Updated: Mar 22, 2022
A few weeks ago we had an email exchange that really got under our skin. A potential customer had inquired about the cost of feeding, and our calculation was more than she was comfortable paying.
In case you are wondering, we are well aware that we make an expensive product. Our weekly ritual of paying vendor invoices occasionally elicits tears. At this point we are also accustomed to the various reactions people have to sticker shock. For the most part, they are gracious and indicate that Evermore is out of their budget. In these cases, we’ll offer a recipe template and recommendations for other companies, if asked.
This particular response, however, bordered between mocking and accusatory: Other companies out there sell “humane” foods with organic ingredients, how dare you charge your prices? I (Hanna) composed a litany of snarky responses in my head—there’s a reason why I stepped away from everyday customer service. I asked Erin what her response was. She told me in cases like this where there was a level of vitriol involved, she generally did not continue the conversation. I brought it up with Alison, who advocated for thoughtful engagement. Nope, no way, not with this one.
This exchange, however, did highlight that there is a lot that we need to unpack about what differentiates us from other companies making these claims… and the best way to do this would be in blog form. So thank you, unkind stranger, for the motivation to start typing.
Our North Star
If we were asked to pick a single thing that makes Evermore truly special, we’d be bummed that we couldn’t list everything, but we would also jump to ingredient sourcing without a moment’s hesitation. If asked what makes our sourcing special, again there’s so much there, but our most strongly held guiding principle is animal welfare. We love animals, all animals (some insects like ticks and mosquitoes aside), and this absolutely includes the animals whose lives are sacrificed for food. We have often been asked if we have plans for vegan dog food. We do not. While we are aware of the growing popularity of vegan dog foods, we do not believe that this is a species-appropriate diet. It does not honor the essential nature of a dog or cat; a deeper discussion on this is a topic for another day. That said, it is difficult to reconcile loving an animal with eating it or feeding it to a pet. This is why we prioritize animal welfare above all else in considering our vendors.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, 85% of the meat available in the USA is raised under factory farming conditions, close to 15% is raised to medium welfare standards—still technically factory farmed, but with more space, enrichment, and better handling practices—and less than 1% of the meat raised in this country would be considered high welfare. Let that sink in, 99% of the meat in this country is from factory farmed animals. If a pet food company presents their meat as USDA whatever grade, human-grade, or restaurant-grade, it is factory farmed. As you can imagine, this makes Alison’s role as Sourcer-ess more difficult, but also a lot more interesting and educational.
Humane is Big Business
Ethically raised meat is of growing importance to consumers. According to a 2017 sustainability study by the Hartman Group, 71% of respondents indicated that when making purchasing decisions, it is important that the company avoids inhumane treatment of animals. It is truly encouraging that more and more people care about animal welfare. If you look in the meat sections of the supermarket or at most of the pet food ads you’re being fed on social media, it would appear that “humane” meat is everywhere, that there is abundant choice in this area.
In reality, despite being evocative, the terms “humane” and “humanely raised” have no legal definition. Individual producers can set their own parameters for what this means, use the word “humane” on a label so long as they list what they believe qualifies them as humane, and operate with no oversight. Factory farmed meats can be, and often are, sold as humane. We’ve read enough lists describing practices that frankly aren’t impressive, like “vegetarian feed.”
As with the term “humane,” a lot of other descriptive words are undefined to the point of virtual meaninglessness, or don’t really signify what they appear to. However, there’s a fairly limited lexicon of familiar words that would signify to a consumer that a company is taking welfare into consideration. We find ourselves using words like, humane, accountable, ethical, sustainable, etc. to describe our food all of the time. In order to further specify what practices and standards we adhere to, we try to spell it out as clearly as possible on the Sourcing Story page of our website. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we often refer to the various certifications that most of our suppliers have obtained, but certifications don't tell the whole story…
If you are a conscientious consumer, you already know that label certifications such as Certified Humane, GAP, and a host of others can serve as an instant visual marker that a product meets a specific criteria. However, all too often consumers see something stamped on a box and think this is enough, without knowing what the certification actually means or if it is even relevant. One example of this is GMO-free certifications for products where there isn’t even the possibility for a genetically modified version—GMO-free salt, anyone? Additionally, not all programs are created equal. Each has its own set of standards and level of oversight. The Animal Welfare Institute is a great resource (we refer to them a lot) and has a useful guide on certifications and label claims.
As we mentioned, most—but not all—of our suppliers pursue some sort of humane certification. That said, the lack of certification does not necessarily mean that a rancher’s practices are inferior to one that is certified; in fact, often the opposite is true. If you go to your local farmers’ market, you will likely have the opportunity to purchase from small farms that raise their animals to the highest welfare standards. You will have the opportunity to ask questions and develop an understanding about what the producer does and why. Many farms are even open to visits from members of the public and sell their products on site. For smaller operations, the costs and extra administration associated with applying for and maintaining certifications can be too much of a burden for a small business. Even slightly larger operations may balk at the expense and paperwork, especially if they already have a great reputation and the customer base that they need. Certification programs are marketing. They are a shorthand way to communicate something to buyers in order to increase the likelihood of a sale. If a rancher doesn’t feel that they need a stamp from an outside organization to do this, then they may choose not to.
In the grand scheme of things, Evermore is like the small farmer at the market. We can answer all of your questions about our criteria, but we have yet to obtain any form of certification. We’re definitely looking into it, but at this point it’s premature. The main obstacle would be that any stamp on our box would limit us to suppliers that have obtained the same certification. In some cases this would even prevent us from using the highest quality and most accountable ingredients out there. Given the challenges of being a very small company vying for that less than 1% of high-welfare meat out there and the very real possibility that we may need to rely on alternate vendors for any number of reasons, it makes the most sense to allow for some flexibility in choosing our partners. Also, certification organizations (even non-profits) are businesses in their own right, and the meaningfulness and/or stringency of any particular certification may change and become diluted over time.
Voting with Dollars
At the end of day, we feel strongly that every time we support vendors who genuinely prioritize animal welfare, we are voting with our dollars. While we believe that there needs to be stronger animal welfare protection enshrined into law, consumers have the ability to enact change on the basis of their purchasing power. We are a business and we are not going to pretend that we don’t take the bottom line into account when we make decisions, but we would rather have our food sold at a higher price point than compromise our values.
So, next time you find yourself comparing different food options—whether it is for your pup or yourself—the question shouldn’t only be why is one product more expensive than the other, but also, why is the cheaper product cheaper?