Bashing Beneful Is Fun! … But Does It Help Pets?


I’d like to convince you to adopt an unpopular opinion: Namely, that Purina’s behemoth brand, Beneful, may not deserve the collective national excoriation it’s received over the past couple of weeks.

In case you haven’t heard, this über-popular pet food is the subject of a lawsuit alleging deadly toxicity. The recent death of two dogs fueled both legal action and a highly effective nationwide social media campaign designed to condemn the Beneful brand.

Sounds terrible, right? Why, then, am I so willing to defend it?

It’s not because Beneful is especially tasty or nutritious –– because it’s not, seeing as it’s pretty much the same stuff, quality-wise, as 90% of what’s out there. Rather, it’s more because no one’s convinced me that Beneful is especially unsafe. Not yet, anyway. 

For starters, there’s the lack of evidence to consider: The FDA hasn’t found any of the nasty mycotoxins alleged by the suit. And as for propylene glycol, the other supposed poison in Beneful, it simply isn't considered toxic. This food-grade compound may not be what most of us consider "wholesome," but it’s found in all kinds of comestible consumer goods –– not in antifreeze, as the aggrieved party claims. (Note: Here I'm referring to the "food grade" version of this compound.)

All of which makes the outcry against Beneful smack more of pitchfork wielding than pet protecting, even to this vocal critic of the pet food industry. 

Still, I get it… it’s great fun to clobber a blockbuster brand many of us regard more for its dogged pursuit of mediocrity (amid brazen claims to peculiar wholesomeness) than for anything else. Yet all we really have against Beneful in this case is the not-so-unbiased and wholly unscientific assessment of one bereaved pet owner –– not to mention all the vituperation and social media savvy one lawyer in search of a class action windfall can muster.  

To be sure, it’s become somewhat fashionable to bash big pet food manufacturers. And not without cause. After all, they don’t have the most illustrious track record.

Consider 2007’s infamous pet food recall, during which consumer advocates criticized the industry for its lax self-policing efforts, lambasting manufacturers for press announcements conveniently timed to protect brands over pets. Almost eight years later, the distrust persists. 

This suspicion is understandable given that the pet food industry continues to challenge veterinarians’ and pet owners’ confidence –– most notoriously by defending egregious examples of mislabeling, all the while portraying itself as grievously ill-deserving of greater oversight:

Example #1: Consider the case of a study published last September in the journal Food Control . Through high-tech protein testing, researchers found that 21 out of 52 commercial pet foods were mislabeled. Of these, almost a third contained a meat not listed on the label. Meanwhile, the researchers detected the presence of an unidentifiable “mystery” protein in seven of the 52 samples. (For the record, this wasn’t the first study of its kind.)

Yes, it’s that bad. So bad, in fact, that even industry insiders have had a hard time bringing other manufacturers to heel on the issue of transparency. Which brings me to …

Example #2: Consider the recent Blue Buffalo debacle, in which Purina undertook to sue Blue Buffalo on the grounds that it was knowingly misrepresenting its foods as “grain-free” (they were not), thereby defrauding the public. Though Purina was unable to irrefutably prove that Blue Buffalo knowingly misrepresented its diets, Blue Buffalo’s claims of ignorance strain credulity.

Despite their newsworthiness, these shocking affronts to pet health and consumer trust have been effectively quashed by pet food companies. Inexplicably, they've proven less sexy to consumers and less newsworthy to the media than Beneful’s unproven lapses have been. 

Which is galling, really. How can we be so social media savvy and yet so gullible all at once? How can we swallow Beneful’s marketing claims whole … just to spit them out on a meme and a share? Why can’t we latch onto the industry’s real insults to animals?

It’s not that I don’t feel for those who lose pets under baffling circumstances. As someone who recently lost a beloved dog to an unexplained episode of pancreatitis, I truly feel their grief. But raising a hair-trigger alarm on the basis of a hunch devalues episodes of demonstrated toxicity. Which makes it that much harder to get the message through when we really need it disseminated. 

Indeed, no matter how forgivable our desire to stomp a middling brand to bits might be, doing so in this case only serves to demean the memory of pets lost to proven problems with pet foods and risks the lives of still others. Moreover, bashing Beneful misses the point entirely. It’s not that our pet food is outright unsafe. The point is that the industry hasn’t shown it’s to be trusted.

So think on that before you hit the “share” button on the next Beneful post that comes your way. And share mine if you’ve come around to my way of thinking. I look forward to hearing from you if you haven’t. Thanks in advance for keeping your comments constructive and civil!