Their website boasts, “Clean Label Project™ uses data and science to reveal the true contents of America’s best-selling consumer products.” Sounds great, right? The idea behind Clean Label Project is fantastic; an organization that can act as a “watchdog” for the pet food industry is something that is desperately needed.
So then why are concerned pet owners questioning the credibility of Clean Label Project’s claims?
Unfortunately, Clean Label Project has fallen far short of the same transparency and accountability they ask of pet food companies. As it turns out, Clean Label Project behaves much in the same way as some of the suspicious brand names in the industry that have caused massive distrust and skepticism in pet owners: they have dodged questions, ignored and deleted requests for more information, and attempted to discredit and accuse people who respectfully raise legitimate concerns.
The suspicion began when their first ratings were published. There seemed to be a theme: high-end, expensive brands were rated 1 star, while lower quality brands consistently received 5 star ratings. Naturally, this was confusing and shocking to pet owners, especially those of us that have spent so much time researching animal nutrition and pet food brands. But when we tried to look deeper, there was no more information to be found. The 5 star rating system Clean Label Project developed on their website was the only information they published.
They refuse to release their raw data… unless you purchase it and sign a non disclosure agreement
Clean Label Project’s star ranking system ranks pet food based on the concentrations of contaminants detected in comparison to other pet food products. Since the rankings are relative and no actual quantities or numbers are provided, there is no way for consumers to know if a pet food actually contains a dangerous amount of a contaminant, or if it simply has more than another product. The detection of a contaminant is not necessarily cause for alarm – for example, products that contain fish will naturally contain more mercury than other types of products due to biomagnification, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the amount of mercury in those products will cause significant harm to your pet. This is why the raw data is important in order to make educated decisions based on this information.
When asked whether or not they were planning on releasing any of their raw data on their Reddit AMA (which you can read by clicking here), their response was basically that raw data will just confuse consumers, and making their data publicly available may be a liability concern. However, if their methodology is sound and their results have been verified with independent labs like they claim, the liability of releasing that data should be minimal. Surely the liability risk of releasing unsubstantiated claims without backing them up with verifiable data would be higher.
When asked again for their raw data to be made publicly available and told that their findings may hold more credibility if they were published in a scientific journal, their response was: “I think that’s pretty ridiculous. … Clearly you are working for the pet food industry.” (To clarify, it was I who asked those questions, and it is quite clear that I don’t work for anyone in the pet food industry – if you hadn’t noticed, I advocate balanced, homemade raw diets!)
When the crew behind the documentary Pet Fooled emailed Clean Label Project in an attempt to request further data, Clean Label Project replied: “Ellipse Analytics response [sic] is that they only share their raw data with academic experts under an NDA or paying customers.”
There are unanswered questions surrounding who funded this research
It isn’t completely clear who funded Clear Label Project’s results. They have made multiple contradictory claims. As you can see in the email above, they have claimed they don’t actually own the data themselves. However, this claim is not in line with their previous claims that the data was donated to them in full by their partner lab. They have also claimed that their project was funded “entirely by donations”, which is also at odds with their other claim(s).
This should be a simple answer, but unfortunately, time and time again it has become apparent that simple answers aren’t very easy to come by when you ask Clean Label Project any questions.
There may be potential conflicts of interest
Clean Label Project has not responded to concerns that there may be someone with a conflict of interest on their team, and instead removed all mention of him from their website shortly after this question:
There are questions surrounding the legitimacy of their partner laboratory
Considering the fact that a significant amount of data was apparently donated free of charge to Clean Label Project by their partner lab, many people felt that warranted some more digging into who exactly Ellipse Analytics is in an attempt to learn more about the nature of the relationship between Clean Label Project and this lab:
Clean Label Project has not responded to this concern.
Their statements regarding the submission of their results to a peer reviewed journal have been inconsistent
Submitting their findings to a peer reviewed scientific journal would be a fantastic way to alleviate the concerns raised regarding the credibility of their claims. A published, peer reviewed scientific study would contain a materials and methods section that would answer many of the questions pet owners have asked, and haven’t gotten adequately answered thus far. Not only that, but it would allow this data to be utilized for future research, potentially revolutionizing the pet food industry’s standards of testing for contaminants (which isn’t currently required on a regular basis). In short, publishing their data in a peer reviewed journal would benefit concerned pet parents and the scientific community both.
But unfortunately, Clean Label Project has not committed to submitting their findings at this time. In their Reddit AMA, Clean Label Project stated that they were not planning on submitting their findings to a scientific journal because, as they put it, they “are not an academic institution” (despite the fact that academic institutions are definitely not the only ones that publish findings in peer reviewed journals).
But when asked about it on Facebook 2 months later, Clean Label Project seemed to imply that they had changed their mind, stating: “As for scientific journals, definitely. Those take time.”
However, after they implied that they were in the process of submitting their research to a peer reviewed scientific journal, I respectfully asked for the name of the journal… and I was then promptly blocked from commenting on their page, and all comments relating to this exchange were deleted. This action seems to imply that they may not actually be planning to submit their results to a scientific journal, and instead were only posting vague and non-committal half-truths in an attempt to cease further questioning.
They are profiting from their “certification program” and pet food sales facilitated through their website
Amazon “buy now” links are conveniently located on each pet food product’s page on Clean Label Project’s website. When consumers click these buttons and purchase a product, Clean Label Project receives a 4% commission from their purchase.
Tim Wall with PetFoodIndustry.com reported in an article (which you can read by clicking here), “Although the Clean Label Project declined to share with the public those results of the pet food analyses conducted by Ellipse Analytics, they will certify that pet foods meet the organization’s standards. That certification program is one of the groups’ four sources of funding.”
However, this certification program means nothing without the data to back up this organization’s claims.
What does all of this mean?
Despite everything that suggests otherwise, I want very badly to give Clean Label Project some credit. There is a desperate need for the pet food industry to be held to higher standards than they are right now. I would be more than thrilled to support an organization that takes on that challenge armed with scientific evidence, verifiable data, and cold hard facts.
Unfortunately, the more we learn about Clean Label Project, the less they fit that description.
To be fair, there is still a sliver of a chance that this is all one giant misunderstanding. Maybe Clean Label Project is simply in severe need of competent public relations and social media employees. Maybe their inconsistent answers can somehow be explained. Maybe their passive aggressive and accusatory remarks and the banning of respectful pet owners with legitimate questions from their social media pages are the fault of just one employee and not the organization as a whole.
But at the present time, given the current information, the deck seems to be stacked against their legitimacy and credibility as an organization. There are serious concerns with Clean Label Project, and so far the way these concerns have been addressed by this organization have been extremely unprofessional, if not completely lacking. In order for pet owners to take them seriously, Clean Label Project needs to step up and address these concerns in a more direct, professional, and honest way.
Until then, concerned pet parents can do their part to encourage transparency by respectfully requesting Clean Label Project respond to these concerns directly and truthfully and release their raw data and/or publish their findings in a peer reviewed scientific journal, and by keeping other owners informed in regards to the current concerns surrounding this organization.
Feel free to share this image on social media, and be sure to tag it #CleanLabelProject: