Doggone if competing dog chow brands aren't at each other's throats. What started two years ago as a quibble over kibble has grown into teeth-baring lawsuits and snarling countersuits that allege fraud and deception with dire consequences to America's pet population. Even the feds have stepped in.
Fur first started flying after the mega-corporation Procter & Gamble acquired the Dayton, Ohio-based Iams Co. in late 1999 and began making plans to mass-market the highly regarded Iams and Eukanuba dog foods. Both brands had been sold exclusively through pet stores, veterinary clinics and pet boutiques, not supermarkets.
By early 2000, Iams reformulated its dog food ingredients "to enhance" the formula -- substituting chicken for "chicken by-products meal" and a "carbohydrate blend" of bran sorghum and barley for rice. It then adjusted its package instructions to reduce per-day servings by 25 percent to reflect scientific evidence, it says, that in-home dogs are 25 percent less active than kennel dogs -- the basis of most dog food formulations.
A scrappy competitor of Iams, premium pet food maker Nutro, accused Iams of reducing both the nutritional value and serving size in order to lower its prices to compete with supermarket brands such as Purina, Friskies and Alpo.
"They changed their ingredients and in our view cheapened their ingredients," says Jerry Sicherman, president of Nutro Products, headquartered in City of Industry, Calif.
In five "independent" kennel studies Nutro commissioned to analyze the reformulated Iams products and feeding instructions, dogs lost weight so rapidly that the studies had to be stopped prematurely, says Sicherman.
Nutro complained to Iams, threatening legal action if it didn't change its feeding guidelines. Iams sued Nutro for "disparaging activity" and "false and misleading statements," alleging that Nutro's in-store demonstrators were telling shoppers that Iams was using roadkill in its reformulated food. Nutro sued Procter & Gamble (Iams) for false advertising and misleading labeling. A month later, Kal Kan did the same thing.
"This is an extremely false and misleading fraud they are perpetrating," charges Sicherman. What typically happens, he says, is a customer buys dog food based on Iams's better-value claims and doesn't bother to follow the feeding instructions. When the dog acts hungry, the owner ends up feeding it more of the Iams products than recommended on the labels, or adds table scraps into the mix, which cheats the consumer of the value he thought he was buying.
Iams spokesman Bryan Brown dismisses all the fuss as nothing more than its competitors trying to mark off new territory where Iams has been top dog. In fact, the $10.1 billion dog food business is dog-eat-dog competitive. According to market analysts, Nestle's Purina brand leads in market share with 37.3 percent, Iams and Eukanuba rank second with 13.6; Kal Kan holds 11.2 percent, Nutro 4.4 percent.
Brown says Iams's competitors prodded the Food and Drug Administration to enter the fray last year. The FDA's Center of Veterinary Medicine reviewed the claims and issued to Iams a confidential letter whose contents became public in June under the Freedom of Information Act. Large segments of the FOIA-released version are redacted by court order as proprietary and confidential. But enough remains to suggest Iams may be in the FDA's doghouse.
"We are concerned that the recommended amounts listed on Iams products for adult maintenance . . . are insufficient for the intended use of the product as represented on the label," wrote William Burkholder, the FDA's animal food nutrition and labeling expert.
The letter stated that because the Iams products are labeled as "complete and balanced," they are supposed to provide enough nutrition to serve as the "only source of food required to fulfill an animal's daily needs" other than water.
While both sides can stack reams of scientific studies supporting their claims, Burkholder wrote that "none of these studies adequately demonstrates the appropriateness of amounts in the feeding instructions of Iams products."
Iams's Brown says the FDA letter is only "preliminary." Iams, he adds, is still providing information and substantiation to the FDA before the feds make their final judgment -- including a 10-week study Iams completed last year that, according to Brown, validates Iams's current guidelines and will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
As for Iams's label changes, he says, they do indeed reduce by 25 percent Iams's per-day recommended feeding amount and "energy source" from its previous levels. But, he says, for good reason: Dogs need to diet.
"Iams is leading the industry by reducing our feeding guidelines to help combat the problem of overweight and obese pets," says Brown, adding that the changes were made to enhance animal health in a society where pet owners and their pets tend to be overweight and sedentary.
Sicherman says that's baloney because, while pet obesity is becoming an issue, most pets are not obese. Accurate pet-weight data is hard to find. One study at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine estimated that 25 percent of dogs are overweight or obese; other estimates range up to 40 percent. Nutro cites a study that finds fewer than 5 percent of the dogs are obese and fewer than 25 percent overweight. Besides, says Sicherman, Iams already had a product specifically for overweight and inactive dogs.
"The entire pet food industry has relied on scientific findings to establish their feeding instructions for years," says Sicherman. "Iams broke ranks."
Alice Nathanson, director of external affairs for Kal Kan, says, "Companies that communicate misinformation of any sort on their labels substantially undermine the credibility of all of us in the pet food industry by eroding pet owner trust and confidence."
A year ago in March, Karen Pollack of Los Angeles filed a class-action suit against Iams. "She fed her dog according to the instructions and her dog started losing weight," reports Gary Soter, a partner at the Tarzana, Calif., law firm Wasserman, Coamden & Casselman, which is representing Pollack. "We think there is reason to believe that Iams engaged in false and deceptive advertising in connection with its feeding instructions and cost comparisons."
The motion to certify Pollack's suit as a nationwide class-action suit is scheduled for Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 12. Court dates for the Nutro, Kal Kan and Iams lawsuits are set for early 2003. And a spokeswoman for the FDA says it is "carefully evaluating" Iams's responses to its letter and doesn't know when or how the case will end.
Meanwhile, Iams's Brown says: "If the change in guidelines had caused health problems in dogs . . . Iams customers would have indicated a problem long before any litigation or competitor complaint."
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to email@example.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.