With 25 years in the business, Tom Bolbach has a pretty good feel for what dogs and cats are eating these days.
And in the past five years, he’s witnessed a marked shift toward foods with more beef and chicken and less corn and soybeans.
“Everybody’s coming out with grain-free now,” said Bolbach, who owns Pet Connection in St. Louis. “Dogs are carnivores. Same with cats. You want to have some meat in there for them.”
It’s a shift driven by customers such as Cindy Hausman, who sees her pets more as family members than animals.
On a recent afternoon, she talked about how she picks food for her two dogs — Diesel and Dixie — as she selected a bag made by Diamond, a small Missouri-based firm touting recipes heavy on meat and vegetables.
“What makes me like it? Corn is not the No. 1 ingredient,” said Hausman, who’s willing to pay a little more for what she believes is a tastier option. “They don’t have to be bribed into eating it. They don’t expect table scraps in their food.”
That concern over what we feed our pets has transformed the industry in recent years. It also has a lot to do, observers say, with St. Louis-based Nestle Purina Petcare Co. and its decision last month to challenge a smaller, but rapidly growing, competitor in federal court.
The lawsuit, which accuses Connecticut-based Blue Buffalo of false advertising, is essentially a fight over the upper tier of the pet food market — the fastest-growing segment of the $23 billion industry.
Almost half of that value falls within the premium dog and cat food categories, which are projected to grow 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, by 2019, according to Euromonitor International. The economy markets are expected to remain essentially flat during the same time frame, while the mid-priced categories are projected to show modest single-digit growth.
These market trends demonstrate what most of us already know. Long gone are the days when people parked their pets outdoors like domesticated livestock.
“Today, people don’t only bring them inside; they dress them up for Halloween. They sleep with them,” said Mike Sagman, owner and editor of the website Dog Food Advisor.
The site, which isn’t weighing in on the Purina-Blue Buffalo dispute, tries to help pet owners with their food decisions, by reviewing hundreds of product lines, based on the ingredients listed on labels.
“This is the age of choice,” he said. “And it’s become a nightmare for people to choose.”
Helping customers make those decisions also has been a part of Blue Buffalo’s marketing, as it challenges the quality of products made by what it refers to as “big name” competitors. Among the things offered by Blue Buffalo is a website application that compares its foods to specific competitors, including Purina.
Blue Buffalo, which declined to comment for this report, was started in 2002 by William Bishop. The company has grown quickly and now commands 5 percent of the nation’s pet food market, according court filings. That growth appears set to continue, with the firm — now majority-owned by the investment firm Invus Group — looking into an initial public offering that could value the company at $2 billion, according to a report in March by Financial Times.
The company argues that its success is why it’s being targeted by its larger rival, a division of Swiss-based Nestle, which had more than $92 billion in sales last year — with more than $12 billion of that coming from its pet care division. In comparison, Blue Buffalo’s revenue was reportedly in the $600 million range.
“Unable to compete on the merits of its ingredients or products, or for the hearts and minds of today’s pet food consumers, Nestle Purina has decided to wage a nationwide advertising smear campaign,” Blue Buffalo said in its countersuit.
Purina, whose brands include Beneful and Dog Chow, disagrees.
“Yes, Blue Buffalo has gained market share. But Blue Buffalo simply isn’t playing by the rules,” said Keith Schopp, a company spokesman. “We have been competing fairly for 85 years. But Blue Buffalo went too far.”
Purina’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, accuses its rival of including ingredients such as corn and chicken byproducts — things such as necks, feet and intestines — despite claims to the contrary. The ingredients were discovered by an independent lab after Purina decided to put Blue Buffalo’s aggressive advertising to the test, Schopp said.
“We wanted to see what we might learn,” he said.
Blue Buffalo has blasted the testing as “voodoo science” while reiterating its ad claims.
This isn’t the company’s first run-in with angry competitors.
Others, including Kansas-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc. have complained about the company’s tactics. In March, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the investigative arm of the self-regulating advertising industry, ruled that Blue Buffalo was engaging in misleading ad practices regarding some of its claims about rival products and recommended changes.
And now the company finds itself having to fend off consumer lawsuits as well.
Two of them were filed in federal court — one in Missouri, the other in Illinois — just one day after Purina filed its lawsuit.
The suits, which seek class-action status, follow the same line of attack as Purina’s, with allegations of misleading labels.
“They’re making a lot of bold misrepresentations. In some cases it might be straight-out fraud,” said Ryan Keane, an attorney with the Simon Law Firm, which is representing clients in both cases.
Keane would not go into detail about the cases, but he said his firm has not yet done its own testing of Blue Buffalo’s food.
He noted his firm previously sued Purina over the Beneful dog food line, accusing it of causing illness and death for some pets. That suit was dismissed earlier this year in a decision that’s being appealed.
“Our firm has been looking at dog food cases for a while,” Keane said.
These sorts of fights aren’t all that unusual in the business world, where intense competition can drive companies to act if they believe a rival is acting inappropriately.
“There’s a lot of money at stake,” said Yvette Liebesman, an assistant professor at the St. Louis University law school. “Why wouldn’t they want to make sure that it’s stopped?”
Liebesman pointed to another case in which Pom Wonderful is suing Coca-Cola Co. over claims made by the soft-drink giant about its Blueberry Pomegranate drink.
In that case, which was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, Pom accuses Coca-Cola of false advertising because the drink is 99.4 percent apple and grape juice. Coca-Cola’s defense is that its label meets the requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, leaving no grounds for a lawsuit by Pom.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that Pom may sue Coca-Cola, essentially deciding that when it comes to food labels, federal laws governing false advertising take precedence over the FDA.
Both cases, though, demonstrate the value of these sorts of legal actions, even if the parties have selfish motivations, said Rebecca Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of 43(b)log, a blog dedicated to happenings in the realm of false advertising. (The 43 is a reference to a section of the Lanham Act.)
We have a system that almost requires businesses to police each other, because consumers, and often government regulators, lack the resources needed to do the job, Tushnet said.
“In some cases, other competitors are the only avengers left,” she said.