in all my infinite wisdom

Category: EXPOSED

Think you’re feeding your pet healthy food? Think again

There are a few major takeaways from this documentary that every pet parent should know. Here are 10 harsh truths about the pet food industry, exposed by Pet Fooled :

1. The vast majority of the pet industry is monopolized by 5 major companies.

Despite the fact that there are thousands of brands for different foods, toys, and products, only 5 major companies account for most of the $60+ billion industry – and that’s just in America. The overwhelming monopoly means that these companies dictate the bulk of commercial pet products, including what’s in them, how to produce them, and how to increase profits.

IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

2. A massive and deadly recall in 2007 made consumers lose trust in the industry.

You may remember being part of the widespread panic of pet parents after contaminated wheat gluten killed thousands of cats and dogs. The culprit was melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastic and foam products that causes renal failure when consumed. Although multiple pet products and brands were affected, it was discovered that the tainted ingredient came from a single company located in China. This made consumers seriously question the health and safety of their pet’s food.

3. Our dogs’ DNA is 99.9% identical to wolves, so they require the same nutrition.

Biologically, dogs are nearly identical to wolves, with the small percentage of differing DNA accounting for all the different types of breeds that we know today. Dr. Karen Becker compares dogs’ variety of appearances to humans having different eye, skin, and hair colors, heights, builds, etc. Just because we look different, we’re all humans with the same basic nutritional needs – and the same goes for dogs, whose diets should resemble their wild cousins.

IN THE FILM, DR. ROYAL COMMENTS THAT HER 12-YEAR-OLD DOG DOESN’T LOOK HIS AGE DUE TO HIS EXCELLENT DIET OF RAW FOODS. / IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

4. Every species requires a certain diet to fulfill their biological needs – and most pet foods miss the mark.

In the documentary, Dr. Becker talks about species-appropriate diets, meaning that each animal has a biological need for certain nutrients. While many wild animals will simply avoid the foods that are unnecessary for their bodies (she uses the example that if you give a snake a salad, it won’t eat it and will just die), our domesticated friends have been forced to consume additives and fillers. Cats and dogs are designed to be carnivores, and while they’re resilient, the nutritional deficiencies of their diets manifest themselves in a myriad of health problems.

IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

5. When it comes to our pets’ declining health, grains are a huge culprit.

Dr. Barbara Royal points out that the overuse of processed grains like corn and wheat are a cheap way for companies to add “bulk” to their foods, but provide little nutrition for our four-legged friends. The consumption of these low-quality grains, she believes, is the cause for the widespread obesity, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and allergies that afflict our pets. 

6. Kibble was an invention of the pet food industry during World War II, and it has led to some serious consequences.

During the war, there were rations on meat and tin. Up until then, packaged pet food was in cans, meaning it had a higher moisture content similar to their species-specific diets (in other words, fresh meat that they killed). But when meat became limited and tin reserved for ammunition, the pet food industry knew they had to formulate a convenient type of pet food that they could package in a bag – dry kibble. Now that this dry food is the norm, pets live in a state of chronic mild dehydration, and rates of kidney disease, organ failure, and diabetes have skyrocketed among pets.

IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

7. The dietary advice from your vet may be influenced by the major pet food companies.

In the film, Dr. Karen Becker points out that the major pet food brands have a large part in funding vet students, therefore influencing their education. She and Dr. Royal point out that there’s a huge lack of education surrounding raw diets, and they’re taught to promote the big-name brands in the industry. What’s more, the doctors say that many modern vets have learned to discourage raw diets because of potential pathogens and bacteria. But in reality, our pets’ systems are designed to digest this material, in part with a high stomach acidity pH of 1. After all, Dr. Becker points out, dogs eat poop and lick their butts on a regular basis – behaviors that could kill a human. While any food brand is susceptible to being recalled (humans make mistakes, after all) raw food companies tend to make smaller batches, and make them with more care.

IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

8. The people that set the standards for pet food have more to gain from profits than your pet’s health.

AAFCO – or the Association of American Feed Control Officials – is the organization that sets all the standards for pet food, including nutrient ratios, ingredient allowances, and the terminology that’s allowed on packaging. While this group works with the FDA, it is not government regulated. AAFCO also doesn’t approve products for safety, that’s where the FDA comes in.

AAFCO holds a yearly conference to update pet food standards, and according to Pet Fooled, representatives from major pet food companies attend the meetings so they, too, can weigh in. The danger is that these companies can define terminology and slip through loopholes in order to benefit their profits.

9. The terminology on pet food packaging is NOT what you think.

As mentioned above, AAFCO is responsible for defining terminology on packaging. For instance, your dog’s beef “dinner,” “nuggets,” or “formula” only have to contain 25% meat. If your cat’s food is labeled as “chicken with salmon,” the word “with” may only represent 3% meat. And the label “flavor” is the worst – “flavored” foods don’t have to contain any real meat at all. What’s more, foods with added colors are made to appeal to humans – your pets can’t even see the different hues when the food is dyed.

You also may have looked for protein percentages on your pet’s food. While this is a good place to start, that protein may not be meat. It could have been derived from wheat flour or gluten that’s been fortified with protein.

IMAGE SOURCE: SCREEN SHOT VIA PET FOOLED

10. By-products are the result of processed animal carcasses from unknown sources.

Meat by-products and meals are commonly found in pet foods. They’re the result of what’s leftover when animal carcasses – feathers, hooves, teeth, and all – are boiled down and processed into a powder. But the most disturbing part is where the corpses could have come from: leftovers from slaughtered farm animals, road kill, diseased animals, and euthanized animals are all examples of what’s being rendered.

According to the National Renderer’s Association, putting the recycled carcasses in pet food is necessary because… well.. where else would they dispose of them?

So, now what?

In the documentary, Doctors Becker and Royal are strong advocates for feeding pets raw diets, food that is very similar to what they’d consume in the wild. If you’re used to feeding your dogs and cats kibble, as most pet parents are, the thought of switching to a raw diet can seem like a huge, expensive, undertaking. But don’t worry, there’s help out there!

If you want to make the switch but you aren’t sure you can commit, even just supplementing your pet’s diet with fresh foods can give them a big boost in heath. (Also, when transitioning your pet to a different diet, you should begin by introducing the new food a little at a time.)

A good place to start is Dr. Karen Becker’s video, The Best and Worst Foods to Feed Your Pet:

For more information about raw food diets for pets, check out these YouTube videos by Dr. Becker. Another great resource is Truthaboutpetfood.com, founded by a pet parent and advocate who made it her mission to uncover the secrets of this industry.

You know your pet better than anyone, and there’s no “one size fits all diet.” It’s up to you, as their guardian, to do your research, be diligent, and decide what works best for your companion and lifestyle.

You can watch the entire Pet Fooled film on Netflix to get all the nitty gritty details that documentary uncovers. You can also rent it on YouTube for $3.99.

Do you want a healthier & happier dog? Join our email list & we’ll donate 1 meal to a shelter dog in need!

Written by Karen Tietjen
Below is the full transcript

Food Recalls and Deception:
A Special Interview with Kohl Harrington
By Dr. Karen Becker
DB: Dr. Karen Becker
KH: Kohl Harrington
DB: Hi, I’m Dr. Karen Becker. Today I am going to interview Kohl Harrington. Kohl is a documentarian,
a film producer, and a film maker. He has put together an amazing project. Kohl you have a lot to share
with us. Welcome, first of all.


KH: Thank you.
DB: Tell me a little bit about the project first. Of course, I have a million questions. What is the project
and what is the inspiration of the project?
KH: The project is Pet Fooled. It’s a feature documentary. The inspiration basically came from my coproducer, Michael Fossat, who had a dog, who had veterinarian problems, itchy skin. The person in
charge or the person hired to basically groom the dog said, “This dog keeps having issues because of the
food. Google ‘grain-free pet food’.” That led to him Google-ing and being confused, which led to basically
a feature film about the topic because it was so confusing.
DB: Kohl, when you were brainstorming about this idea, have you ever investigated anything animal
before? I know that you have been in this industry forever. But were you nervous about approaching, not
much as pets, but pet foods? Pet food as a topic. Were you nervous?
KH: No. I was basically stepping into it clueless. I never heard of anything related to the pet food
industry being a topic alone. I grew up with dogs. I grew up in Florida, so I grew up with dogs. They were
outside dogs. They would roam and hunt things themselves. We had cats growing up too, but the cats,
they would eat the cat food and then go catch their own things. I’ve been exposed to that as a kid. But the
only thing I knew was dogs eat dog food; cats eat cat food. You buy it in can, and that’s basically it. I
stepped into it blind, not knowing anything.
DB: Very blind. You’re learning curve was exponential.
KH: It was about two years into the entire process. Basically the first year was just trying to figure out
what’s the issue. Because whenever you research online, the thing that was interesting to us was that you
had two basic ideas on the Internet about the way the world works: corn is great; corn is bad. Raw is
great; raw is bad. You had basically two worlds that existed. We were just trying to look at both sides to
kind of weave through each side to see which one makes more sense.
DB: Would you say you spent about a year in the research or investigation phase? How long did it take
you to figure out a path?
KH: Basically you’re just online swimming through anything and everything to learn as much as you can.
You’re calling people and trying to dig a little bit more. It took about a year just researching the project
and meeting with people before we had about like, I would say, 15 people who ironically are all in the
Chicago area.
Michael and I both looked at each other and said, “We have a lot of people in Chicago. Let’s just pack up
and go.” We packed up and went to Chicago for a week and spoke with a lot of people. The majority of
the film comes from those interviews that happened in that week.
DB: When you were kind of wading through this amazing amount of information, I’m sure that you
realized that not only is it a very heated topic, a very passionate topic, but certainly in the last 40 years,
there have been all sorts of reasons that people have become very concerned and involved with this topic
with the recalls, and of course, the massive amount of animal deaths because of pet foods.
Were you aware of the recall issue? I know that the allergies, food allergies, or skin irritation in a personal
pet kind of introduced you this topic. Were you aware of the recall issue before you investigated or had no
idea?
KH: Had no idea basically. I don’t think I had ever thought about pet food before. When Michael asked
me, “Hey, I think this can be an interesting topic. It’s confusing.” I was like, “Really?” It just sounds like,
“OK. There’s a problem in everything.”
The interesting thing after it’s made is I feel like a lot more people are aware today about things. They’ve
heard about things. The advent of the Internet. Everybody’s on the Internet all day, every day. These
things like the recall have lived on, because we still have recalls. People are a lot more aware today than I
was. I wasn’t aware of anything. It took me a year to kind of understand what byproduct was. It was
confusing and it’s set up to be confusing.
DB: It is. I know when I met you, you were still in the investigation phase. I love that because both of you
were very objective. You didn’t have an underlying goal other than to learn more and to figure out what
the issues surrounding this industry were, which I think is a noble goal and also a very confusing,
ultimately a confusing goal. You did a great job of kind of sifting through all the issues. At what point in
your research or in the film making process did you have AHA moments? At what point were you like,
“Oh, my gosh. This is starting to make sense in my own brain”?
KH: The reason I kind of thought it was, “Really? Pet food? You want to look into pet food?” was
because there are really well-made documentaries out there and there are really not so well-made
documentaries. It sounded at first a thought of somebody trying to make something out of nothing. That
was my first reaction to the topic.
Whenever we started going through the research and we came across corn is great, corn is bad. The
industry was saying one thing and obviously had people who were criticizing that. My naive thinking at
the time was, “If this is really not true, if corn is really amazing for the dog, these companies will meet
with me and they’ll just fully explain.” That didn’t happen.
DB: Talk about that, Kohl. When you tried to make contact or made contact with some of the industry
leaders, what was you experience?
KH: I basically kept a spreadsheet of everything. Anytime I would contact a pet food manufacturer or a
person who worked at a pet food manufacturer, I would detail it in the spreadsheet. That went from
calling the number, leaving a message, calling the media department, leaving a message, writing emails to
basically personal emails to Facebook accounts that I knew the person worked for a certain company, and
never received a response.
The only response I received eventually was after I had kind of a debacle at a conference. Hill’s Science
Diet called and they left a voice message, which is in the film. “We don’t want to participate in this film.”
Beyond that voicemail, I haven’t received any response ever from anybody expressing any interest in
being in the film. That says a lot. The fact that you’re being criticized for something and you’re not really
standing by it, because you don’t have to.
DB: In your research phase, initially when you were making contact with all of these pet food companies
asking for their input, their perspective, their side of the story and you had no response, you did a great
job of kind of covering all your bases and getting all of the opinions coming in. The people that did
respond to you had passionate strong opinions and ultimately those were the people you interviewed.
How did you go about finding people that ultimately put together pieces of this film in a logical order for
you?
KH: It was a mix of [inaudible 08:29]. The videos that you had you were reading pet food packages.
Instantly, when I saw that, I was like, “I need that scene. I want to recreate that scene. I need that for this
film.” Because it was so brash and just very well-worded and very clear and concise for the viewer to
understand.
The other person that is a major part of the film is Dr. Barbara Royal. We found her in an audio file on a
law website. Basically, there was a guy by the name of Vince Field, who was a law student at the time
and very passionate about pet law. He came to find out there was no money in pet law, so he practiced
another form of law. But he’s still passionate about the subject and that area.
When the 2007 recall had happened, he interviewed Dr. Royal. All he had was an audio file of her. I had
no idea who she was. I just knew that I like the way she spoke about this topic. She was very upfront and
honest. I needed that honesty about the topic. Because there are two types of people that you meet: people
afraid to say anything and people who are brave to say something. These are people who are very few and
far between.
The way we approached everything basically is we would interview people. The interviews actually went
a lot longer than anyone expected. I think our first interview was two or three hours. Somewhere up there.
I would basically take these interviews, transcribe them, and every little detail in the interviews would
lead to somebody else. It was just a constant building of, “This person says one, two, and three. I need to
go fact-check that to see if that really exists, if that’s true.”
[—– 10:00 —–]
A lot of information on the real side of the industry started to make more sense the deeper that I got into
it. The deeper I got into the side of corn, for example… If there was a certain pet food industry leader
saying, “Corn is great because of this study,” I would then go by the study. I would read through the
study. It was very clear that they were picking information and using it to their advantage. The study
didn’t outright prove that anything was better than another thing, but they were basically using a line to
say, “Dogs can process corn,” to then market “Corn is the best thing ever.”
It was sort of those types of things that took a long time to do. It took about two years to fully like, “Oh, I
finally understand everything.” I don’t know if the average consumer is going to take two years to fully
tackle and understand this, but I feel like for anyone to really fully understand it for themselves, it’s going
to take around that amount of time as well. There’s a lot of information.
DB: It’s interesting because just wading through the ingredients that are most commonly put into
commercially available pet food is one thing. But trying to wrap your brain around the raw food industry,
or what raw food is or fresh food in general, that’s probably something that you had never heard of prior
to you taking on this endeavor. You probably had never heard of feeding fresh food or raw food diets to
dogs or cats.
KH: In our initial interview, it’s funny. Because throughout the years, I’ve just been going through the
footage and going through the footage and going through the footage. In our first interview, I remember
laughing at myself in the beginning because it’s like, “What do you mean by raw food?” You literally had
to explain in great detail what raw food was because we had never heard of that ever. We just thought,
“OK, no corn. Great.”
We’ve been conditioned culturally through advertising to believe a certain way. Companies are spending
tens of millions of dollars if not more to advertise their products. After a while, it’s just a normal part of
your thinking. It becomes a normal part of your thinking like, “That’s normal. I need a car. I’m going to go
buy one. I’ve seen this commercial.”
DB: Part of your documentary includes some very touching interviews with people who have been
victims of recalls. In fact their pets have died. How did you contact those people, Kohl? Or once you
realized that recalls existed, how did you track down the people that you wanted to interview that had had
personal experiences with the recall?
KH: There were two recalls that we covered for the film. One was the 2007 recall, which was the largest
consumer product recall ever at the time. Of any product, not just pet food. The second was a chicken
jerky issue.
While we were filming, an issue had come to light where I’d read an article about pet parents banding
together on a Facebook page because they were having issues with sickness or death relating to treats. I
basically got in contact with a person who kind of facilitated the whole Facebook page. She created a
database of everybody that had reported to her that they had an issue – who the person was, where they
lived on a map, was there sickness, if the dog lived or did the sickness result in death.
She had very detailed information with the chicken jerky. Through her, I was introduced to a lot of
different people. If I were flying to Chicago to meet with somebody, I would go around and meet with all
of the different people who would meet with me to say, “Tell me your story.”
Randomly in Birmingham, we were filming at a conference. I took my camera guy to a restaurant he
wanted to go to. Casual conversation. People were like, “Why are you here?” “We’re filming a little
documentary.” “What about?” “Pet food.” “Oh, my God. My roommate just had the worst issue with this
chicken jerky treat.” Even in a bar in Birmingham, people were having issues. We actually got to speak
with her roommate who makes it into the film, [inaudible 14:43].
DB: I’m sure that those interviews – I have seen them – are very impactful. You had interviews that were
insightful, interviews that were very emotional. What interviews where the most difficult or challenging
during this process?
KH: I would just go back to that question, the previous question just to kind of finish my thought. The
interesting thing about the chicken jerky situation was that I was meeting with people and was basically in
real time. In Birmingham, I met with a lady who this just happened to her three days prior. She was still
confused. She had never questioned pet food at all or treats. She would just go and abide what the
package said to her. It’s all-natural. It’s home-style dog. Whatever that means.
What was interesting to me is what was happening was that you had all of these people all across the
country where the same exact thing was happening to them. Sometimes the dog only got sick. Sometimes
the dog died. There are other pet owners out there that fed that treat but never had an issue.
But the interesting thing was that every person involved in the chicken jerky issue did not want to be
involved in the lawsuit. The only thing that they wanted was for the product to be pulled off the shelf, the
problem to be fixed, and to move on. They had something bad happen to them. They don’t want to be
involved in the lawsuit because they’re not going to get anything. They know that. All they want is the
product to be recalled, so it’s not killing more animals.
Each one had problems with calling the manufacturer and being ignored. That’s what that scene points
out, sort of how the company treats the consumer that they care for. That was a very shocking thing to me
to basically call the company myself and have them respond, “Our treats have been tested. The Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t found anything.”
I was lucky enough as well to have spoken with the FDA about the issue where they acknowledged,
“There is an issue, but we can’t prove that.” It was this Catch-22 of, “There is a problem, but we can’t find
the smoky gun.” What does that say? You just allowed the product to continue to be sold and continue to
kill until you can find the smoking gun? You know that it’s killing. You’ve admitted that it’s killing. That’s
the way the world works.
The most uncomfortable interview that I had was I would say, we were randomly contacted by the Pet
Food Institute, which is the lobbying organization. They contacted Michael and basically said, “We’re
affiliated with the industry. We want to help you out.” My co-producer was like, “Who is calling?” They
didn’t say who they were for quite a while. It was very odd. They invited us to speak with them. We’re
like, “OK.”
We took a trip to Washington, D.C. where we spoke to both the FDA and the Pet Food Institute. It was
very clear with… Because you just want to sit back and you want to interview. You want to make that
connection and speak from the heart. But with certain questions with the Pet Food Institute… I’ve been
covering this chicken jerky issue, would you please explain what’s going on. It’s their job to represent the
manufacturer. They’re not representing the consumer. The Pet Food Institute is representing the interest of
the manufacturer.
They said on camera and it made me uncomfortable, “There isn’t a problem with chicken jerky. This has
been tested for years and the FDA has found nothing.” Our response was, “We record your answers.” I’ve
spoken with people. I’m not trying to catch you on camera saying anything to make you look bad. I’ve
covered this issue and people are having issues that result in death. Everyone is aware of it. I don’t
understand why you’re basically saying it doesn’t exist. It was very uncomfortable. “The FDA looked into
this. I trust the FDA.”
Whenever you’re speaking with someone, you’re just trying to get their point of view that they care. It’s
hard to draw that conclusion that they care when something is happening. I met with people. These people
are not making this up. There is no conspiracy. You say that you represent the interest of consumers as
well, but I don’t see any evidence that they’ve ever called anybody that I’ve spoken with and made the
interest or the point that they care and they’re trying to fix the problem. It’s just brushed off as “It doesn’t
exist.” Now, that’s uncomfortable.
DB: Very uncomfortable. I’m actually really surprised that PFI even talked to you. I think it’s interesting.
But I’m not surprised by their kind of evasive responses at all. I’m not surprised at all.
KH: It’s different to have the dichotomy between speaking to you and Dr. Royal and a lot of other people.
Even the FDA was open and honest. They were like, “You can interview us for 30 minutes. Be quick.” It
turned into a couple of hours, because the topic is so in-depth and interesting. At the end of the day, what
I gathered from the FDA interview was “Sorry, there are laws. We follow the law.”
[—– 20:00 —–]
If they were speaking in code with their eyes, that is what I took from the interview. “We know there’s a
problem, but we can’t prove it.” It’s frustrating. They were using terminology to me that said that they
cared. They wanted to help more. But what can they do if it’s not in the law that they abide by?
DB: I know that you have flown around the United States. I know that you have gathered countless hours
of footage. How did you pick and choose? How long is the film?
KH: The final film is 71 minutes. We’ve shot hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage of interviews.
We didn’t know anything. We were shooting and learning at the same time. Interviewing someone for a
couple of hours was very valuable to us, because we were able to have transcripts after interviewing
someone with a lot of information. Especially from interviewing yourself, where we could then use what
you said and find the facts behind everything that you said, which would then help us in the end.
The difficult thing about making a film is that you’re translating this basically what could be a
conversation into a visual aspect. For me, it’s like translating English into a different language. It’s where
you can have a conversation in person with someone, but watching a film is an experience in and of itself.
I had to weigh a lot between this making the most sense for the consumer watching and not getting bored.
It’s like stitching a quilt really. What topic do we talk about first in order to get into this topic in order to
get into this topic? Because if the order became mixed up, the viewer would lose all interest in the topic
and be confused.
DB: I’m impressed that you were able to condense the volume of information down under 80 minutes. I’m
totally impressed. What do you think the biggest takeaway for you personally was? Because your learning
curve has just been like vertical on this entire topic. What do you think you’ve learned the very most from
finishing this entire project?
KH: The reason why I liked the film is that it’s Pet Fooled. It’s about pet food but at the same time it’s
not about pet food. There are many different undertones of this film that represent other industries. The
thing that kept me going throughout the years was the fact that I believe, as an American citizen, you have
a right to question companies. You have a right to question your government. It’s very clear that the
industry does have influence towards people questioning this product, questioning this industry, really,
and the products that they sell.
That’s what kept me going throughout the years, the fact that I believe that you have a right to question
what you’re being sold. You have a right to transparency and know what is in what you’re being sold.
That was what was the biggest shock to me was that it really took a lot of time to just understand the
basics of what’s in these products. What should you have? What shouldn’t you have? What should you
avoid? That was the biggest shock was that how misleading – I don’t know the corrective terminology to
allude to how shocking the way this industry works.
DB: Deceptive. Deceptive is the word that I use.
KH: Deceptive. Yeah.
DB: Yeah. It is. This is a five-year project, Kohl? Is that right? About five years?
KH: We thought it would be two years. Then it turned into five. That’s the way it always goes if you
make a film, a documentary.
DB: Privately funded? I know nothing about the film industry. How do the logistics of funding and the
distribution work?
KH: It was extremely low-budget. Basically, we had the funding for what we filmed. Filmed everything
and hired the camera guy and hired a couple of editors to help us out along the way. Just friends and
family. That was what allowed us to get through. Once we moved into the distribution phase, we said
“Here’s our rough cut product. We can’t afford to finish it.” And so whoever wanted to distribute it and to
like give us finishing funds to finish the movie. It’s a shoestring budget.
DB: Some of the best documentaries I have ever seen have been made exactly this way. I’m so excited to
see the finished version if people – I know everyone watching this is going to want to see this, Kohl.
Where are they going to go to see it? How are they going to get a hold of it?
KH: Basically, Gravitas is a company here in Los Angeles. They’re our distributor. They deal with video
on demand (VoD). It’s basically going to be on all digital platforms. If you have a certain cable provider,
let’s say, Time Warner is big here in Los Angeles, you can tie on to your VoD, through your Time
Warner and find Pet Fooled. You can find it on iTunes, Hulu, Vimeo on demand. Basically, any digital
platform, Xbox, you can find Pet Fooled. We wanted to make it as widely available worldwide on any
digital platform that we could, because that’s where consumers are going to be able to watch this film.
DB: Yeah. Absolutely. What’s your projected release date?
KH: The release date is October 4.
DB: So exciting. Very exciting. I was honored and flattered to be a part of this documentary. I’m excited
about what it’s going to accomplish in the sense that – you’re absolutely right. In five years, there has
been evolution in the industry. But the majority of people still have no idea that there are issues within the
pet food industry that they at least need to be aware of to make the very best choices for the animals that
they’re caring for, certainly.
I appreciate your conviction in hanging in there to finish this. It’s such an important topic. You’re really
one of the few people I know that have had just the ability to want to tackle it and get the job done. I
appreciate everything that you and your team have done. I can’t wait to see the finished product. Thanks,
Kohl.
KH: Thank you, too. Thank you.
[END]

Google Loved Me, Until I Pointed Out Everything That Sucked About It

Claire Stapleton didn’t just buy into the lore of Google—she helped write it. What happened when the bard of Google became one of its most vocal critics?

BY CLAIRE STAPLETON DEC 19, 2019

It wasn’t supposed to end like this: After twelve years at Google, I was unceremoniously escorted off the premises.

My last day came in May 2019, six months after the Google Walkout, during which 20,000 Googlers left their desks in a mass protest unprecedented in the tech industry. I helped to organize it after corporate documents obtained by the New York Times showed that Google paid executive Andy Rubin nearly $90 million in severance after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Little did we know it would be like waving a lit match in front of a powder keg: when people poured out of Google offices in 50 cities around the world a week after the severance news broke, it was clear this wasn’t just about Andy Rubin anymore. Something seismic was rumbling beneath the surface of the world’s storied “best place to work.” During my last six months at Google, I would become intimately familiar with just how closed off the company’s famously “open” corporate culture had become—and how far the management would go to prevent its staff from holding the company accountable.

I’d been warned about becoming a visible organizer within one of the world’s biggest corporations. Mass protests threaten the status quo, and “the master’s tools will never be used to dismantle the master’s house,” as one of the more seasoned organizers had told me, quoting Audre Lorde. Even as the Walkout was planned in a flurry of Gchats and Google Docs, organizers were bracing themselves for the fallout, too.

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Stapleton, left, at one of the Walkout events.

I wasn’t convinced. The Walkout glittered with the kind of optimism and promise that had drawn me to the company and kept me there. Sure, I was outraged by the Rubin severance, but I got involved in the Walkout because I cared about Google and what I believed it stood for. This was, after all, the company whose corporate code of conduct famously states “don’t be evil,” and asks employees to speak up if they think something isn’t right.

Initially, executives loudly embraced the Walkout: Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, sent a note to the whole company expressing his support in Googlers’ participating. The company’s CFO, Ruth Porat, said at a conference the following week that she’d walked out herself. The action was, she said, “Googlers doing what Googlers do best.” But the corporate kumbaya was short-lived. Activism within Google and the broader tech industry didn’t start with the Walkout, but it helped the movement take off: in the wake of the protest, workers were organizing for stronger rights and protections for Google’s contractor class; they joined with Amazon employees to demand more action on climate change; they were asking for more accountability and transparency from leadership to prevent another Andy Rubin-esque “hero’s farewell.”

Management’s tone cooled. New policies were rolled out that flew in the face of Google’s open culture. Within a few months of the Walkout, there were new “community guidelines” meant to limit people discussing politics on internal groups, and accessing “need to know” documents—like those that, in 2018, revealed Google was bidding on a military contract and developing a censored search engine for China—was made a fireable offense. (The Chinese search engine project, codenamed Project Dragonfly, has since been terminated.) And it was starting to look like management’s outward support for the Walkout hadn’t been all that genuine after all: press reported that in November, days after the Walkout, they had quietly petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to limit legal protections for activist workers.

Google Employees Stage Walkout To Protest Company's Actions On  Sexual Harassment

In the meantime, Google found other ways to crack down. “What the hell is going on over there?” an old coworker texted as headlines like “Google Walkout Organizer Accuses Company of Retaliation” rippled through the Internet. “I guess I struck the Empire, and the Empire is striking back…hard,” I replied. Eight weeks after the Walkout, I was demoted by my manager, setting into motion a bewildering, isolating, eye-opening couple of months. It was so swift and brazen I was sure I had to be missing something. But every week got weirder and worse, until the message from the top was finally clear—my time was up.

My corporate self-image had yet to catch up with the past six months in which I’d become, I supposed, a labor organizer. I’m a good Googler, a team player, I thought. Someone the old guard knows and trusts. Two years earlier, the day before I left for my first maternity leave, I received a glowing performance review from the head of my department. “When you come back, Claire, you can really do anything here,” she said, in that kind of arm-around-the-shoulder way important people use to make younger people feel good, but also indebted. “You’re coming into your power as a leader.” I guess that turned out to be true—though surely not in the way she intended.

Google was my first real job, and over the course of my twelve years there, I occasionally wondered if I’d ever leave. I was about to turn 22 when I reported for orientation at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in the summer of 2007—a hot blur of grass and sun, as it figures in my memory, nostalgic as a Polaroid—one of 30 new recruits to the Communications department. As the years ticked by the others left one by one, like a row of ducklings: off to Harvard Business School or the Obama campaign or down the road to Facebook, Twitter, Square, Instagram. By 2012, there were just four of the original cohort still at the company. By 2014, just two.

Mostly, I relished thinking of myself as a “Google lifer” and the schtick that went along with it. I joyfully skimmed its surface, availing myself of the workplace perks, the stuff the press breathlessly covered in Google’s early days: the scooters, the nap rooms, the gym subsidies, the summer CSA. I offered new coworkers my curated guide to Google like it was a city you were visiting for a weekend: where to eat, get coffee, take in the view, get kombucha on tap.

I didn’t just buy into the lore of Google—I helped write it. My first job was in Internal Communications, and there, ghost-writing executive emails extolling Google’s culture and values and editing the Internal News blog, I felt called to a higher purpose: Google teemed with specialness and it was my solemn duty to reflect that specialness back to those responsible for it—Googlers.

I didn’t just buy into the lore of Google—I helped write it.

For my first five years, I also produced TGIF, the weekly all-hands meeting hosted by Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In my memory, those years are like a flipbook of what I saw from the side of the stage: mop-haired executives in athletic shorts and rubber shoes, skittish product managers who whipped too quickly through their slide decks and the endless parade of propeller hats they made new hires (“Nooglers,” naturally) wear to their first TGIF. Google was getting bigger, more complicated, which was manifest in the rousing internal debates that played out at TGIF about Google’s mission, its values, the big decisions. I remember the shock over Google spending $1.6 billion on a video site that mostly hosted cat videos and adolescent pranks; the moral stand the company took around pulling out of China; the primal fury when the beloved bookmarking tool Google Reader was killed. Every Friday I boarded the 5:40 shuttle bus back to San Francisco red-cheeked and a little buzzed off of free beer—sated.

At my last TGIF in 2012, a group of engineers presented me with a plaque in which they’d etched “The Bard of Google” in the campus woodshop to commemorate the whimsical weekly TGIF reminder emails I sent around the company. “Can we give Claire Stapleton a round of applause for her incredible email-writing?” says Larry in a video clip from that day I still have saved in my Google Drive. He invites me onstage, and the camera pans to me in the wings, a bashful young thing, covering my face, shocked by the impromptu spotlight. “I guess she’s a little bit shy. She prefers to express herself through computer means,” he says through his signature goofy grin. Half a decade later, I’d still occasionally get stopped in the lunch line by a hirsute stranger. “Wait, you’re Claire Stapleton? Like, the real Claire Stapleton?”

How far the bard had fallen.

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A few days before the Walkout, genuinely curious about the chord that’d been struck (literally overnight, hundreds of people had joined the Google group I’d set up to coordinate planning), I sent out an email with a dumb-simple prompt: Why are you walking out? 350 responses came back. The Walkout’s spark might have been Andy Rubin, and indeed there were plenty of other tales of harassment and coercion at Google. But it was broader, deeper than that; this was a monument to disillusionment, capturing all sorts of anecdotes and reflections on a culture of discrimination, gaslighting, retaliation, ethical breaches, punitive managers, bad HR. If I could boil all these responses down to a single question, it might be: when did you first notice the gap between what you believed Google to be—progressive, equitable, fair, good—and what you actually see and experience every day?

I rolled back my own tape and saw lots of ways I could answer that question. There was the year I spent in Google’s “magic factory,” Creative Lab, a place where the ideals encoded in Google’s image were in stark contrast with the realities of a grueling work environment populated by temps, Google’s “shadow workforce.” Later, I spent five years in the Marketing department promoting the narrative that YouTube is a net-positive for society, while every day witnessing how ill-equipped the company’s leadership was to govern a social media platform as it became a breeding ground for extremism, disinformation, harassment, and child abuse.

But nothing so shifted my perspective about Google, its power—and the way that manifests in the workplace—as what happened after the Walkout.

“The emails and articles mentioned that we had attempted to demote Claire after the walkout, and I want to be clear that never happened,” Danielle Tiedt, YouTube’s CMO, wrote in an email to my entire department. Lorraine Twohill, Google’s CMO, sent a similar email to everyone in marketing at Google–thousands of my colleagues. “Over the last several weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to everyone involved, trying to understand and empathize with the situation,” she said. (I never had a conversation with either woman about my claims.) The talking point that rang out around Google like town church bells was, we investigated and found no evidence of retaliation.

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Then what did happen? After five years as an unequivocally “strong performer” on YouTube’s marketing team, my manager, Marion, informed me in a conversation in January that my role would be “restructured,” and I’d lose half my reports and responsibilities.

Google’s line would later be that this was a draft “reorg,” that I was being consulted on team changes “as managers sometimes are.” But when I followed up with Marion, arguing my case to keep my job as it was, she said it was impossible—this had to happen for the “needs of the business.” I escalated to HR and my VP, and they offered a soft menu of suggestions that couldn’t do much to fix things: take some days off, focus on clarifying role expectations with Marion, be “radically candid” with her about my feelings so we can “rebuild trust,” or start to look for a new role. Meanwhile, my relationship with Marion strained beyond recognition: I stopped getting looped into things and my work was routed to others—so effectively, I’d already been demoted.

I wasn’t the only one: Meredith Whittaker, one of the Walkout’s other lead organizers, had been informed around the same time that her role would be “changed dramatically” and in order to stay at the company, she’d need to “abandon her work on AI ethics.” And another organizer, Ramona (which is not her real name) had been in the process of transferring to my org, YouTube Marketing, but after the Walkout, it got delayed for months until the opportunity disappeared altogether. She was finally told that the head of my department wasn’t comfortable having someone who “fostered division between employees and leadership” on her team. RELATED STORY‘Black Women Talk Tech’ on Mentorship

I kept sounding the alarm, and eventually my case got picked up by a senior HR director, who listened carefully to my story. For the first time, I actually felt like someone was listening to me. The next day, she came back with what she said was the perfect solution: I should take medical leave. I pointed out that, well, I’m not actually sick or under a doctor’s care, she told me it wasn’t a big deal, “we put people on it all the time.”

I went home that night dumbfounded that the only solution I’d been presented with was to declare myself unwell and unable to work. “Am I crazy?” I wondered. Why could no one in HR or management acknowledge that something seriously wrong happened here? In April, when I shared the story with my fellow employees, I heard accounts from women across the company that echoed my own: when they’d raised an allegation about a manager or coworker, they’d been encouraged to take medical leave.

“Why don’t you just quit?” my husband asked in one of our many anguished conversations about how untethered and toxic my work situation had become.

“Google is more than just a job,” I said, “it’s my home.”

“You mean your other home?” he said.

My goodbye party was planned by my fellow organizers and the growing mass of activists that had been meeting to talk about ethics, equity, and collective action on a weekly basis since the Walkout six months before. This community was new, and the connections were just coagulating. But it was already clear that this group had sharp observations and ideas about all the things I’d been quietly troubled by in past years: the rise of harassment and reactionaries on the Internet and how little Google was doing about it, the mounting mistrust of our HR systems, the general sense that the company had started to put shareholder value above pretty much anything else. Though we’d been branded as agitators—an “entitled vocal minority,” as the head of HR had elegantly put it in a company meeting—these people reminded me of the idealism and purpose of the old days.

Last days at Google were loose: leave your computer and badge on your desk, or turn it into a receptionist, if you happen to think of it. But as I glanced around the crowd at my goodbye party, as people scribbled messages about the movement on Post-Its and tacked them to the walls of Google New York’s biggest common space, I immediately spotted Phillip, who was there to confiscate my Google-issued devices. This wasn’t standard protocol.

He hung at the periphery of the gathering, hawk-eyed, looking the part of a Google-branded henchman in his hiking boots and nylon shorts, his small, taut frame punctuated by a showstopping topknot. He had emailed me earlier that day (“could you let me know where and when to meet you?”), but I hadn’t gotten around to replying. I wondered how he figured out where I’d be.

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I stood up and heaved myself over a picnic table to hug her. She was impossibly young, with a splash of freckles and long, messy brown hair and, well, reminded me a bit of myself a Google lifetime ago.

It felt surreal, lingering in this liminal space. I’d spent my career reflecting Google back to itself. But the mirror I held contained something that Google—or at least the management—no longer wanted to see.

Phillip waited until the party was waning to introduce himself, slicing into the conversation I was having with the last stragglers.

“I’m here to, uh, collect your things,” Phillip said haltingly, projecting his voice from a comfortable distance a few feet away.

I was desperate, not ready.

But there wasn’t much else to do. I exhaled a year’s worth of breath and trudged over to Phillip, limply offering him my laptop and a stack of Android phones that’d been gathering dust in my office desk drawer—I’d never owned a smartphone that wasn’t Google-issued (begrudgingly, the following week I’d purchase my first iPhone). I pulled my badge off my belt loop, taking one final, wan look at my security photo. “Goodbye, old friend,” I said, placing it gently in his palm.

Phillip didn’t crack a smile. He neatly packed my things into his Google-branded bike bag.

“Are you ready?”

“I guess,” pouting my lips. I’d regressed to a sullen teen.

We set off for the door in lockstep. We had a couple of dozen steps to traverse together. The yellow brick road, but backwards: This way out of Oz.

We’ve glimpsed the power of tech workers pushing their employers towards a more equitable future. And we can’t stop now.

“This is super weird,” I said, the words tumbling out. “I used to be a huge cheerleader for this place.” I suppressed my impulse to tell him about the Bard of Google plaque. “And now, I’m, like, Company Enemy #1. But I’m not–I’m not that, Phillip.”

I looked over at him, eager for some reaction–something to resurrect this moment. The last chance to end my Google career on a different note.

He said nothing.

We reached the door.

“Well, um. Goodbye, then,” I said, for lack of any other ideas.

He nodded. “Have a great weekend.”

If recent headlines are any indication, there’s no more ambiguity about whether the management embraces efforts like the Walkout: Google recently hired IRI Consultants, an anti-union consulting firm, then fired four employees who’d worked on a petition against Google doing business with CBP and ICE. Fittingly, in October, Sundar Pichai announced the end of TGIF as I knew it. Instead of the classic open forum, they’d be moving instead to a monthly product and business update with restrictions on what can be discussed—no “off-topic” questions from employees allowed. It’s dizzying to keep up with this new era of Google: on the same day that the four fired organizers announced they’re filing labor charges against the company, Larry and Sergey said they’d be stepping back from day-to-day roles at the company. Just this week, an engineer named Kathryn Spiers says she was fired for trying to notify co-workers of their right to organize.

Despite the personal cost that I and a growing group of organizers have paid, that workers continue to loudly call for change and a recalibration of Google’s moral compass makes me tremendously hopeful. To root for these workers is to root for the old Google: the company that earned its employees’ and users’ trust. Whose mission and ideals meant something. Whose “don’t be evil” motto was referenced earnestly, not to point out the irony of Google having done some new evil thing.

We’ve glimpsed the power of tech workers pushing their employers towards a more equitable future. And we can’t stop now.CLAIRE STAPLETON

Claire Stapleton is a writer and former YouTube employee who helped organize the Google Walkout for Real Change.

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