On Friday morning, NBC News posted an article to its website about premium dog food upstarts like The Farmer’s Dog and Pet Plate that soon became one of the most viewed articles about dogs on the Internet that day and through the weekend. The article, whose author is Shari Uyehara, appeared in Google News’s top five search results for “dogs” out of 207,000,000 other results through Friday and Saturday.
Ms. Uyehara, who is a “production coordinator and writer for NBC News Shopping,” according to her author identification, has not yet answered TCR’s email requests for comment, including our question about why she chose to add no context or explanation when she quoted statements from the five different pet food companies, or why she chose not to offer assessments of the company statements by any independent vets in the discussion of each company.
Ms. Uyehara’s article focuses on the expanding market of “direct-to-consumer” or “DTC” dog foods such as The Farmer’s Dog, which TCR reported on earlier this year. The Farmer’s Dog and competitors such as Pet Plate (also discussed in the NBC article) market themselves as healthier, safer, and more wholesome alternatives to larger-scale pet food brands. The story, which discloses at the outset that NBC receives a fee each time any person clicks on any of the products mentioned in the story, offers no evaluations from veterinarians, except for the first paragraph, in which one vet is quoted saying that dog foods should be “complete and balanced.” There is no direct link from the quote to any of the companies discussed in the story; in fact, the quote itself is from a prior report. Next, a veterinarian is quoted as saying that it’s important for foods to meet AAFCO standards, which is more or less the same statement the companies, themselves, subsequently make.
What is not provided to readers is the fact that there are three possible AAFCO statements a pet food label can make, including a statement that is considered by many veterinarians to be a key indicator and gold standard for pet food, which is that the food has been through AAFCO feeding trials. None of this is explained, including, most important, the fact that none of the foods in NBC’s article have undergone the high standard of AAFCO feeding trials, as TCR has independently confirmed.
The writer proceeds to list statements from each pet food company with what is sometimes referred to as a “Nutritional Adequacy” statement, with no further comment or context from nutrition of health experts working outside of the companies. It is accompanied by this note from NBC: Our editors independently selected these items because we think you will enjoy them and might like them at these prices. If you purchase something through our links, we may earn a commission. Pricing and availability are accurate as of publish time. Learn more about Shop TODAY.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, is a voluntary organization whose members are officials of local, state and federal agencies that regulate animal foods and drugs. Although AAFCO is repeatedly referenced in each company statement from which Ms. Uyehara quotes, there is no explanation of its role in pet food labeling. Most important, readers are not told that one key AAFCO statement about a product’s nutritional value is widely regarded by veterinarians as the most dispositive one.
“The AAFCO statement is one of the most important things to look for on a pet food label,” renowned veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Freeman and colleagues explain in a blog post about deciphering pet food labels. All pet foods that cross state lines are required to bear “nutritional adequacy” or “AAFCO” statements, Dr. Freeman explains, whereupon she advises readers to seek pet foods for which the label states that they have been put through AAFCO feeding trials as opposed to foods for which feeding trials are not conducted.
“If AAFCO feeding trials are not conducted, the manufacturer should, at a minimum, ensure that diets meet AAFCO nutrient profiles through analysis of the finished product,” Dr. Freeman writes.
The “minimum” Dr. Freeman is referring to is the AAFCO statement reported without context in the NBC article. As of Sunday evening, The Canine Review has confirmed with Pet Plate, Nom Nom, Sunday’s, and The Farmer’s Dog – four out of the five companies listed in NBC’s report – that AAFCO feed trials are not conducted.
“Nom Nom diets have not yet been through feeding trials,” Nom Nom customer service representative ‘Emily’ wrote to TCR in an email. TCR did not identify ourselves in our inquiries to the food companies for this report because we wanted an accurate understanding of how the companies describe themselves to customers and prospective customers. “Our recipes have been formulated by our board-certified veterinary nutritionist, …to meet (and exceed) AAFCO standards for all life stages,” Emily wrote. She added:
“AAFCO feeding trials require that animals receive nothing but the diet, and this is only often practical in research settings….We solicit health and wellness information from the parents of dogs and cats currently eating our food in the hopes of exceeding such standards,” she said. “All of our diets are formulated to meet the nutrition recommendations of AAFCO and the combination of dietary testing and the well-known nutrition composition of USDA labeled foods for human consumption makes us confident that such diets would meet the standards of a feeding trial.”
“Pet Plate meals meet AAFCO nutrition standards in terms of protein, fat, minerals, vitamins and more, and are formulated by Renee Streeter, DVM, DACVN, a veterinary nutritionist,” NBC News’ digital audience is told. “The meals are human-grade, don’t include artificial ingredients and are USDA-certified,” the writer states without any proof or attribution.
TCR readers may already be familiar with Dr. Streeter from TCR’s reporting in June on a group of veterinary nutritionists who had published an article in an academic journal which contradicted the warning issued by the FDA about grain-free dog food. The paper, it turned out, was funded by a pet food company named in the FDA warning. In other words, about as direct conflict of interest as there can be.
Asked about AAFCO feeding trials through customer service, ‘Meghan D’ at Pet Plate wrote back:
“Our meals are formulated by our Veterinary Nutritionist, Dr. Renee Streeter. She ensures that all meals follow the standards and guidelines set by the AAFCO …
We have not done feeding trials as Dr. Streeter has been formulating meals for her personal clients for many years and has already gone through proper trials with her own business. You can feel free to look into her personal practice if you want more information on her background. We do however do regular digestibility studies :)”
Equally, if not more surprising, was the absence of any discussion in the NBC post about the fact that four of the five foods listed in the article offer diets which meet criteria discussed in the FDA’s 2019 warning about types of dogs foods that have been linked to heart disease and continue to be under investigation.
Neither NBC News nor author Ms. Uyehara has returned TCR’s requests for comment, including our question about why the pet food company statements were not vetted by independent experts or the dollar amount in commission fees NBC has earned to date from sales generated by the article.