Started in 2002, Blue Buffalo has experienced something of a meteoric rise in the ranks of the top selling premium pet food lines. Industry observers attribute the company’s success largely to its prolific marketing campaign that honed in on Blue’s natural ingredients, launched around the same time that there happened to be a cluster of pet food recalls from around 2005 – 2008.
Judging on their labels alone, it does look like Blue adheres to their “love them like family, feed them like family” philosophy. However, on account of some recent events, many consumers have been turning away from the brand out of sheer distrust.
The company website claims that it all began when Bill and Jackie Bishop’s beloved Airedale Terrier, named Blue, was struggling with cancer. The pet parents took a serious look at the contents of most dog foods and decided to start their own line of premium dog food using only natural ingredients. The Blue Life Protection Formula was born as a result of collaboration between the Bishops and an animal nutritionist. It has now become the #1 selling natural pet food in the U.S.
A look at Blue’s food products shows solid ingredients in the right proportions. They use identifiable protein first and foremost in their recipes, from great sources like chicken, beef, lamb, salmon and exotic selections in their Blue Wilderness line like venison, alligator, catfish and much more. They use whole grain complex carbohydrates like brown rice, oats, and barley, as well as healthy oils that are high in omega fatty acids like flaxseed oil. Fruits and vegetables are also a part of every formula, providing wonderful antioxidant value and natural sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Blue’s signature LifeSource Bits in all of their dry foods are unique to the brand. These are nuggets that contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, ‘cold-formed’ to preserve more of their nutritional value.
While this may seem like a fairly stellar label, the issue lies in what is not there. Blue says that their foods contain absolutely no by-products, corn, wheat or soy. This should be a good thing, of course, if it were true…
Lawsuits And Labeling Lies
Marks are typically high for Blue dog food reviews, but there is a lot behind the brand that has made plenty of consumers and reviewers do a double take on what we thought was a solid quality dog food selection.
In 2014, one of the top two big players in pet food, Purina, sued Blue Buffalo, accusing them of false advertising. While Blue boldly asserts that there are no by-products in their food, an independent analysis revealed substantial amounts of poultry by-product as well as rice hulls and even some preservatives in Blue dry dog food. Blue Buffalo did not deny the allegations but blamed its supplier. Blue’s supplier, Wilbur-Ellis, happened to also have been at the heart of a series of recalls in 2007 for distributing a batch of rice protein that was tainted with deadly melamine.
Nothing about this looked good for Blue. Not only were they being called out for hypocritically putting down the big names in pet food for using by-products while they were using them as well, but they were lying about it. What’s more, they pinned it on a supplier that they still chose to purchase from knowing full well that they had been responsible for distributing products tainted with a lethal chemical.
In late 2015, Blue Buffalo settled this class action lawsuit to the tune of $32 million, the largest settlement in the history of the industry. As of February 2016, pet owners who had purchased Blue could finally get a piece of the $32 million… with some truly meager individual payouts of around $5 – $10.
Blue is now suing both the supplier and countersuing Purina for what it says was a well-orchestrated smear campaign against a rising competitor on the pet food market. Blue’s founder, Bill Bishop, still adamantly blames Wilbur-Ellis and issued this statement to Blue consumers:
More than a year ago, we informed our Pet Parents about the misconduct of a former ingredient supplier and a broker. While we will continue to pursue our claims against them, we decided that it is in the best interest of our Pet Parents and our company to resolve the class actions now. All of us at Blue Buffalo continue to work tirelessly to make pet food with the finest natural ingredients for our furry family members.
As Blue basically claimed that they had no way of knowing what was in their food and have taken no further action to ensure that either the contents or the labels have been changed, consumers are left to wonder if their recipes are still as advertised.
The image of Blue Buffalo as the wholesome, natural brand from an independent and family-owned operation was turned on its head by this ordeal, not just through the accusations. With the company and its founder Bill Bishop in the spotlight, critics couldn’t help but point out that Blue did not have the kind of humble beginnings as most people thought. Bishop is a long time big name in the marketing industry, leading major campaigns for brands like American Express, Tropicana, and Perrier while also co-founding beverage giant SoBe.
Suddenly, with all the light shed on how the company operates from its ambiguous production to being headed by an advertising guru, Blue didn’t have the same small-time pet parent charm.
What To Do About Blue
In our own Blue dog food reviews, we’ve been largely favorable as have most other pet food reviewers. This is based on the ingredients we see listed on those all-important labels, hence why so many pet parents were infuriated to find that the tool by which they gauge their furred family’s food was incorrect.
However misleading Blue may have been about their ingredients is still somewhat unclear, but it brings into question pet food manufacturing as a whole. With regulations and quality standards still fairly lax, there is unfortunately always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to most pet products.
The undesirable ingredients that did make their way into some of Blue’s food, namely poultry by-products, and rice hulls, are still within the realm of acceptable items in the dog food industry. Unfortunately, for those pet parents who are willing to pay a premium price for a higher quality food, this is still unacceptable.
We can only hope that Blue’s verbal commitment to righting the wrongs they claim to have been committed by the supplier has translated into tangible efforts to ensure their food does, in fact, contain nothing more than what is on the label.
The Life Protection formula is Blue’s hallmark line and contains a well-balanced blend of proteins, whole grains, healthy oils, fruits, and vegetables. This is high in essential omega fatty acids from the combination of flaxseed, canola and sunflower oils. The Life Protection formula, complete with Blue’s signature LifeSource bits, provides a lot of antioxidants with such ingredients as pomegranate, spinach, cranberries, blackberries, blueberries and much more. This formula has everything in terms of supplements, as well. Probiotics for digestion, l-carnitine and taurine for metabolism and heart health, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support, and a long list of vitamins and minerals make this a balanced choice for dogs of all life stages.
Blue’s Limited Ingredient Diet line is designed for dogs that are sensitive to a lot of foods. It is made with fewer, easily digested items to reduce the risk of aggravating a sensitive pup’s system. They use more unique protein sources like salmon, duck or turkey rather than the usual chicken or beef in case that is the root of the sensitivity. This food is a bit higher in carbohydrates, including potatoes, peas, and tapioca, but is also high in omega fatty acids from fish, canola and flaxseed oil. Pumpkin and chicory root are high in fiber and assist digestion, as well as the added probiotics. Salt is unfortunately fairly high on the ingredient list, which we’d rather not find as an addition to any food.
Blue’s Freedom recipe is a grain-free option that actually looks very similar to their Limited Ingredient Diet. It features more common protein sources like chicken but has carbohydrates from tapioca, potatoes, and peas. Freedom is high in omega fatty acids and contains a good blend of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. This formula is also supplemented with probiotics, l-carnitine, and taurine. Unfortunately, it does also have added salt as well as DL-Methionine, a manmade version of an essential amino acid found in meat protein. This suggests that the overall protein content of the food is proportionately high in plant protein rather than meat.
Blue Wilderness is probably our favorite line as it is based on the ancestral diet trend of high protein, low carbs and plenty of natural antioxidants. Blue has done an especially impressive job of making some very exotic meat choices available, including alligator, catfish, venison, duck, halibut and more. This food is high in omega fatty acids from fish meal and flaxseed and contains a solid mix of fruits and vegetables. Blueberries, cranberries, kelp, carrots and more combined with supplemental vitamins and minerals make for a nutrient-rich formula. Blue Wilderness is also well-supplemented with probiotics, taurine, and l-carnitine.
Blue has canned wet food that corresponds to each of their main lines, all of which are good quality. Their Blue Stews have high protein levels from sources like beef and chicken. Carbohydrates from potatoes, peas, and carrots in hearty meat-based gravy make for a very palatable wet food for even the pickiest pups. A good blend of vitamins and minerals is added to each recipe, though we could do without the added salt we see on the label. Overall, these make decent choices in the canned food category.
Blue produces several lines of pet foods that still do have a loyal following, though for some the reputation of the brand has been tarnished with trust issues. It remains one of the top names in natural dog food, with new product varieties with exciting new flavors still making their way to the shelves.
Overall, their products feature a lot more good than bad. It will be interesting to watch how the brand grows in the coming years after the dust has settled from the recent legal issues. For now, we certainly won’t rule them out yet as a premium pet food option.