Richter Scholar completes research with Food and Drug Administration data

Sonny Valcin ’16 analyzed data from a recent FDA survey on consumers’ use of food and pet food nutrition labels and discovered, among other findings, that dog owners are more likely than cat owners to read a pet food label.

Even though pet owners largely consider their cats and dogs to be members of their family, many fail to read pet food nutrition labels while shopping at the grocery or pet specialty store. That was one of Richter Scholar Sonny Valcin’s findings from a 10-week research experience under the tutelage of Associate Professor and Chair of Economics and Business Rob Lemke.

The duo is using the Food and Drug Administration’s 2008 Health and Diet Survey to conduct their research. They analyzed data from over 2,500 households in the United States, about half of which reported owning at least one dog or cat. Although there is a vast amount of literature on who reads the FDA’s nutrition facts panel when purchasing food for human consumption, Valcin noted that this research is groundbreaking as it is the first study that quantifies pet food label usage.

Through his work, Valcin showed that over 80 percent of people check food labels when purchasing their own food, but barely 60 percent of pet owners read pet food labels when shopping for pet food. These numbers demonstrate a sizeable gap in behavior when shopping for the household’s food. The reason for the gap is unknown, Valcin said, but it indicates that further education and an improved pet food label would likely be beneficial.

Valcin’s most important conclusions, however, document differences between cat and dog owners. In particular, dog owners are more likely to check pet food labels than cat owners. Valcin and Lemke have three possible explanations for that: the difference in the pets’ size and weight, the greater rate at which cat owners engage in free-choice feeding of their pets compared to dog owners, and the lower cost in feeding cats compared to dogs. These, too, require further study, maybe for a project titled “Man’s Best Friend,” Valcin joked.

Additionally, the data revealed that pet owners with three or more pets, whether they are cats or dogs, consult pet food labels at a much greater rate than pet owners with at most two pets. This suggests that the most avid pet owners do use pet food labels as much as they use labels for their own food. The hope, Valcin said, is to use the findings to improve nutrition labels and help create more informed consumers of pet food. It is one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Lemke and Valcin authored a paper that will be submitted for publication before the end of the year. Valcin also presented his work to an engaged audience of fellow Richter Scholars and members of the College community on Wednesday, July 17.

“Everyone always asks you what you did over the summer or what you’re doing over the summer. I didn’t want to be the guy doing nothing,” Valcin said of his decision to apply for a Richter spot. “Working with Professor Lemke opened my eyes to an array of academic literature. He relied heavily on me, and I really appreciated that.”