Empathy and action
For clients who do bring Internet-associated concerns to their veterinarians, their feelings and needs may be very real even
if their conclusions are not. Buffington says veterinarians may have to look past their words to hear what these clients are
really saying: "This terrible thing happened to me and my pet and there has to be a reason." A veterinarian may not have any
idea what caused a pet's illness or death—especially if a client doesn't want any tests run or an autopsy performed. He says
it's sometimes easier just to say to clients in their grief, "Yeah, maybe it was the food."
He suggests empathizing with the client's concerns and encourages filing a report with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). "If all those people [who complained online] filed reports, we would be a lot closer to knowing if anything is going
Ettinger emphasizes in his post that reporting concerns to the manufacturer is also important. "Any concerns with a particular
product should immediately be brought to the attention of the manufacturer so that information can be collected and products
appropriately monitored," he says. Purina spokesman Keith Schopp says Purina welcomes calls from consumers and offers a customer
service phone number printed on every product package.
The task of calling a manufacturer or filing a report may seem daunting to some clients, especially if they're upset over
a pet's illness or death, but it could also be a way to engage a client previously turning to the Internet for answers and
to provide a valued service. "Once the moment is past, make an appointment to review the record and make a report for the
FDA. I think it would be appropriate for a veterinarian to provide for that service and charge for it," Buffington says.
These cases may also call for samples as well as a record review. "Get a sample of the food yourself and freeze it, then you've
got your own independent sample," Buffington says.
He also thinks it's appropriate for a veterinarian to advise a client that an autopsy may be a good idea. "A dead pet in one
hand and a bag of food in the other doesn't really help anyone," Buffington says. But how a veterinarian chooses his or her
words is crucial. "Never ask, 'Do you want an autopsy?'" Buffington says. "No one wants an autopsy. Say, 'You have the opportunity
to put your mind at ease and know what happened.'"
Investigation and public perception
The FDA is currently investigating complaints against Beneful but has not arrived at any conclusions yet. "Our normal practice
is to follow up on every complaint to try to determine whether an illness or other adverse event can be conclusively linked
to a cause," says Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH, a veterinary communications spokesperson for the FDA. "It's important to note
that the existence of a complaint does not mean that the outcome was caused by the suspected product."
Prior to the media attention and Consumer Affairs complaints, two to four complaints per month were reported to FDA, though
not all were linked to illness or adverse events, DeLancey says. There has been a jump in reports after the complaints gained
Schopp says the company stands by the quality and safety of the Beneful product. "We've talked with the FDA and we're not
aware of any problems with the product," Schopp says.
On Beneful's website, veterinarians and pet owners can visit the frequently asked questions page to find Purina's statement
that the mounting complaints are a result of social media-driven misinformation. "The incredible power of the Internet is
sometimes used to spread false information," the statement reads. "Online postings often contain false, unsupported and misleading
allegations that cause undue concern and confusion for our Beneful consumers."
Purina assures customers that Beneful is a high-quality, nutritious food they can continue to feed their pet with complete
confidence. Buffington says if his animal were eating Beneful he would continue feeding it, but if a client were concerned
about it, he would advise the client to switch. He says there are plenty of other foods available that are just as good. "If
it was the only food, that would be different, but it's not," he says.
While it may seem like the Internet and social media produce more hysteria in clients than is sometimes warranted—whether
it's worry over the latest recall or panic that a product is killing pets—Buffington says this is not necessarily a bad thing.
He thinks the industry is more in tune with food safety and consumer demand as a result. "We're better about picking up what's
going on in the real world. We would not be doing that if we didn't have the Internet," he says. "To me, that's good."
Beneful customer service line: 1-888-236-3385.