Anything is Possible...
It’s no secret that consumer preference in pet (and people) food is shifting towards sustainability, humane sourcing, transparency, and accountability. This is great news for our pets, farm animals, and the planet. A growing number of pet food companies are implementing more ethical sourcing practices—that’s a good thing. It means animal welfare is becoming a deciding factor in people’s purchasing decisions. When people vote with their dollars, companies have no choice but to follow the money. Many businesses are driven by a genuine desire to improve welfare standards; some, not so much.
Given this changing customer landscape, humane washing is emerging as a huge problem. There’s so much obfuscating and meaningless language out there (we’ll go through more of this in future posts), but no matter what claims a company may make, there are two little words—"when possible"—that completely undermine them. These words are almost never front and center, they lurk in the fine print and come up when making inquiries with customer service representatives. (As a side note, we encourage you to always ask questions about the things that are important to you, even if they seem clear on a website.)
Word choice matters, and it tells us a lot. A possibility is very different from a priority, and neither tells us anything about probability. If you see the words "when possible," you have to read between the lines. For example, many restaurant menus indicate that they offer fresh local ingredients when possible. If you’re dining in Southern California, it is much more likely that your salad greens are coming from a local farm year-round than it is in New England.
When confronted with marketing language claiming organic or humane "when possible," Alison, our doggedly persistent sourcer-ess (who also has an MA in Linguistics), audibly rolls her eyes—yes, I can hear her facial expressions. “It’s always possible,” she’ll exclaim, and then we’ll delve into a discussion about whether or not we’re getting across the level of care and consideration that goes into our sourcing.
One thing that makes it possible for us to make claims that we can stand behind is that we have spent years cultivating relationships with our vendors and backup vendors. We do work with distributors for some of our produce, but we always know and can communicate with the original source. By working directly in this manner, we can contract for ingredients and get a heads-up in the event of anticipated shortages—so we have time to come up with a Plan B that still aligns with our standards. When possible tells us that a company does not have consistent relationships with vendors that offer the quality they’re claiming at the purchasing price they have budgeted.
There are almost always opportunities to acquire higher quality ingredients at a cheaper price, often with their own fine print. After we were in business for a few years, we started getting contacted by ingredient brokers looking to offload meat or produce that would have otherwise gone to waste for any number of reasons: a large retailer would cancel an order at the last minute, product had been sitting in storage for close to two years, transit or storage failures with temperature logs falling outside of a specific range, packaging issues, and any number of other reasons. Some of these offers were totally on the up and up, and others seemed sketchy. For example, during a nationwide apple shortage, we were offered a pallet of apples high in patulin (a toxin most commonly found in rotting apples). Another opportunity included meat that had been frozen for more than two years. Needless to say, we passed on both. That said, the first time we were able to include 100% grass-fed beef in our food was in one such arrangement. At the time we were committing to an amazing GAP 4 supplier with very high animal welfare standards, but still grain-finished. In this case, the meat was an order slated for Whole Foods that was canceled at the 11th hour. In these situations, producers often have to stay quiet and absorb the loss to maintain their relationship with a large account.
We were so excited to make that first grass-fed batch. It has always been our priority to continuously raise our own bar. At that point we could have put grass-fed when possible on our website and in our literature and taken those random opportunities as they presented themselves—but we live in a world of infinite possibilities, and it dawned on us that it would also be possible for us to find suppliers to work with directly and continuously.
It would be possible to go from when possible to we promise.
…Except When Impossible
There’s a legal term for forces beyond our control: An act of God. Over the course of the past 12 years, there have been a few (shockingly few) times when we have had to make specific short-term decisions based on ingredient shortages at a moment in time. Right now we’re living through a two-year-long act of God that has been wreaking havoc on the global supply chain. Overall we’ve been reasonably lucky thus far, and by lucky I mean prepared and proactive. However, all of the planning in the world has not fully inoculated us from the fallout. Even with our best laid plans, we’ve had a few curveballs and tough calls. We always weigh the decisions we have to make, even for a temporary shortage of a supporting ingredient, with the same gravity as we would any major recipe decision. In the spirit of transparency, here are the recent calls we’ve made:
We normally purchase Mary’s Non-GMO-fed Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 2 turkey breast meat, thigh meat, hearts, and livers for our recipes. As turkey is seasonal, they occasionally run out of one or two of these particular items, and we’ve been able to fill in with GAP 2 organic without fully breaking the bank. While it is our preference to do this, Mary’s did two significant price hikes in 2021. On a recent order, it was clear that we could not absorb the price difference of ordering organic. For this one run, we had to order turkey breast and thigh meat from birds raised to the exact same welfare standards, but with conventional feed. To avoid being put in this difficult position again, we have now contracted up front for a six-month supply (or as I like to say, a Tesla worth of turkey). We’ll take a clear conscience and a cramped cash flow any day.
It's been years since we have made the decision to go fully pastured on our eggs, and it has been quite the adventure. At the time of our first order (back then we were working with Vital Farms), we were literally the only food manufacturer in the country ordering bulk liquid pastured eggs. Let that sink in, the first food company to order pastured eggs for a consumer packaged good was a dog food company. Pastured or not, eggs have always been a sourcing challenge, since most suppliers add citric acid to their liquid eggs. Our full ovo-journey could be the topic for a whole other blog, but as it stands at the moment, we recently had a 100 pound shortfall on a 1,200 pound order. We discovered this on short notice and had no choice but to fill the gap in with cage-free, certified humane and organic eggs for a few batches for a single run.
We have always prided ourselves on our wild blueberries, and in fact have chosen them over cultivated organic ones for their higher antioxidant content. This past year, however, the wild crops were abysmal, and they just haven’t been available to us. Our backup has always been organic. In this most recent case, necessity has been the mother of education. Alison always engages vendors in deep conversations, to learn not only about their offerings, but the general landscape for the ingredient. We knew that anthocyanins, the antioxidants that make blueberries such a powerhouse ingredient, live in the skin. What we hadn’t initially thought about was that the reason cultivated blueberries weren’t as nutrient-dense was their larger size. A cup of large blueberries will contain less skin than a cup of small blueberries. Working with a long-time trusted vendor for organic blueberries, we can specifically order smaller berries to achieve a similar antioxidant profile that we obtain with the wild ones.
Possibility, Priority, and Promise
In trying to understand a company’s "when possible" threshold, you always need to look deeper. It is most likely not an issue of access, but of priority and affordability. And there is something to be said about a company's ability to offer a decent product at a lower price point… BUT claiming you make certain high-price decisions when you don’t is dishonest. A business should own what they do, not attempt to take credit for the things that they might, if the stars are perfectly aligned. You shop at the grocery store, you know what is possible, you also see the price differences between the various options.
We prioritize the ethical treatment of animals, sustainable and organic practices, and treating our customers with respect and transparency. To walk our walk, we have to spend more money on our ingredients. For us, talking our talk means that making a claim is making a promise.