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Did Industry Funding Influence an FDA Investigation into Canine Heart Disease and Grain-Free Dog Food?
GRAIN-FREE INFLUENCERS UNDER INVESTIGATION
Back in 2018, the FDA shockingly announced they were looking into a possible link between grain-free dog foods and the heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
Dog owners everywhere started worrying about what their dogs were eating … even questioning whether “grain-free” included raw diets.
(The answer to that question is no, by the way. Grain-free diets in this context are kibbles made with other starches like potatoes or legumes, instead of traditional grains like wheat, oats or barley.)
A new probe uncovered some new information about the vets who prompted this warning. It seems there might have been a financial interest in tarnishing the reputations of some foods ...
THE ATTACK ON GRAIN-FREE FOODS
In July 2018, the FDA announced it was investigating a link between grain-free foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.
The FDA stated there were reports of 25 dogs with DCM, in some breeds that weren’t genetically prone to the disease. They believed there was a link to grain-free, “exotic” or “boutique” (called ”BEG”) diets that used potatoes or legumes like peas or lentils as their source of starch.
The FDA suspected taurine deficiency might be a cause, since grains contain some taurine. At that time, the FDA encouraged “veterinary professionals to report well-documented cases of DCM in dogs whose illness is suspected of having a link to diet.”
In 2019, the FDA took the unusual step of naming 16 dog food brands that that were cited most often in their DCM case reports. More than 90% of these foods were grain-free.
The industry was shocked that the FDA identified brands without having any real proof of the link to dogs with DCM.
After this list was publicized, reports of DCM cases surged. By July 2020 the FDA had more than 1,100 reports of dogs with DCM.
Many dog owners moved away from grain-free diets, which sharply affected sales of these foods.
GRAIN-FREE SALES PLUMMET
Whether it was a result of the FDA enquiry or not, grain-free dry dog food sales have seen a significant drop, especially in the brands the FDA named.
Even with increased pet industry spending during the pandemic, grain-free food sales continued to decline, dropping by $60 million in 2021.
Meanwhile, sales of grain-based dog foods grew by $700 million from 2020 to 2021.
There was a 19% shift following the start of the FDA’s investigation, when sales of these foods were down 5%.
A TANGLED WEB OF FUNDING
A probe by the watchdog investigative group 100Reporters uncovered some new facts about the vets who prompted the grain-free food warnings.
The Latest News 100Reporters says that “a tangled web of pet food industry funding and interests” influenced the entire FDA study.
The initial FDA enquiry was prompted by veterinarians who reported a possible link between grain-free foods and DCM. But now, the 100Reporters 6-month investigation shows some of these vets may have financial and other ties to the top makers of grain-based pet foods.
The FDA’s records also show that some vets were instructed to submit only DCM cases that implicated grain-free, “exotic” or “boutique” pet foods.
THE GRAIN-FREE FALLOUT
Grain-free diets became popular in 2016 when grains were thought to be causing pet allergies. By 2019, grain-free food sales totaled $5.4 billion – and about 43% of dry foods sold.
In March 2018, “a vet” asked the FDA to hear their findings on DCM and dietary relationships. The following month, three veterinarians – Tufts University’s Lisa Freeman, University of Florida’s Darcy Adin, and UC Davis’s Joshua Stern – discussed their clinical observations in a call with the FDA.
The following year, DCM case reports quickly increased, going from 3 a year, to 25 from January to early July 2019 – with 90% of the dogs reportedly eating grain-free diets.
FDA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that 7 of the 25 cases came from one source: Lisa Freeman of Tufts.
But the records also suggest those reports didn’t accurately reflect cases at the Tufts clinic.
In fact, in a June 2018 email to the FDA, Freeman attached a Tufts document that instructed their vets to report cases to the FDA, “If patient is eating any diet besides those made by well-known, reputable companies or if eating a boutique, exotic ingredient, or grain-free (BEG) diet.”
This suggests there was some cherry-picking of data to implicate BEG diets from smaller manufacturers.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The 100Reporters article argues that all three vets named were influenced by industry financial ties. All three vets have authored numerous studies funded by companies like Nestlé Purina Petcare, Mars Petcare, Hill’s Pet Nutrition or the Morris Animal Foundation (a non-profit founded by the original creator of pet foods for the company that later became Hill’s).
All three veterinary schools have close ties to these food manufacturers as well … including student discounts on their foods, scholarship funds, research grants and donations.
These companies make many of the most popular grain-based foods. They also sell grain-free foods … but industry experts point out that grain-free food ingredients are more expensive, so the companies have an incentive to drive consumers back to grain-based foods.
While there have been some studies looking at the link between grain-free foods and DCM, they haven’t been conclusive. The FDA itself has said it’s a “scientifically complex, mutifaceted issue.”
Cardiologist Sarah M Cavanaugh DVM MS DACVIM said in Veterinary Practice News (August 15, 2019), “The assertion dog food with “grain-free” labeling will cause dilated cardiomyopathy or other heart disease has no scientific merit at this time.”
There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that industry influences could have been a factor in prompting the FDA’s initial announcement. And the FDA seems to have pulled back from the investigation with the last report dated June 2019.
Some say this is due to lack of evidence … while others cite pressure on the FDA from the pulse (legume) industry, which was profiting from the grain-free trend.
What is clear is that there’s now considerable doubt about the accuracy of the DCM reports that triggered the FDA’s original announcement. It’s also clear that the FDA’s well-publicized investigation led to dog owners switching back to grain-based foods … often because their veterinarians recommended it.
So perhaps the influencers got what they wanted – to shift consumers away from BEG foods.