Interview with Clean Label Project Executive Director Jaclyn Bowen

March 5, 2018

Are you passionate about promoting a toxin-free life for your human and animal family members.  In my holistic veterinary practice I’m highly focused on minimizing toxic exposures in my canine and feline patients as a means of potentially avoiding the short and long term developments of illness.  In my personal life, I also take the same approach to live as cleanly as possible to be the healthiest version of myself despite the years seemingly flying by faster than ever.


Needless to say, when given the opportunity to interview Clean Label Project Executive Director Jaclyn Bowen I jumped at the chance.


  1. Do you have a personal story that motivated you to become involved with the Clean Label Project?


As it relates to pet food, I lost my beloved Basset Hound, Annabelle, to cancer last summer.  As a food safety engineer, while I always tried to feed her what I perceived as “the best”, I couldn’t help but wonder if her pet food could have played a role in her cancer.


  1. What is Clean Label Project’s perspective on the most common reasons that pet foods are being recalled or sickening pets?


The most common reason that pet foods are being recalled and sickening pets falls at the intersection of the consumer demand for safety and transparency and the lack of quality assurance that goes (or doesn’t go) into the highly unregulated foods that we feed to America’s pets. 


A majority of pet brands use co-manufacturers or copackers, this means that they leave the ingredient sourcing and supplier assurance up to someone else. That means that the onus of quality assurance is being outsourced and this trend is only increasing in the marketplace.


  1. Are there similarities between findings of toxic substances found in pets foods in comparison to those for humans (baby, etc.)?


Absolutely.  You find the same contaminants, but the magnitude of contamination in pet food dwarfs that observed in infant formula and baby food.  To say that I was shocked by some of the levels of contaminants in pet foods would be an understatement. 


At the same time, you see brands with products that clearly are doing their diligence when it comes to supplier assurance and ingredient quality.  Clean Label Project believes that the very best products deserve to win in the marketplace.


  1. What does the Clean Label Project feel are the most-important approaches owners can take to ensure their pets aren’t exposed to toxins in foods and treats?


The most important approach pet owners can take to ensure their pets aren’t exposed to toxins in foods and treats is to be a skeptical consumer.  Talk to your pet food store, demand to know more details. Given the unfortunate event that happened with Smuckers/Big Heart Pet Brands (see Food and Drug Administration press release), retailers should expect a heightened state of concern from pet owners.   Also, consumers should call brands and ask to know more details about the pet foods.  Keep in mind, that pet food brands will say that they comply with federal laws and do routine testing.  Demand to know more- “what kind of testing?  What frequency?  Do you put the test reports on your website?” Be your pet’s advocate.


  1. How does Clean Label Project go about performing laboratory testing on pet foods and treats to help protect pets (i.e. does CLP choose the product and do the testing on their on volition or does the consumer send in a product to be tested)?


Given the humanization of pet food over the past several years coupled with the scandals and recalls, we were especially interested in what was truly behind all these “Feed them like Family”, “Natural”, Human-grade”, etc. claims.  For us, it was about seeing past the comfort and security that pet food brands marketing departments sell, and get right to the data and science about the true ingredient quality. T his impartiality only comes through testing.


When we began this pet food study, we assumed that these companies were regularly screening for environmental toxins alongside more conventional foodborne contaminants (like salmonella). Our results clearly indicate otherwise. We believe consumers have a right to know what’s in the products they buy.  And we communicate our results to consumers in a manner that is understandable to all. 


When we initially started this project, we utilized Nielson reports to pull the products that made up 90% of the overall retail sales of pet foods. From there, we visited specialty pet food stores and spoke with consumers and team members to ask what people were buying. 


Our approach to the sampling was simple and why Clean Label Project is unique is clear- we simulate the consumer shopping experience.  We went to grocery stores, pet food stores, and online retailers and purchased products just like any consumer would. We tested over 1000 of America’s best selling dry and wet dog foods, cat foods, and treats for over 130 environmental and industrial contaminants and toxins like heavy metals, pesticide residues, antibiotic residues, plasticizers, melamine, acrylamide, and mycotoxins.  We amassed over 130,000 data points, benchmarked them, and put the findings on our website in the form of a 5 star rating system.  The products that we personally purchased and tested are literally the exact same products that are in pantries across America.  For us, we don’t trust label claims, or as we refer to them within Clean Label Project- marketing puffery- we trust analytical chemistry.


  1. How does Clean Label Project go about giving a product the 1 to 5-star rating?


Our 5-star system is our way of telling consumers how contaminated (or clean) their pet’s food is compared to the rest of the products we tested.  The stars are not arbitrary, but the result of a carefully developed system. We developed this system in conjunction with data scientists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, chemists and using survey data from over a thousand consumers to synthesize the thousands of data-points collected on each product to make it easier to interpret and use the data in a meaningful way.


Our system is designed to save time — distilling thousands of pieces of information into a single rating.  A 5-star rating means the product is amongst the best when looking at environmental and industrial contaminants.  A 1-star rating means that the product is amongst the worst- meaning it has amongst the highest amount of industrial and environmental contaminants.  A 3-star is about average.


Think about it like grading on a curve in high school. Let’s say you get an 85% on a test in school. You might look at that result and say, “I did pretty good”. But if everyone else in the class received a 95%, then you actually did pretty poorly. Alternatively, if everyone else in the class received a 60%, then you did great. For us, its about putting the ingredient quality and purity into comparison with competitive products.

  1. Have you noted an interest in certain companies or a lack of interest in other companies with the Clean Label Project?


From Clean Label Project’s perspective, the best way to influence brands and manufacturers is to educate consumers.  Conscious consumers are savvy and Clean Label Project believes with these pet food ratings in hand, consumers will demand better.


Companies (of all sizes) may be unaware these chemicals are in their products, as many of these tests are not routine or required—but that doesn’t make the presence of these toxins any less dangerous.  They question is, now that they know, what are they going to do about it? We hear from a lot of brands that did great and only want to do better.  But, we also hear from brands that don’t.


In an ideal world, every company that received a poor rating from Clean Label Project would immediately start working to improve the quality of their products.  When companies compete to improve the purity of their products, consumers win.

We also understand that we do not live in an ideal world.  However, Clean Label Project will not be silenced by the same brands who sell comfort and security in their marketing and have elevated levels of environmental and industrial contaminants in their products. The best part about Clean Label Project’s benchmarked results, is that we base them on science and data, NOT opinion.  Plus, if brands think we got it wrong, we encourage them to reach out to us.

  1. Does the Clean Label Project work with veterinarians to strive to educate pet owners about the potential dangers lurking and had food? If not, how would you like to work with veterinarians?


Clean Label Project would LOVE to work with more veterinarians!  We are a small, but mighty, non-profit, but we are working hard to develop an even broader list of like-minded experts. Please reach out to us at if you’d like to get involved from a volunteer expert perspective to help us.


  1. What is the Clean Label Project hoping to achieve with the Pet Food Cancer Study 2017 and when can pet owners see the results of the study?


The Pet Food Cancer Study 2017 is intended to be the first of its kind examination of the potential relationship between heavy metals we know to be in a variety of dog foods and cancer.  We plan on aggregating the information and reporting out on our findings later this year.


  1. What are the upcoming projects in which the Clean Label Project is involved to promote the safety of pets as pertains to the foods and treats they eat?


We have several more pet food studies on deck for 2018- including one that I plan to release by the end of March.  I’m also looking at doing another pet food special study by the end of the summer.


Follow us on Clean Label Project Facebook to stay up to date. I am also beginning to thinking about Clean Label Project’s 2019 Pet Food Study where we again sample and test hundreds of products from the marketplace. So please let us know any of your followers’ special requests.


Thank you Jaclyn for contributing to this article.  If you want to receive updates from Clean Label Project, sign up for email via Clean Label Project’s Blog page.


Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Please leave your constructive perspective in the below Comments section and communicate with me and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine and life via Instagram (@PatrickMahaney), Twitter (@PatrickMahaney), and Facebook (Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets).


Copyright of this article (2018) is owned by Dr. Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian, Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Veterinary Journalist.  Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr. Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr. Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.


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