Why the Equine Nutrition Market cannot have
Scientifically Proven Products
Malcolm Green - Research Director – EquiFeast
Horse riders and owners are bombarded by an impossibly large range of feeds and supplements all with competing claims about their impact on the horse. This noisy and confusing marketplace is a natural consequence of the free market economy that most of us hold very dear and over recent years has led to a significant increase in public dissatisfaction with “experts”. Indeed the equine feed industry, along with the human nutrition industry, is suffering a major crisis of credibility.
Sadly the crisis of confidence is fuelled by many people who actually know better. So let me explain in simple terms why the desire for scientific proof, while outwardly rational, is actually impossible for the nutrition industry, academia and the science publishing industry to deliver. I will also touch on the latest thinking of a number of nutritional scientists towards the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) and the dangers of over-emphasising that particular methodology and ignoring both field trials and even single animal trials.
Any of you who have seen one of my presentations over the past few years will know that I always start with a slide highlighting that the equine nutrition industry is technology based, not science based. This paper is attempting to put some flesh on that simple statement.
What is scientific proof?
In the UK the only arbiter of scientific truth in marketing is the completely unscientific Advertising Standards Authority or ASA. Contrary to many people’s belief the ASA is not a statutory body. It doesn’t make laws or regulations nor does it have any authority to do so. It is the Advertising Industry’s self-regulating body. The ASA is charged with implementing the Advertising Code of Practice that is developed by the Committee of Advertising Practice which is supervised by a number of different advertising related trade associations.
Under that code the Equine Nutrition Industry is judged by the same standards as the Global Health and Beauty Industry. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the UK horse feed market may be £200 million in size, the supplements market perhaps £20 million while the Global Health and Beauty Industry is in a completely different league altogether being made up of many multi-billion dollar firms with ginormous research facilities spread around the world. Hardly any similarity exists between these two industry groups.
The code requires ANY claim made by an advertiser in our industry to be backed by double blind, placebo controlled trials (otherwise known as Randomised Controlled Trials or RCTs). In addition, those trials must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. These trials must be conducted using the actual product (we can’t use proven ingredient claims once they are incorporated into a formulation) in the target species. I had claims rejected because the independent research supporting them was in foals and mares not horses!
So how likely is it that the Equine Nutrition industry can achieve that gold plated standard?
There are probably 80 different supplement firms and over 20 feed firms in the UK horse market. Let’s call that 100 firms. I would guess that on average they have 20-50 products each. Let’s say 30 shall we? That’s 3,000 products.
Now any product is going to be designed to do a number of things and lots of benefits flow from the inclusion of the single ingredients and even more for multiple ingredients. So the chances are that each product may need to support 10 claims.
Please note that any claim made by a customer in a product review or testimonial also has to be supported by the published RCTs. YOUR opinion and experience as a consumer counts for nothing with the ASA! In our business we take the opposite view and indeed won the FSB/WorldPay Business Innovation award in 2014 for the way we leveraged our customer feedback into product development. Truly we find out far more about what our products do from customer feedback than by reviewing the incredibly limited science.
So we now have 30,000 claims to be substantiated scientifically.
So let us look at the industry’s ability to provide scientific substantiation of 30,000 claims. I can’t say I’ve seen any scientific papers published by Dodson & Horrell or Baileys. However I don’t follow the feed industry as closely as the supplements so I may have missed some. Mars Horsecare (Spillers in the UK and Buckeye in America) deserve credit for funding a lot of research at various universities around the world. But the research they fund doesn’t involve their products specifically. Because the ASA does not allow a firm to claim scientifically proven characteristics of an ingredient as support for a product Spillers get very little marketing benefit from their philanthropy. So I doubt there are any feed products that meet the ASA’s requirements.
Of course the feed industry loves the term “scientifically formulated”. When you work out what that actually means I would love to know. You will see later that the science that is done in nutrition is mostly “reductionist”. That means the experiment focuses on one or two individual nutrients. That tells us very little about the complex interactions between nutrients and therefore how the product should be formulated. A number of human nutritionists are beginning to put forward a strong argument in favour of complex diet research rather than individual ingredient studies.
Another firm that does quite a lot of academic research is Kentucky Equine Research (KER) in the USA but they don’t sell directly in the UK, most of their science is also ingredient not product related and so can’t be used for marketing. Like Mars, KER has been around a long time and actively supports academia. But that hasn’t given them much they can use as scientific proof of individual products in the UK though they probably get far more value from that work in the USA.
Science Supplements has, after many years of implying scientific proof for most of its products, actually achieved it for one in December 2016. As a firm they have one advantage over most players in that the founder used to work for a charity with research and academic credentials – The Animal Health Trust. Despite that and many years in operation only one product from the whole range has backup that meets the ASA’s standards.
I have never seen NAF, by far the biggest and one of the longest established supplements companies in the UK, publish any peer-reviewed research. And nor am I aware of any other products that actually have peer-reviewed RCTs behind them. Again I am happy to be corrected but if NAF can’t afford to do it there is no hope for the rest of us.
So after that review of the status of the key industry players (I admit it is not exhaustive) and my guestimates 30,000 claims we have one product that may be able to support two or three claims to the ASA standards. WOW!
So why is it so hard?
Well firstly most of the firms in our industry are pretty small. They simply don’t have the resources to carry out research. Many don’t have the technical competence to do so either though some have bought that competence in by buying overseas technologies developed by competent people.
But the biggest obstacle is the lack of both academic and scientific publishing capacity. Let’s start with the publications. There are probably less than 20 publications Worldwide (including the online ones) that could publish the articles the industry needs. So if we were to give them 10 years to clear the backlog they would need to publish articles to substantiate 3,000 claims every year. That is 150 claims a year requiring perhaps 75 articles (if each covered two claims) a year in every journal. To be brutally honest any journal that published one or two articles a month of such a commercial nature would soon be downgraded by the world’s scientists who want to be associated with meaningful research not just be stooges of industry. And remember the publishing industry is a global one and would need to publish all the research from everywhere in the world making the numbers I have come up with for the UK just a drop in the ocean.
And we have virtually no capacity in our academic institutions either. Most Equine Science courses are run by Universities that have only recently been upgraded from colleges. They have little or no research history, no money, very few facilities, no research herd of horses etc etc. Many have none or less than a handful of postgraduate students. And only a small proportion of those students will be interested in nutrition.
The vet schools are slightly better off but they are always going to be supported by multi-million dollar drug companies. Money talks so access for nutrition to post graduate researchers is still virtually nil. And why would a post graduate research a commercial product anyway? Far more important in view of the way academia works at the moment is to work on a non-commercial project for the progression of both science and their career. But sadly even if a postgrad did a brilliant piece of work over a three year PhD process the chances of it getting published in a peer-reviewed journal isn’t great. Mouldering in the University library is the fate of most such theses. And the more commercial the research the less publishable it is.
So the nutrition industry lacks the resources to “prove” even a tiny fraction of its products. And even if it did the research itself it would struggle to get it published.
The academic industry has the advantage of access to the publishers but virtually no resources to carry out the work. And the regulations they and industry are bound by also hinders work throughout Europe. To take a single blood sample from a horse for research purposes requires a Home Office licence. And the paperwork to get that runs to about 100 pages. I don’t think any of the Equine Science Universities or their tiny number of researchers have a Home Office licence. And this of course is why so much research funded by the likes of Mars is conducted overseas. And that is exactly why most of my own firm’s research is now being conducted in Australia.
So who is complaining?
Well I will happily forgive non-academic riders for not understanding the rules or the state of the industry or the capacity of academics or publishers.
But bizarrely there is a large body of scientists that complain in public forums that the feed and supplements industry makes unproven claims. Well guys you are the ones that are supposed to do the research. You have the qualifications and the access to the journals. These are privileges not available to most in the industry. When you have done it – on products not ingredients – you have the right to complain. But until then you are raising the expectations of consumers to levels that you know are ludicrous and contributing to the big trend of the general public losing faith in experts and scientists generally.
Academic careers are driven by incentives that make proving products very unattractive. Such papers would be very difficult to get published and in the academic game it is a case of “publish or perish.” But if you are not able to support the industry please at least keep quiet!
Even worse in my view are the members of the industry that claim their own products are scientifically proven and publically and on social media slag off competitors for not being honest. As you can see the level of scientific proof is so negligible that almost no products meet it. It is time that manufacturers and trade associations like BETA acknowledged the practicalities of the industry and represented their clients by lobbying the ASA to take a more rational approach.
What do other countries do?
Well America is probably a good example. Websites there simply make all the claims they want but, if they bother at all, include a disclaimer that the claims have not been verified by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
You could say that is a licence for snake oil salesmen. And yes it is. But it also allows genuine firms with good products to explain what their products do and why they believe that. Is that tough on consumers? Yes it is. But horse riders are generally pretty well educated people. They can think for themselves and one can question just how much they need to be protected. Far worse than a few riders being conned occasionally is the suffering of horses that are otherwise denied simple nutritional solutions to nutritional problems. Instead we force vets and owners down the drug route with all the side-affects that often produces.
Surprisingly the real situation isn’t very much different here. In practice the ASA gets only a handful of complaints against our industry every year. Rather than being a consumer protecting organisation they are instead a vehicle for one manufacturer to dobb in a competitor every now and then. That does nobody any good.
Science is under attack
You may have noticed that in the free world there is a significant backlash against experts and scientists. The problem is one of credibility. The horse world, at least in the UK, is probably ahead of human nutritionists in the trend away from starch and sugar towards fat and fibre. This trend must have started over 20 years ago but just yesterday another paper crossed my desk researching starch, fibre and oil. This continues to highlight the lack of resources for equine nutrition. This research progresses so slowly. And when it comes to supplement ingredients the cupboard is far more bare.
As well as trumpeting the triumphs of equine nutrition the researchers should also be honest about the limitations of their offering. Until this level of honesty and humility creeps in consumers will continue to lose faith.
This lack of credibility has now spawned a term – Scientism. Scientism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
1. Thought or expression regarded as characteristic of scientists.
1.1 Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.
Not all scientists share this belief. I certainly don’t. The RCT isn’t the gold standard for complex systems like biological ones. It has its place but it is only one tool. A group of Dutch researchers have recently got together and published what they think is wrong with human nutritional science and how it should proceed (Penders et al., Capable and Credible? Challenging nutrition science. Eur J Nutr. Published online 17 July 2017). They talk about things like “the myth of pure, neutral science, able to achieve objective truth.” And they propose different research techniques including “quasi-experimental studies and n-of-1 trials”. Hoorah - that is the sort of work that we at EquiFeast have been doing since 2011 though I don’t think we have ever had n as low as 1. This paper would provide an excellent starting point for our trade association, BETA, to start negotiating a more sensible regime with the ASA because it argues that there are research techniques that are actually better than RCTs for nutrition research.
The tragedy is that those of us that actually do invest in research can’t report it to you the public without breaching the ASA guideleines. When we did so in 2014 by paying for a full page advert in Showing World we were reported to the ASA. Even though we argued the rather technical point that we had written the copy in a very subjective way (which is allowed under the code) and used phrases like “in our opinion” and “we believe” the ASA determined (with no supporting evidence at all) that “you consumers” would read it as if they were fully fledged objective statements proven by science. It is very frustrating to make a huge investment in research that genuinely takes our understanding of horse nutrition and welfare forwards only to be thwarted by a non-scientific body (our case officer had a PhD in Theology) with no regulatory power which doesn’t have to prove any of its opinions in making a judgement.
There is of course little incentive to do research if you can’t use it for marketing purposes. Designing innovative products is useless if you can’t tell people how they differ from the rest. Likewise we have spent tens of thousands of pounds on patents only to find that although the government has granted us a 20 year monopoly on the technology the ASA won’t let us tell you it is “unique”. I passionately believe that the ASA not only hugely restricts marketers freedom of speech but also dramatically limits consumers’ right to know and make their own judgements.
So where does this leave consumers?
Well you guys have a simple choice. You can buy the only supplement that has been “scientifically proven” and reject all the rest. Of course the scientific proof may tell you it works but it doesn’t tell how it compares with the myriad of other similar or dramatically different products on the market. The comparator used will have been the mythical placebo – and have you ever noticed how papers never tell you what the placebo was made of, so you cannot judge whether it was truly inert or whether the placebo may even have had anti-nutrient properties so artificially enhancing the appearance of the trial product?
Of course picking the only scientifically proven product doesn’t help your horse with Cushings, laminitis, poor muscle function, digestive issues, stupid behaviour etc etc. In fact it deprives you of a choice of thousands of mostly very useful products.
Alternatively you can choose to buy products whose suppliers are telling you (more or less honestly) what the products are supposed to do and their rationale for why their formulation may be better than others. You can rely on the huge number of opinions offered on social media these days and you can take your chances. Unfortunately the ASA restricts what should be said though in truth nearly all supplements and many feeds break the rules in most adverts.
There is a third option. Become a philanthropist and put hundreds of millions of pounds into an industry research charity charged with evaluating every product on the market and reporting the findings in properly presented scientific form. Good luck with recruiting the scientists to work in such a venture. I don’t think there would be many takers.