It’d been two years since our last visit to the vet. Last year we went into the vet for a routine visit (we titer our dogs for rabies). We liked that our vet was a privately owned practice. It seemed to show in the level of care, which was high and our vet was thoughtful, kind, and not eager to over-treat.
This time, things were different. Our vet was now recommending a host of tests and preventative treatments, previously unnecessary or unimportant, now was on the verge of aggressive and guilt peddling, scheduling follow up 6mo maintenance appointments for a host of things. They also pushed ROYAL CANIN(r), the product filling their lobby, a Mars brand. On a hunch I asked if they were still privately owned. Turns out they weren’t, being recently bought out by Banfield. Our once independent vet was now an employee with sales goals.
We called around to find a new vet, especially for the new kittens we brought into our home. We asked each prospective new vet if they were independent. 4 of 5 were owned by a large corporation. We found a new, independent vet conveniently near our house, and while she’s not a fan of raw feeding (she pushes Hills on us every time we visit… they make a profit off of the food they sell, but that’s another article), she’s open to the idea.
That got me thinking about how pet care changes when large corporations get involved. Corporations are driven by profits. The CEO and other leadership are judged on their ability to increase revenue each quarter. If they’re not successful, they’ll be replaced; someone else will take their jobs. In other words, they’re highly motivated to find ways to grow their business.
Imagine if McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendys begin buying private medical practices. Then hired experts to carry the fast food product message to doctors at their practice, giving them a financial incentive to sell the food to patients. Then these large companies gain access to medical schools where they teach the nutrition courses, giving med students across the country large discounts at their restaurants for them and their family, ingraining eating patterns. Suppose they also got access to the FDA where they had a large hand writing and influencing what’s in the USDA’s Recommended Daily Allowances (the food pyramid), which is the reference standard used to construct food/diets for restaurants, school cafeterias, and even how food is labeled. This data is a main and trusted data source given to consumers so they are able to independently evaluate which food is best for them and their family. If you manipulate that data, you change what people eat.
You’d be appalled, right? Well, that’s what’s happening in pet healthcare.
A substantial majority of the dry food brands available today come from three multinational companies. Mars produces Pedigree, Royal Canin, Whiskas, Cesar, Eukanuba, and Iams, and nearly 50 more. Nestle produces Purina, Beneful, Alpo, Dog and Cat Chow, and around 30 others. Colgate-Palmolive owns Hills Pet Nutrition.
In 1988 Colgate-Palmolive purchased The Mark Morris Institute, a company with a long history in pet food research, development, and education. MMI also owned Hills Science Diet, a pet food so scientific that it has the word science in the title. Then Colgate-Palmolive began to focus on the veterinary departments of US universities, offering cash-starved universities generous financial donations in return for veterinary endorsements, product placement, distribution of their nutrition information (and discounted food) to vet students, and even teaching nutrition to third-year students. As a result, you can find links to Hill’s sponsorship on most university veterinary department websites.
Veterinary governing bodies and journals are also being influenced. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) all have ties to and promote Hills programs and foods.
Mars also teaches nutrition directly to veterinary students and offers accredited continuing education programs for vets, creating a built-in bias instead of an objective understanding of all forms of nutrition. But that’s not the only place Mars has focused their investments. They’ve been buying up independent veterinary practices. By mid-2018 Mars Inc had more than 50,000 veterinary professionals working for them. Included in this staggering number of veterinary professionals that make-up the Banfield brand.
Tom Fuller, a financial officer for Mars said in 2017 regarding the investments in veterinary services:
“…to leverage our existing customer base by increasing the number and intensity of services received during each visit” -Clenfield 2017
Mars is also getting into supplying diagnostics and laboratory services. They purchased Veterinary Centers of America, one of the largest diagnostics laboratories in the world.
With dominance in vet hospital ownership, the VCA, food, Mars has firmly established a new approach to pet health with food, vets, and labs — an entire ecosystem owned by one company.
We need to accept pet owners are pretty much the perfect market. Most owners love their pets like their own children, willing to do anything it takes to keep them healthy. They pay cash. There aren’t insurance company providers vets are required to haggle with to ensure the correct (and not excessive) treatments are being given.
There’s much more to this story. For example, the pharmaceutical companies have fully jumped into the pet drug business. High margins few regulations, and almost no liability (~$1500 is the max payout for a dead pet since they’re considered property by the courts).
With the smallest peek behind the curtain, you can start to understand how vets look at nutrition, why raw feeding isn’t favored by some vets, and what you can expect when you go to your vet’s office by looking at what food brands they’re selling in the lobby.