If You Thought Like Your Customer – You Wouldn’t Be Recalling The Pet Food

Do you think now that pet owners would be prepared to pay more for pet foods made only with North American ingredients? Or under strict government control? Read that question one more time if you have pets. This is the question on the mind of every pet owner and those who retail pet foods these last few days. We have an epidemic of companies who had their pet food made by one firm. However in the time it took me to start writing this column — only up to this point — the situation has changed again. As of two minutes ago, Purina has recalled Alpo. The recall affects all sizes and varieties of Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy wet dog food with specific date codes, but not food made in Canada.

U.S.-based Purina said that wheat gluten containing melamine, a chemical used in fertilizers in Asia and to make plastics and laminates, was provided for the manufacturing of the dog food by the same company that also supplied Menu Foods.The contamination occurred in a limited production quantity at only one of Purina’s 17 pet food manufacturing facilities in the U.S., the company said. Although this Purina recall affects wet food, even other brands of dry food are now being recalled as well.

One of the very first things I was taught in business school was not to put all your eggs in one basket. If you invest in the stock market, same thing right? Diversity your potential risks. What happened to these pet food companies? I can understand some of the big box retailers who needed someone to make them private label dog food (Wal-Mart’s ‘Ol Roy just strikes too close to home for me!) so naturally they would go to a firm that does nothing but make pet foods for others. These major retailers are not in the food production business; they are retailers who need a house brand. But how do the major brand names like Purina, Hills-Science Diet, Iams and others like Proctor and Gamble, get caught up in this? Answer: they must be using the same company to make or supply their products.

Obviously this same supplier-company is buying in huge quantities (in this case, from China) to get better prices; or maybe there was a shortage of wheat gluten here. No matter how you cut the wheat, however, this always results in almost every product they make being comprised of similar if not the very same ingredients, purchased from the same original suppliers.This is likely how contaminated wheat gluten, imported from China, got into every different kind of over 100 different pet foods sold in North America! Why worry, it’s only for cats or dogs, right? It’s not for human consumption. But what if it was? If one of those sick pets was yours, how would you feel? If you had believed these well-known brand names’ marketing messages of ‘highest quality’, ‘best ingredients’, ‘made with care’ and such, would you ever trust that brand again?

Years ago, I had three dogs and one cat. I worked with a partner to market a high quality, expensive, all natural ingredients dog/cat food using network marketing, instead of the usual retail distribution system. This was long before the better quality pet food market had fully developed. Stupidly, not once did I inquire as to where they obtained their ingredients or who supplied them. If they had told me that they obtained their ‘wheat gluten or whatever’ from an essentially unregulated source like China, I would have passed, no matter how inexpensive the ‘whatever ingredient’ was. I was naïve not to ask. As a marketer, I was lucky that time. Most of the time we are lucky. This is what happens, however, when we’re too busy to dig deep and find out just who is supplying and making the products we in turn sell to our own customers.

I know of pet owners who will never buy pet food from a retail outlet ever again; only from their own Vet. Imagine the strain that will now be on Vets to really “know” what they too are selling their patients. Imagine the pressure the Veterinary Information Network — a special web site that represents more than 30,000 Vets and vetinerary students — will put on any maker of pet food who wants to have his products sold by Vets in the future.Never just look away and not know exactly what is going into things; or who is making the products you sell to your customers. Never take the easier, cheaper path of going along with the crowd. Take the time to find alternative suppliers; split your business up, using at least two or three different suppliers, so you diversify your market and financial risk. Lastly, remember to think like your customer. If you don’t, your customers will never forget you….when you surely mess up.