In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started an investigation. Had grain-free dog foods led to a rise in a potentially fatal heart disease in dogs? The premise seems sound. But did industry funding and interests influence the study’s findings?
The FDA is a government organization meant to protect public health. It is tasked with ensuring that products including food, medicines, and cosmetics are safe for use. Four years after the investigation, the FDA has found no firm link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Research is ongoing. But publicity around the concern caused the market for grain-free dog foods to contract.
A journalism organization called 100Reporters looked into the FDA’s research. The six-month investigation found a connection. Some veterinarians who pushed the FDA to look at diet have financial and other ties to sellers of grain-inclusive pet foods. On the other side, suppliers of ingredients used in grain-free dog foods have also put pressure on the FDA to protect their market.
Grain-free pet diets became popular in the early 2000s. They rely heavily on pulses as components. Those are seeds from legume plants including peas, beans, and lentils.
Some of the veterinarians who provided info about diet and DCM to the FDA were paid for research or other services by dog food companies. It’s common for vets to work for these companies. But it could indicate a conflict of interest. That means that a vet who worked for Purina, for example, might be motivated to stay in its good graces by presenting information that benefits the company. Such is often the temptation of fallen humans.
Joseph Bartges, a professor of animal nutrition, notes that the FDA flagged grain-free food early on. That may have affected the FDA’s objectivity in looking at study results. “When you only look for what you want to see, you only see what you look for,” he says.
Suppliers of ingredients for grain-free foods, in turn, marshaled forces to protect their market. A group of lobbyists asked the FDA to “clarify its language” and minimize damage to the industry. Senators from pulse-growing states complained to the FDA about bias hurting farmers.
There’s no conclusion from the investigation yet. But sales of grain-free dry dog foods have fallen since June 2018. They decreased by $60 million from 2021 to 2022. Meanwhile, grain-inclusive sales spiked in 2019. They rose by $700 million from 2020 to 2021.
Getting an answer about DCM will be tough in part because of the complexity of the science. But industry influence is also a factor, says Marion Nestle, author of Pet Food Politics. “They’re all trying to protect their market share.”
Why? God told His people to be impartial in legal matters—like He is. (Leviticus 19:15) Conflict of interest can lead to unfair judgments.
Pray that those charged with investigating the truth will do their work carefully and honestly.