did or still does (no one is certain).
HISTORY DOES REPEAT ITSELF
An eerily familiar story involving Blue Buffalo emerged back in 2007, when Purina and many other major brands recalled tons of dog and cat food after the FDA found it was contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical traced to Chinese suppliers. However, Blue Buffalo arrogantly ran advertisements bragging that its products didn’t contain the chemical. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be correct, and Blue Buffalo eventually had to pull a third of its product line. At the time, Blue Buffalo said it had been “deliberately deceived” by one of its contract manufacturers. Sound familiar?
THROWING THE SUPPLIER UNDER THE BUS
Blue Buffalo now claims it had no way of knowing the bags contained by-product meal. A manufacturer is responsible for knowing what’s in its product, which a simple audit of its supply chain would have revealed what Purina discovered after reviewing the documentation.
San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis admitted that following a review of its facilities – in response to concerns about product mislabeling – it “revealed poor record-keeping and operational processes at its facility in Rosser, Texas, and the mislabeling of pet food ingredients that were sold to companies that formulate food for pets.” But, Wilbur-Ellis hastened to add that although mislabeled, albeit illegal, “the products sold were all commonly used in pet food and safe for pets to consume.”
Bishop explained, that when the company learned that Wilbur-Ellis screwed up and had accidentally mislabeled some ingredients, he complained that although Blue was “ordering and paying for 100% chicken meal, at times they were receiving shipments that contained poultry by-product meal.”
SELLING THE SIZZLE NOT THE STEAK
Contrary to its carefully cultivated reputation for authenticity, Blue Buffalo’s advertising campaign, as it turns out, was built on a claim that should have been verified. And the image of the little family run business up against Big Pet Food isn’t exactly accurate either: Blue Buffalo is, in fact, owned by a big Wall Street firm and they outsource all their manufacturing, as do most pet food manufacturers.
Started in 2002, Blue Buffalo was propelled by advertising techniques Bill Bishop honed as an ad man on Madison Avenue where he ran ad campaigns for for brands such as Kool-Aid, Tang, Tareyton cigarettes (“I’d rather fight than switch”), and later SoBe, a beverage company he co-founded in the 1990s. Blue Buffalo last year racked up an impressive $1 billion in sales, making it America’s fastest-growing major purveyor of pet food and the largest specializing in the all-natural kibble niche.
Bishop realized that getting into the pet food market by starting small with contract manufacturers making the product was a no-brainer and that all one had to do was, “Slap on a good label, come up with a slogan, and off you go.” He already knew it would be a cinch to pull the wool over consumer’s eyes, because, as he said, “There were already a lot of smoke and mirrors in how pet food was advertised, and that was the sort of stuff we were good at.”
Being the consummate ad man, one who might still believe that any publicity is good publicity, one can’t help but speculate that the wily Bishop has lured Purina into a fight where attention is the real objective.
AN APOLOGY, A RECALL, AND A REFUND
All consumers have received thus far in this debacle in the way of an apology (if you can even call it that) is the wishy-washy half-admission that Blue Buffalo products “may” contain undeclared by-products. If Blue Buffalo sold products to consumers with by-products, has products in the marketplace that are mislabeled, I would expect Blue Buffalo to withdraw those products from the market.
However, despite this admission, Blue Buffalo still has failed to acknowledge complete responsibility for betraying consumer trust in their brand:
- They still have not informed consumers of the presence of poultry by-product meal is or may have been in certain formulas;
- They still have not revealed if the mislabeled product(s) were removed from the market or which brands may still be on the market or in consumer’s homes;
- They still have not issued a recall;
- They still have not offered refunds for purchases of said product;
- Instead, they have chosen to place the entire blame at the feet of its suppliers.
Perhaps Blue Buffalo isn’t necessarily worse than other brands, but there’s no real evidence it’s any better and therein lays the crux of the matter – that consumers were ripped off.
Quite simply, the very least consumers deserve in an unreserved apology for the deception, the lies that seduced pet parents to buy a pet food brand that they were told was better than other brands and superior in quality for the health and well being of their beloved pets.
While consumers are angry and hurt by the deception, Bishop shrugs and says, “What can you do? Litigation is part of modern business.”
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