TOP #12: Dangers of Dog Food Packages ft. Blaine Johnson & Larine Urbina

Most pet websites cover the safety and dangers of dog food ingredients, what dog food is best, which dog food brands to avoid and so forth all the time and there's plenty of great information out there. However, we all rarely discuss another important factor that can impact our dogs' health – packaging of dog foods, its dangers, and how pet food packages affect daily meals of our dogs.

The truth is that similar to human food, some pet food packages can contain chemicals that will leak into the food within the package. This has long been overlooked by pet owners, the industry and the regulatory bodies, but we need to bring more attention to this matter.

In today's Theory of Pets Podcast episode, I got a chance to speak with Blaine Johnson and Larine Urbina. Blaine is a business development director at Tetra Pak – a company dedicated to manufacturing 100% safe and healthy packages for pet food products, and Larina is Tetra Pak's communications manager. The two educate us on what to look for in packages and how to know which pet food packages are safe, and which are dangerous.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

Dangers of Dog Food Packages
(raw podcast transcript)

Dangerous of Dog Food Packages Podcast

* To read just the interview transcript, please scroll down below.

So this week actually I was thinking about food, I think that's the biggest thing that we think of as pet parents is the nutrition that we give our dogs, or our pets in general, from the food that we feed them to the treats, the snacks, things like that, we're always wondering about the nutrition and how that affects their overall health.  And I've talked on this podcast before in previous episodes which you can find on our website, I have looked at the health of the actual quality of the food that we feed our animals.

But this week I have been thinking more along the lines of the health of that food and every aspect of that, and I think one of the things that we skip over, we tend to look at the ingredients in the food, the quality of those ingredients, the reputation of the company which are all good things to look at, but one thing that I think a lot of us fail to even think about, it's not even on our radar, is the quality of the packaging of that food, what's in the packaging?

If you don't know, it's a lot similar to… sorry it's very similar to some of the packaging in human food, we hear a lot of things about plastics, BPA, we're always looking for BPA-free plastics in the bottles and the Tupperware, the things that we're using to store our food in, but do you ever take the time to think about what your pets' food is stored in, and often that's just the packaging that it comes in, it's stored in that immediately when it's made at the factory that it's made in and shipped in that, it sits on a store shelf in that, it may sit in your home in that packaging.

So you really want to put some effort into thinking about the quality of that packaging, and I know it sounds a little bit silly maybe to some of you but think about how that packaging is made, and if it's made with plastics or it's made with chemicals, things like that, those can leech into your dog's food.  So you're reading the ingredients on the packaging thinking that this is an organic product, this is an all-natural product, this is something that's free of chemical preservatives and additives, and then it's being packaged in a package… it's being packaged in a package, that sounds foolish…. but it's being packaged in a material that is leeching chemicals and toxins into the food, so you might be buying a high-quality diet for your dog but it's being ruined by the chemicals that are leeching into it through the packaging.

So I looked into it, there's a company called Tetra Pak and what they do is they basically specialize in making healthy packaging.  We're in this age I guess, we're in this thing in our society where it's kind of a trend brought on by the millennials, but we're looking into this clean labeling, everybody wants this completely see-through labeling that companies are placing every single ingredient in order, there's no…there's nothing left out, there's no trying to trick you by the labeling of what's in the products that you're buying.  So we have this clean label initiative that's going on that's really bringing a lot of attention to the food and beverage industry in humans, in pets, in animals and everything.

All the foods that we're buying we're really looking into this.  But there's a huge gap missing and Tetra Pak realized that, that we're not paying attention to the packaging of these products, we've gone on this huge trend of making sure that everything that we buy is super safe and healthy, but what about the packaging?  If you're having things leech through the packaging you're not getting the quality food that you think you're getting.  So Tetra Pak has created different ways to package food that is safe and it's healthy.

So this week I was able to speak with Blaine Johnson who is the Business Development Director and Larine, who is the Communications Manager over at Tetra Pak, and we discussed… they actually had just come from SuperZoo when I had a conversation with them.  SuperZoo is a huge expo that the pet industry holds every year and they had returned from that so they had some insight there about what the company, everything of what pet parents are looking for, and we discussed that and the things that we should be looking for as consumers in the packaging of the products that we buy.  So I will let you guys listen to that interview now.

Interview with Blaine and Larine

Blaine:  We, as Larine might have shared with you, we just recently got back from SuperZoo and it was a really great experience, and we saw some interesting trends going on in the industry overall and specifically to the packaging segment as well.

Samantha:  Oh that's interesting.  I see a lot of on my end the trends in what we are feeding dogs and I have so many readers that are interested in that next healthiest, I guess for lack of better term, diet for dogs, and it kind of started with going more natural and organic and now we're getting into the raw foods and things like that.  And so there is this trend of sort of feeding your dog as well as you feed the rest of the members of your family.  And it's interesting, I see it a lot with pet products like BPA-free plastics and that kind of stuff coming through because people are realizing that if it's not healthy for us it's not healthy for our dogs.

So I was really interested when this came across my desk to explore the packaging side of it because I just feel like that's a piece that's left out as far as pet owners are concerned.  You don't really see…for example a lot of times on packages you'll see ‘organic' or ‘natural' in big lettering and you don't really see much information about the packaging geared towards the advertising side of things.  So I think it's interesting to kind of get that out there to pet parents so that they can understand more about the dangers of some traditional packaging and what other things there are to offer on the market as well.

Blaine:  Yeah I think you hit it right on the head.  I think there's really two things that are going on and that they work quite nicely together.  As you mentioned, they are really not trends but as we look at maybe human food two things that are very important is flavor and quality, and specifically the quality of the ingredients going in there, organic all-natural, hopefully no preservatives, healthy eating, and this translates not only to your immediate family, to your children but to your furry friends as well.

And I think that is one reason why we've been very successful as a company, offering brand owners and consumers packaging solutions that really help retain the quality of the product in there. And this is segue quite nicely over to the pet segment as well, I mean really owners are making their purchase decisions for their pets based upon product quality and natural freshness.

And so I think you'll also see this consumer that buys Tetra Pak cartons sees a need or sees value in this for their pet friends as well.  And so this is really where we're coming in and I think the pet segment has been maybe a little bit…  So people are looking for different opportunities and I think it's good to convey the quality that goes in there.  So for example minimum amount of ingredients, no preservatives and stuff that we can pronounce, and then be very very comfortable about what you're putting into the products as well as maybe moving the nutritional panel to the front and keeping it very clean and healthy.

And I think you really hit it at the end there relative to packaging is we would like to do some more education to the consumers a little bit about what the packaging is because it is sustainable, it is BPA-free, it is made from a remillable resource, and it really fits in quite nicely with the message of natural and healthy food finished products as well as with the packaging.

Larine:  And also to echo what Blaine said I think we've really found success with the natural human food phase because of what the carton offers that other packaging formats may not.  So things like being able to package and process something without either preservatives and also having that renewable material package really resonates with natural brand owners and I think that's true in the pet food as well as with human food.

Samantha:  Oh absolutely.  So we touched a little bit on it and I think consumers are fairly well aware that certain things, again plastics are a big thing right now with the BPA and things like that that will leech from certain products, especially packaging, into either… again I said we see it a lot with dog toys that people are realizing that those product, or those toxins and chemicals are leeching into your dog's system through what he's chewing on toys and things like that and the same can be said about food packaging.  So there are some dangers with traditional packaging that things are leeching into the food.  Can you speak on that a little bit?

Blaine:   Sure…go ahead Lori, I'm sorry.

Larine:  I can talk a little, Blaine can probably speak more specifically, but generally speaking from like a chemical perspective you know all of our packages are FDA compliant, we actually take that very seriously as far as protecting the food, so ensuring that nothing does get into the product itself. BPA cans are a great example, our cartons don't have BPA in them and I know that that's certainly a hot button issue not just with human food and water bottles and things like that but certainly with pet food, and I think we saw that a lot this week too at SuperZoo.

Samantha:  So what are some of those dangers of the traditional packaging that you're trying to move away from?  What are some of those dangers that pet parents should be aware of?

Blaine:  Yes, I think it's two-fold, obviously the BPA segment is huge; unfortunately with a lot of the tins or the cans that you're seeing in the marketplace not only for the pet segment but also for human consumption is the presence of BPA in it and obviously there's a lot of factors that impact the BPA load, the pH or the acidity of the product, how long the product might have been cooked or pasteurized in the can.   We try to offer a very low heat thermal profile to our products, obviously it is very product dependent but basically we don't want to overcook it because it's very important not to have to add additional vitamins or minerals or preservatives to the product, and so if you if you overcook it it destroys a lot of natural nutrients that's in the fresh food if it's human or dog.

Samantha:  And then what are some of the things… so can you tell me a little bit about Tetra Pak and what are you guys offering that I guess that other traditional packaging doesn't offer?

Blaine:  Yeah, I think, and Larine feel free to chime in,  I think one of the things that we …our biggest, I guess key to success if you will, is the recyclability, and basically if you look at our packaging it's made, 70% of it is from wood, which is advantage for us. So unlike maybe a stand-up poach made from polyethylene or a can or a PET bottle, these are all made from fossil fuels.  Now granted we do use a little bit of a PET as a lining inside of our packaging, but I think we also have a very great initiative as we move forward to look at alternative motive, so maybe it's a cap that's made from sugar cane and it's not on the immediate horizon but something we're looking heavily into is using that same type of material as a lining in our packaging as well.

So I think that that is when one nice thing.  You know for example, there's a lot of segments that go into it.  It's obviously sourcing the original packaging which is the paper, and the recycling segment is important, but also too is the greenhouse gases during the production and transportation of unfinished and finished goods.  So if I were to make a truckload of Tetra repak packages for example, because they lay flat, you're looking at about nine times as many trucks needed just to bring in the actual packaging of one of our type of formats versus a tin can for example.  So that just helps Mother Earth in that segment.

Larine:  And I think if you're looking really specifically at consumer benefits because there are certainly a lot of supply-chain benefits as Blaine just mentioned, but for us to only think about kind of the benefits of cartons and pet food, it's really three categories, one is the safety and the quality of the food inside so because depending on the type of carton you use and the type of processing you use, it really eliminates the need for preservatives but also has shorter cooking time so you get a little bit fresher tasting product that the nutrients are retained a little bit better.

Another huge advantage is really in the functionality of the package, so you don't need any tools to open a carton for example.  So think about having a kid having to open even the pull-top can where there could be sharp edges, you know with the Tetra Pak cartons it either has a cap that you can twist off or it's the perforations.  So a little bit more fun, functional, easy to use, and also the shape of the carton is very entry-friendly if you will so you can fit a lot more you know in your pantry, it stacks nicely, it's not as heavy so if you drop a carton on your foot for example it's less likely to hurt than something like a can or a glass, or something like that, and I say that from experience.

And then the …which Blaine touched on is really looking at the sustainability of the package compared to other formats and the fact that it is made from on average 70% renewable material.  That's a huge benefit, and that you see and customers are starting to understand the concept of renewability a lot more.  But then even looking at recyclability and really the whole life cycle of the package, what Tetra cartons have to offer it's really strong, so something that consumers can really easily see and I think from a branding perspective, for pet food brands, especially natural pet food brands it's a really nice way to kind of get that brand story out there in a very tangible way with the package.

Samantha:  Certainly.  Are there any brands right now, do you have any dog food brands, some of the bigger name brands, that are using Tetra Pak containers?

Larine:  There are few. There is …Whiskas has a cat milk, that's probably the biggest brand if you will that's in cartons.  There's also a product called Cat Sip which is fairly big enough also, a cat milk.  And then we have a dog food product Caru…

Samantha:  Yeah.  Actually it's funny, I did an interview with Caru a couple of weeks ago.

Larine:  Oh great.  Yeah they're doing some really great stuff.  They're all human grade products, they just launched the gum broth that's super…pretty amazing.

Samantha:  Wonderful.  I don't realize that they use your containers.  That's great!  So for people that maybe they have a brand that they stick with, their dog's fussy or needs a certain diet or something like that so they can't find a brand that uses a Tetra Pak carton let's say, but what are some of the things maybe that they should try and stay away from or some of the things that they should be looking for in the packaging of the products that they're buying for their pets?

Larine:  Yeah, I think that's a tough one because I think it depends a little bit on what specifically they're looking for.  I will say in general it's probably tough to just pick up a package and know exactly what it could or couldn't be doing to the food inside because it's not typically printed on the package, especially if it's bad news.   A brand certainly isn't going to say “Hey, by the way…” you know.  I would say in doing your research, just becoming aware of kind of the different types of packages that are out there and some of the benefits and drawbacks of all of them.  I think also from a sustainability perspective understanding truly what is sustainable, looking at… something as an example like glass doors.

People tend to look at a glass door and think well that's really natural and it's good for the product to have sustainable packaging options, but it actually requires significant fossil fuel to make the package like that compared to something like a carton.  So I think it's really…if it's important to you as a consumer, unfortunately if you have to do a little bit of research, looking at their quality in a lot of cases as well because again, it's not always readily apparent on the package itself.

Samantha:  Are there standards that, if not just pet products but then any type of products for packaging, are there standards for that or just pretty much for the food that's contained inside?

Larine:  I mean generally speaking all packages have to be FDA-approved, so at bare minimum you should be getting a …level of safety.  I think it's when you get into things like BPA and chemicals like that, you know what's your tolerance? What are you willing to accept and what are you not as a consumer.

Samantha:  Unfortunately I think we're a consumer market we're starting to realize that FDA-approved doesn't always mean safe or healthy for our families, which is sad but true. On the packaging does it have to be marked “FDA-Approved”? Do you know?

Larine:  No I don't believe so. Blaine I don't know if you know?

Blaine:   No…it doesn't but even if it's an imported packaging material or domestic it does have to go through three things relative to the FDA. One is the design have to be submitted to the FDA and A) making sure that what we're not nothing as an ingredient that's going in there that could be hazardous, B) making sure that kind of a policing type of action in terms of making claims that may not be true like being heart-healthy or something like that, and in form of registration.

And then I think even though they've slipped most of the times but everything that goes into our packaging, if it's on the liquid or the solid side as you make it you have to submit to the FDA the filing. So basically if I'm making a product for dogs and it's said Tetra packet…. this goes for other formats as well, I can't speak for every everything, but you have to submit to them where the ingredients came from, the process times, and then file these.  So it's saying essentially this carton was cooked at this time for this amount of time and it went through these quality control measures, just to help try to ensure that safe product is going out into the marketplace.  Does it work all the time?  No, but does it work a majority of the time for pet as well human-grade products?

Samantha:  But as far as the packaging goes, consumers can't really get a lot of information about the packaging from what's written on the packaging I guess.

Larine:  Yeah, think it's from a regulatory standpoint though, but I think again they're more likely to call out the positive attributes.  So we see a lot of our customers really pointing out the …factor.

Samantha:  Sure.

Larine:  Yeah.  So it's…I know there's some States are looking at regulations where there needs to be some kind of call out to the consumer about certain elements that are within the package, but there's nothing widespread at this point.

Samantha:  Right, right. No it makes sense, of course they're not going to want to say that it's made in a package that has BPA or anything like that but I'm sure like you said  your customers are excited to promote the fact that they're using a sustainable quality packaging.  So that's interesting.

Larine:  Yeah, exactly.

Blaine:  Yeah, I think we've covered it well.  I think one aspect that we talk a lot about, the consumers and the quality, I guess my two top takeaways, one is you were asking about healthy products and I think this translates right over to something that you would consume yourself.  If you look at the back, the nutritional panel, it's got a whole bunch of really long words you can't pronounce and means nothing to you.

You probably didn't want to eat it or feed it to your pets right, and so that is I think one trend that we can see with Tetra Pak products is it's very clean labels, very short simple, I think that's one.  And this… is there's also some benefits that go to the retailer.  So for example because of the rectangular type of size versus may be a can or a stand up pouch that needs a lot of secondary packaging to support it upright, retailers like it because we are seeing this kind of migration to smaller regional stores and basically this allows them to put up about 30% more product on their shelves because of the shape of the package and also it has a nice billboard effect as well that you can't always get with some other type of format.

Samantha:  Ah that's true.  Yeah I think one of the things I was thinking kind of as we're talking was obviously the company is putting ingredients that you can't read, artificial things and that kind of stuff in their products, they're probably not as concerned about the packaging that their product's going into. So I would assume that a lot of the companies using higher quality packaging are also going to be those higher quality products inside.

Blaine:  Absolutely.

Larine:  I think that's fair to say.

I want to thank Blaine and Larine for speaking with me and talking to us about Tetra Pak and all the important qualities that we should be looking for in packaging the food and treats that we're buying for our dogs.  You guys have any questions feel free to reach out to me.  You can jump right on our website which is, there's a section on there where you guys can either type up your questions or your comments, concerns, anything like that, or you can also record your questions and your comments and I might use those are in future podcasts.

So if you're interested in that make sure you check out that section and if you guys could also just jump on iTunes really quickly and give my podcast a review I'd really appreciate that, it helps me get it out there and when I approach experts in the pet industry about coming on the podcast if they can see a lot of good reviews that really spurs them to want to do the podcast to reach more listeners.  So if you guys can just take a second, jump on iTunes, that would be great.

Again, any comments or questions I'd be happy to address those for you and certainly if I can't answer the question myself I can reach out to Blaine or Larine or any other contact that I might have to try and answer those for you.  If have any ideas for upcoming podcasts, any burning questions that you've been trying to figure out and you think that I might be able to help you out, please don't hesitate.

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.