The popular and highly acclaimed documentary Pet Fooled was released on Netflix earlier this year. The film has created a lot of buzz among pet parents and within the pet food industry, which was exactly the creator’s intention.
Featuring commentary by respected veterinarians Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Barbara Royal, Pet Fooled exposes the long-kept secrets of the industry and reveals the negative impact that many commercial food brands can have on animals’ health.
Eager to learn more about the film, Animal Wellness spoke with producer Kohl Harrington about the inspiration behind the project, and what it means for the future of the pet food industry.
AW: What inspired you to create Pet Fooled?
KH: My producer, Michael Fossat, came to me with the film idea. He was having an issue with his dog, Kadry, and he went to his vet numerous times trying to clear her stomach of some mysterious rash. I think he followed different orders from the veterinarian and the rash never cleared and he eventually was told by his groomer to “look into the food”.
Look into the food? He had never thought about food so he did just that. And, as anyone who has looked into pet food themselves understands – it’s overwhelming. It’s confusing. It’s daunting and shocking. Michael then approached me and said, “I think something is here.”
AW: In once sentence, describe the overarching purpose of the documentary.
KH: Consumers need to know fully and think about what is going into the products that they are buying for their pets.
AW: What was the most shocking thing you discovered about the pet food industry during the making of the film?
KH: There are too many to name. I think the fact that dry food isn’t a species appropriate feeding style is most shocking because most of us grow up feeding dry cat or dog food. The FDA compliance policies are shocking as well. The idea that “feed” is being marketed as food is something that needs to change.
AW: Are these concerns different for pet parents who feed their animals a raw diet?
KH: Hypothetically, if all pet foods on the market were fresh or raw, the issues will always be the same. Where are the ingredients coming from? What are the true quality of these ingredients and how can consumers verify that? And are the ingredients being used most appropriate for the species? Those themes will always be relevant in this industry.
AW: Are any improvements being made in the industry since the film’s release?
KH: Midway through making the film, I saw a change in marketing. I was told by so many when I began making the film not to “criticize” corn or wheat. Companies were very defensive of their use of corn and wheat yet midway through making the film, they just started offering foods “without corn” and “without wheat” and there was no discussion as to why they suddenly did this.
The fact that so many independent and transparent companies now exist on the market is another major improvement in the industry. It’s incredible to see companies that want to tell their customers the sources of their ingredients and engage in that important conversation about appropriate ingredients.
AW: What about pet parents? Have you seen improvements on the consumers’ end?
KH: I haven’t seen a company that was making “dry” food, for example, say “because of Pet Fooled, we’re going to stop doing this.” That hasn’t happened and it won’t ever happen. There’s too much money involved and people are buying those foods. But I have seen an overwhelming amount of people make the switch to better foods, and really consider better foods and be proactive pet parents. They’re speaking about proper nutrition for the species and what that entails.
It’s Dr. Karen Becker’s goal to continue educating pet parents about the proper approach to nutrition so they can look at a bag themselves and know if it’s a good food. There are many improvements still to be made but I think she and everyone involved in this movement are up for that task.
AW: During the making of the film, you attempted to contact multiple pet food companies – and all of them refused to speak with you. What does this say about the industry as a whole?
KH: The industry is so massive. They are making tons of money. Why in the world would they want to speak to me? They would have to talk about uncomfortable topics that may expose their real belief system or expose the various truths of how the foods are made.
AW: Speaking of belief systems, Pet Fooled came “under fire” recently by a veterinarian who disagreed with certain aspects of the film. Do you have any comments regarding this matter?
KH: I’m thrilled about it. The more veterinarians we can have at the table who are willing to talk about proper nutrition for the species, the better. No one is at war with veterinarians and everyone I know only wants a veterinarian who is educated and extremely proactive with nutrition, especially if they’re selling food or recommending foods in their practice. People want to trust their animal’s health care practitioner.
Of course, it’s sad to see a few veterinarians try to discredit the film. Some think dry or canned food as well as “prescription” foods made by these major conglomerates are the only answer, and if you have that mindset you may not initially like the film. But there are issues with the appropriateness of those foods. So how can we all improve? Conversations with vets about the issues in the industry is a necessary can of worms that I am happy is now open.
AW: With so much conflicting information out there, how can consumers determine which companies to trust?
KH: Many smaller companies exist to be this transparent with consumers. So, I think that’s a positive aspect. I’m continuing to speak to companies who will show consumers how they make their foods and why they make them in the ways that they do. I’m putting that information on the Pet Fooled web page.
These don’t have the ability to compete with major companies marketing-wise, so you’ll probably have to visit an independent retailer or our Talk to Us Campaign to know who these companies are.
AW: Do you have any advice to pet parents looking for a safe and appropriate food for their animal companion?
KH: The #1 question I get from consumers is “what brand do you recommend?” and I will never recommend brands. It’s about the approach to feeding being as transparent, fresh, and appropriate as possible. A trustworthy brand can just change overnight, so consumers always have to be on top of it if they really want to feed a transparent and quality brand.
AW: What can we do to make pet food more transparent and safe?
KH: I think what must happen, and what I hope will happen, is for an improved “association” to come about. I’m sure the people at AAFCO and state departments of agriculture may scoff or laugh at that, but consumers aren’t laughing. Consumers want better and easier to understand standards that are safe and helpful.
Instead of a pet food meeting AAFCO basic standards, why not achieve higher standards that consumers expect? That way, the consumer can know more and trust more. AAFCO can cease to exist if consumers want that and I honestly think at a certain point AAFCO will cease to exist. They won’t go without a fight, but fighting is not my intention. Consumers don’t want to fight. We’re tired of the struggle. We’re tired of raising our voices and not being heard.
The bottom line is that if pet feed is going to be marketed and termed pet food, it needs to meet a higher standard. We don’t need to be tricked or fooled.
AW: Thank you, Kohl. Any parting words for our readers?
KH: Change won’t happen overnight, but it will indeed happen.