SPECIAL REPORT PART 2: Rebuilding the circle of trust after the pet food recall


The recall has left clients questioning your recommendations-and you questioning manufacturers. Tackle the job of earning back trust one step at a time, client by client and case by case.

AS THE DUST SETTLES ON THE PET FOOD RECALL, you're left with the long-term fallout. Clients are questioning your recommendation of the "expensive food" that made it onto the recall list. You're frustrated with the pet food manufacturers. Where do those ingredients come from, anyway? The big issue moving forward for clients and veterinarians will be re-establishing trust: trust in the manufacturers, trust in the products, and trust in the professionals who recommend them.

Get your questions answered

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr., owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., says the next step for him will be to fully understand how pet foods are manufactured—and who's manufacturing them. Dr. Ward says he was surprised to discover that many premium brands were outsourcing food production to manufacturers he was unfamiliar with. Dr. Ward was also disturbed to learn that the luxury brands he recommended were manufactured alongside brands that he advises clients to avoid.

Investigative team formed

Veterinarians need to be educated about what specific quality control measures companies use to help clients make smart nutritional choices for their pets, says Dr. Robin Downing, owner of Windsor Veterinary Clinic PC in Windsor, Colo. Dr. Ward agrees: know we live in a global economy but not everyone understands that our pet's food may come from China," he says. "That has huge implications for quality control and food safety."

Their advice: Insist on full disclosure from pet food companies. Who makes the food and ingredients? Where's the food manufactured? What quality control measures are being implemented as a result of the recall? "If the industry shares information openly as events continue to unfold," Dr. Downing says, "this alone will build confidence."

Two important questions to keep in mind: What went wrong? And how can we prevent this from happening again? Once you regain trust in manufacturers, you can educate clients confidently and communicate to them with conviction that your recommendations are right for their pets.

Address your clients' concerns

You've probably heard this from a client in the last several weeks: "That expensive food you told me to buy was recalled and the cheap food was safe. I knew you were saying that to make money off of me." And you know what? Your clients are partially right. Many less expensive brands weren't recalled. But you need to put the recall into perspective: Only 1 percent of pet foods were affected—99 percent of pet foods are safe.

Total recall

Still, you need to respond to clients' tough comments. Dr. Ward relates the situation to the recent spinach and peanut butter recalls—just because some varieties were contaminated didn't mean everyone needed to stop eating the foods altogether. Dr. Ward also tells his clients that these problems will force pet food companies to redouble their efforts to ensure safety in the future—and that should be a good thing.

Keep in mind that the recall will reverberate in the minds of pet owners for months, if not years. But you're in a great position to help calm clients' fears. Educate yourself and make your decisions based on the science, then share your know-how with clients. Don't avoid or dismiss the topic; use it as a reason to become an expert in pet nutrition.

Dr. Downing's clients have come to her seeking answers to questions about the recall, which she sees as a big opportunity. "It's our chance to help clients understand that the affected food products reflect a very small portion of the foods that are available," she says.

Go slowly and don't give up

When re-establishing trust with clients, remember to be patient and flexible. "My concern is that veterinary healthcare professionals will simply take the path of least resistance and throw their hands up and declare, 'I've been burned once; I'm not recommending any diets from now on,'" Dr. Ward says. "This would be a tragedy because nutrition gives us such a great opportunity to affect our patients' health."

The dish on clients' reaction to the recall

If you walk away from making dietary recommendations, you force clients to seek advice from less reliable sources that may potentially prove harmful to their pets. Demand the facts from pet food manufacturers, Dr. Ward says, then share your conclusions with clients. Clients aren't going to be reassured by a company's Web site or advertisement, but they will believe you—their family veterinarian.

During the recent spinach recall, Dr. Ward ran into a friend who's a family physician and asked him what he was recommending to his patients. "He looked at me quizzically and replied, 'Why are you asking me? I don't know anything about spinach,'" Dr. Ward says. "What a missed opportunity. Instead of instilling confidence in the human healthcare profession, he merely reinforced the stereotype of the hurried, uncaring modern physician."

In some ways, a crisis gives you the opportunity to be a critical resource for your clients and patients. And the pet food recall certainly has made nutrition a top-of-mind issue. So take advantage of pet owners' newfound interest in the topic to educate them and recommend the best options for their pets.

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