News Industry Profile 2017 Burns Pet Nutrition



Industry Profile 2017: Burns Pet Nutrition
16th May 2017

By Sandra Pearce

John launched his Burns food more than 20 years ago

Veterinary surgeon and business founder John Burns launched Burns Pet Nutrition in 1993 and is passionate about the benefits of feeding pets a nutrient-rich diet of high-quality animal proteins and whole grains. He also has a reputation for speaking frankly about the pet food industry

With regards to the current pet food landscape, John Burns believes we are living ‘in worrying times’ because misinformation is becoming the status quo. Unfortunately, wrong information means that ‘nobody trusts anyone anymore’. He said: “I’m a member of an industry where dishonesty is becoming the norm.”
He refers to the marketing claims other companies are making: their food is made in a kitchen or uses ingredients from an allotment. “The reality is that the food is made in a factory and uses ingredients from a commercial farm,” he said.

So what can be done? Well, educating customers on pet nutrition for one thing. “The trouble with the independent pet trade is that we are all chipping away at each other, but the main problem is in the grocery channel, with its low-quality pet foods. Those pet owners do not read about nutrition or get advice.

“Instead of back-biting each other, we should be encouraging pet owners to use the independents.”
Burns Pet Nutrition was launched in 1993, offering healthy, natural pet food, a concept that at the time was unheard of. This was as a result of John’s studies in traditional medicine. It was also in response to recurring pet health problems that John was noticing at his veterinary practice. Believing poor nutrition to be the primary cause, he recommended his clients serve their pet’s home-cooked food made to his own recipe of brown rice, vegetables and meat.

The results were ‘remarkable’ and led to him developing his own range of complete diets for dogs and cats using whole grains and high-quality animal proteins.

The three latest leaflets are available now and provide a useful tool for retailers

Almost 25 years on, Burns has established itself as one of the most successful independent pet food manufacturers in the UK. The company also exports to countries including Ireland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Portugal. Later this year they will exhibit at Zoomark International in Bologna and Interzoo in Nuremburg.

Grain is good!
A flagship Burns product is the Original Chicken and Brown Rice, which was launched as the company’s first product. John said: “It’s our big one, and people who are feeding whole grains are delighted with it. Other big sellers include the Sensitive+ range and Weight Control. All our foods are based on grains, and this underpins what I do and what I believe in.”

In February, John was at a veterinary conference in America. “At one lecture, an American veterinary speaker said that grain-free is by far the largest hoax that has been perpetuated on American people – and this came just after Trump’s inauguration – and he got a round of applause.”

He added: “Grain-free is not about the health of the dog, it’s about developing a market for the product.”
One issue with grain-free foods, he said, is that grain-free has no sound theoretical basis, unlike whole grains.

Grain-free diets (including raw diets) often have a very high meat content, which means high fat, high protein and low carbohydrate, which could lead to weight issues. Dogs – and people for that matter – eat according to lifestyle, he said. So while raw meat might be appropriate for an animal that lives in the wild, dogs that are domesticated and have a different lifestyle are well adapted to digesting and absorbing cooked whole grains.

He does however concede: “People who feed raw food probably get quite good results, but I would argue with the absurd theories that underpin them, for example that dogs have not changed in 15,000 years. Of course they have changed.”

Dogs’ Day Out at Glamis Castle proved very popular, and it will be staged again this year

Another issue concerns the suitability of ingredients used in grain-free kibble products, especially sweet potato. “This sweet potato is the by-product of human food production, and it’s the hull and husk which is then dried, and it’s probably not that nutritious.

“Grain-free might work for the odd dog that has sensitivities with grains, but they are going to be few and far between.”

Burns Pet Nutrition also offers Choice, a range of three maize dry foods with either chicken, lamb or fish. “People who use our maize food score it highly. Maize is a whole grain, as is brown rice and it gives just as good results. Maize gets a lot of bad press, with some saying dogs cannot digest grains which is nonsense, or that maize can cause allergies.

“Maize has a very, very low incidence of intolerance, unlike wheat, soya, beef or dairy. When used as a wholegrain, maize is an excellent food.

“The problem is that the pet food industry seems to be full of overnight experts, and I am being challenged all the time. But we find it far more exciting to listen to the testimonies of customers who see the direct benefits of our food.”   

More than just selling pet food
Burns has proved so successful that it led to the purchase of Penlan Farm, a 300-acre former dairy farm close to the company’s Kidwelly headquarters. Many of the eggs and vegetables that go into Burns’ range of complete moist food, the Penlan Farm range, are produced on the farm. The food is then manufactured at the company’s factory in Burry Port. Although not organic, the farm uses biological techniques and principles.

Penlan Farm grows grass (for livestock), a large range of seasonal vegetables and barley. The farm will even grow naked oats this year. The farm also keeps chickens for their eggs, beef cattle and overwinters a flock of sheep.

Commenting on the farm, John said: “We are trying a lot of different things; we want diversity. This is the traditional way of farming, when farmers used to have a mixed enterprise, whereas today it’s mostly
monoculture. We’re about improving the biodiversity on farms.”

As such, Penlan Farm grows grain mixed with flowers that are not harvested. Instead, the flowers provide food for insects in summer while the grain feeds wild birds in winter. “We leave a few acres unharvested for this purpose.”

There is also a small herd of alpacas and sheep, which attract the interest of visitors. The alpacas are currently being trained for alpaca walking tours.

The farm is not just a commercial venture, it also offers work experience to people with disabilities.
“We have a successful business and I wanted to use that success to provide a benefit for people, through animals,” he said.

Chicken and Brown Rice is the flagship product

The Burns Pet Nutrition Foundation offers grants, education and employment opportunities. One of its biggest initiatives is its reading with dogs programme, Burns By Your Side. This programme utilises trained volunteers and companion dogs to help children improve their literacy skills and confidence. He said: “This is now quite a big project in West Wales, and we have over 30 volunteers. We get calls from other areas in the UK, but we’re not ready to roll this out. We need to keep it systematic and under control.

“Schools are finding it invaluable – some children are poor readers or communicators, and this helps.
We received a call from one school to say a child had spoken for the first time in a couple of years because of the dog. This makes it all worthwhile.”

Another initiative, The Better Tomorrow Programme, works with disadvantaged young people, offering grassroots projects through to local authority Youth Service initiatives.

One project resulted in a three-week internship programme in which the young people received on-site training and work experience across the factory, the farm shop, warehouse and offices.
“I’m trying to make a difference by putting money into projects rather than advertising on billboards. It’s great to be in a position to do so,” he said.

Harvest time on Penlan Farm

Burns Pet Nutrition is a Living Wage Employer in which employers voluntarily pay the Living Wage (calculated according to the basic cost of living using the Minimum Income Standard for the UK) and is a member of the Living Wage Foundation.
John won the Living Wage Leadership Award 2015 for Wales and said: “I think we are the only Living Wage employer in Carmarthenshire and the only Living Wage employer in the UK pet industry.”

Each year the company also supports animal charities with financial assistance, fundraising and promotional activity in its Charity of the Year programme. This year it is helping The National Animal Welfare Trust and Scottish charity, Appaws for Autism.

A high priority for the company is consumer shows, because they grant John the opportunity to speak to the public directly. Whether it is Crufts, a local agricultural event or even the popular Dogs’ Day Out at Glamis Castle and Kidwelly, it’s all about meeting people and talking to them.

The Penlan Farm food uses ingredients grown on the farm

“You have to keep your presence high,” he explained. “Someone once asked me, when did I get that big breakthrough? But there’s never been a big breakthrough – you have to keep grinding away, it’s a slow burner. You cannot just put in an ad and get 1,000 new customers; life’s not like that.”
Needless to say, there is high social media interaction on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and active blogs on the Burns website.

Supporting the independent
John has written three new leaflets for independent traders to pass on to customers: The Vet’s Guide to Whole Grains, A Guide to Daily Feeding Costs and A Vet’s Guide to Daily Feeding Amounts.

The first looks at the importance of feeding whole grains, while A Vet’s Guide to Daily Feeding Amounts addresses the issue of how much food to give to a pet. He said: “So many people do not see the benefit of giving a good food because they do not feed it right. Overfeeding is a big problem (no pun intended!)”
A Guide to Daily Feeding Costs demonstrates how economical it is to feed a Burns product. He said: “When people ask me how much a bag is, I never say how much it costs, I ask what dog do you have and I then say how much it will cost each day.

“Over Christmas I looked at more than 1,000 foods, and for daily feeding cost Burns came in the bottom 20%. In other words, 80% of other pet foods are more expensive.”

Penlan Farm moist food is made at factory in Wales

All leaflets are available free of charge, and provide a useful tool for retailers to give to their customers.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to make a difference, and the reason I do this,” he said.

Burns also offers a loyalty scheme in which pet owners can claim a free bag after they’ve bought seven bags. Crucially, customers have to redeem the bag with the retailer who issued the loyalty card. “They cannot take the card to another retailer, and so it builds loyalty with the retailer.” 
He added: “As we all know, our town centres are being hollowed out by out-of-town development and small businesses are closing down.

“Small pet shops have told me over the years that they would have closed if it wasn’t for Burns. In other words, Burns has helped keep these businesses viable.”

The biggest challenge
facing the industry at the moment is the impact of Brexit, he said. Burns has already had to increase its prices due to the devaluation of the pound against other currencies.
“Raw material costs have gone up hugely, a direct consequence of Brexit.
“Many who voted for it did not think of this. But nobody knows for sure what will happen or, really, what is happening. Even the people who are supposed to be in charge do not seem to know what will happen.
“I hope we will not have to raise prices again this year. This isn’t just Burns, I suspect other manufacturers will have to raise their prices too.

“The availability of raw materials is also a concern, but this is out of the control of the pet industry and depends on factors like the food industry, climate change and even world economies.”

Yet despite this, Burns remains committed to its customers, its community, the environment and to bringing out new products – several are in the pipeline.

John admits he can get very enthusiastic about new ideas and projects.
He said: “I can come up with an idea and say let’s get it done… It needs organising, but I want it done now. The others have to rein me in!”

Fresh from the fields!