THE BLOG
05/05/2016 03:23 pm ET Updated May 06, 2017

Beneful Revisited

Anyone with a dog today knows that the current trend in feeding pets is to feed foods that have more familiar ingredients. Surveys increasingly show that people think of pets as family members so it's probably not surprising that they want pet food to be more like human food.

One popular dog food brand that has come under scrutiny from pet food critics and dog lovers is Beneful, made by Nestle Purina PetCare. Introduced in 2001, Beneful is one of the top-selling dry dog food brands in the U.S., according to Nielsen, and is fed to more than 14 million dogs each year. (Source: period ending 3/26/16; Nielsen All Outlets Combined.)

Bloggers have criticized the food for some of its ingredients such as the use of propylene glycol, which is often confused with ethylene glycol - found in anti-freeze and poisonous to dogs. Propylene glycol is used in many foods for both dogs and humans and is approved by the FDA. (Propylene glycol is not used in cat foods, however.) People have also criticized the use of colorful dyes in Beneful which appeal to human consumers but not so much to dogs who don't really care what their food looks like. Critics have also brought up the subject of possible mycotoxins in the food which, in all fairness, can be found in the vast majority of dry pet foods according to testing. Both the FDA and the European Union allow minimal levels of mycotoxins in pet foods since these levels are present in agricultural crops and are not considered to be a health concern.

All of these issues were raised in early 2015 when plaintiffs brought a class action suit against Nestle Purina over Beneful. You can read some of the particulars of the case here and elsewhere online.

According to Nestle Purina PetCare, the case currently remains pending in court and the class action lawyers have changed the allegations more than once. Nearly one-third of the plaintiffs have withdrawn from the litigation. Per the company, "The class action lawyers in this case have never produced a single test result, veterinarian report or other evidence to show that Beneful is anything but a healthy, safe and nutritious dog food." Nestle Purina says they have no plans to settle the case.

What Purina has done is reformulate their Beneful dry dog foods. I had a chance to interview some of the team involved with Beneful recently about the changes they have made to the dog food. Janet Jackson is the Vice President of PetCare Nutrition Research at Nestle Purina PetCare. Her research and development team is responsible for developing nutritional innovations for Purina products. Dr. Jackson received her PhD from the University of Illinois and has been at Purina since 1990. I also spoke with Juli Plassmeyer, the Vice President of Marketing for the Nestle Purina Petcare Dog Food business, which includes brands such as Dog Chow, Beneful and Purina ONE. In this role, Ms. Plassmeyer oversees a marketing team of 35 associates. She has been in marketing for over 23 years. Prior to joining Nestle Purina PetCare she worked at two global advertising agencies - DMB&B (St. Louis) and J. Walter Thompson (Chicago) where her clients included companies such as Nestle, Coca-Cola USA, Mars Incorporated, Unilever and Pillsbury. Wendy Vlieks, Director, Corporate Public Relations, was also present during our interview, to keep things moving along.

According to Dr. Jackson and Ms. Plassmeyer, Beneful's new formulas have been in development for over two years and are not related to the class action suit. The new formulas are being rolled out starting May 9 at select retailers in the southwestern part of the United States. They will have full distribution across the country by August.

All eight Beneful dry dog foods have new recipes: Originals with Real Beef; Originals with Real Chicken; Originals with Real Salmon*; Incredibites with Real Beef; Incredibites with Real Chicken; Healthy Weight; Healthy Puppy; and Playful Life. Seven of the eight formulas will now have real meat as the first ingredient which is a change. *The Originals with Real Salmon formula will follow with real salmon as the first ingredient in 2017. The company said they are still working out a source for the amount of salmon required for the change.

Purina has also removed added sugar from the ingredients. And they have removed propylene glycol, even though FDA considers it generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Dr. Jackson said that they listened to their customers who wanted something different. According to Dr. Jackson, the propylene glycol was used in the food as a humectant to make some of the pieces chewy - which dogs like. They have replaced the propylene glycol with U.S.-sourced glycerin from natural sources. The new Beneful formula includes natural beef and vegetable-based glycerin so the food will have the soft and crunchy texture that customers expect from Beneful kibbles. According to Juli Plassmeyer, "We are always listening to dog owners' feedback and finding new ways to evolve and improve our food."

I asked about the dyes used in the foods and they said that they had reduced the amounts used. Since they are always trying to improve their foods, eliminating FD&C colors might be something they consider doing in the future. "FD&C" means that the artificial colorants have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food, drugs and cosmetics. Many pet lovers, however, express concerns about the added colors.

With this in mind, they said that they might consider changing the recipes for the Beneful canned wet dog food in the future, so stay tuned.

For those of you who read the guaranteed analysis on labels, Dr. Jackson said that the crude protein percentages for the foods will remain between about 23-28 percent. The crude fat percentages will increase 1-2 percent in about half of the recipes, with no changes to the crude fat percentages in the other foods.

The new foods were tested for palatability with volunteer families and their dogs and received high marks. (No animals were harmed.) The formulas did not have to receive any new approval from AAFCO. The company pointed out that the foods already use healthy and nutritious ingredients.

The only recall Beneful has had was in March of this year when the company discovered through internal quality tests that some 10-oz. wet dog food tubs might not contain the recommended level of added vitamins and minerals http://newscenter.purina.com/10ozwetdogfoodtubrecall. They issued a voluntary recall of the products that were produced in one production line, at one facility.

The women I spoke with at Purina have been with the company for a long time. Dr. Jackson was involved with the original creation of Beneful. You could tell that they are very committed to the brand. I have to say that I was impressed when they spoke about Purina's quality control and safety protocols. They mentioned more than once that they are the gold standard for the pet food industry. In a typical 24-hour production, Purina conducts 30,000 quality checks involving ingredient/packaging, receiving, processing, and packing. I think all of us with pets learned that you can't be too careful about quality control and safety during the 2007 pet food recalls - which did not include Beneful, by the way - but I had no idea that Purina had this kind of system in place.

Not everyone is going to like Beneful's products, even with the changes. I'm sure Purina is aware of this fact. What's important is that the foods are safe, healthy, and provide complete and balanced, high quality nutrition for their dogs. I think Purina has shown with these new Beneful formulas that they listen to their customers and understand that they want to feed their dogs more familiar ingredients. With these changes, Beneful will be the lowest priced, widely available dog food that has real meat as the first ingredient. So, take a look at the new formulas and see what you think.

Carlotta Cooper reviews pet foods for Dogfood.guru and Pawster.com. She is a contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine Dog News in New York. She is also a breed columnist for the AKC Gazette. She has written several books about dogs and other animals.