FDA investigates concerns over pulse-based pet food

A pulse-based pet food manufacturer says the Food and Drug Administration investigation is slashing demand for its products.  |  Getty Images

There are reports in the United States of heart problems in dogs that eat food containing high levels of peas, lentils and chickpeas

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has raised concerns about pulse-based pet foods and that is devastating sales into that high-growth market.

The FDA is investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating grain-free pet foods, which contain high levels of peas, lentils and chickpeas.

DCM results in an enlarged heart that decreases the ability to pump blood where it is needed.

The FDA is investigating 560 cases of dogs diagnosed with the disease, 119 of which died.

The investigation is focused on what pet food the dogs were eating. The FDA discovered that 93 percent of the reported brands contained peas or lentils.

“To date, the FDA has not established why certain diets may be associated with the development of DCM in some dogs,” the FDA said.

Sarah Barrett, a farmer and partner in Barrett Petfood Innovations, a pulse-based pet food manufacturer based in Brainerd, Minnesota, said the FDA’s news releases are having a profound impact on the industry.

“If we don’t get the FDA to back off on these statements that grain-free market is going to be gone,” she said.

A study by Kenneth Research estimated the global market for pulses in pet food will be US$2.42 billion by the end of 2024.

The market was expected to grow by 5.85 percent annually from 2018-24 before the FDA findings.

The research firm might want to revisit those projections.

Sales of the pulse-based brands that were listed in the latest FDA release are down 20 to 30 percent, said Barrett.

She estimates pulse-based products used to account for about 40 percent of the U.S. pet food market but that is rapidly changing.

Her company manufactures 23 to 27 million kilograms of pet food a year, 75 percent of which comprised pulses.

“We don’t own a brand, we simply manufacture for other companies,” said Barrett.

Those companies are increasingly changing their formulations to include ancient grains like barley, millet, milo, spelt and quinoa in place of peas and lentils.

“It’s great for Canada because we buy a lot of our ancient grains out of Canada,” she said.

Pulse Canada has established a target of finding new sources of demand for 25 percent of pulse production by 2025.

That amounts to an estimated two million tonnes of pulses that need a new home. It hopes 500,000 tonnes of that demand will come from the animal food sector, including pet food, aquaculture feed and livestock feed.

Chris Marinangeli, director of nutrition, science and regulatory affairs with Pulse Canada, said it is too early to draw any conclusions from the FDA’s investigation because it is still ongoing.

“It’s very difficult given that this cause-and-effect relationship has not been established,” he said.

If it had been established it is likely that the U.S. government would have been recalling pulse-based pet foods, said Marinangeli.

The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates there are 77 million dogs in the U.S.

According to Barrett’s research, between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of those dogs have DCM, so she can’t understand why it is such a big deal that 560 dogs on pulse-based diets have been found with the disease.

The FDA says it is because dogs recovered from the disease when taken off of the pulse-based diets and fed an alternative diet that included taurine, which is an amino acid.

“More than likely it is actually the taurine that is doing the work,” said Barrett.

“It’s not the diet change. But we haven’t had much luck trying to convince them of that.”

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