LOS ANGELES — When Donie Yamamoto, founder and chief executive officer of Vital Pet Life, launched the company back in 2017, she took the same approach to running the business as when shopping for her own pets’ products — relying on research, and demanding the highest quality and integrity. The women-owned brand is focused on providing skin and coat supplements for pets, leveraging Omega fatty acids from fish oil and glucosamine to do the trick.

What Yamamoto didn’t anticipate when she started Vital Pet Life, however, was to find herself at the mercy of a complex supply environment fraught with economically motivated adulteration and lacking sufficient ingredient validation.

“As climate change progresses, our supply chain is inevitably affected,” she said. “We’re learning that although in theory everyone wants ‘wild’ fish, it’s not a sustainable aspiration. In response, we’re educating ourselves and carefully choosing our supplier relationships.”

Enter: Bioriginal. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based company is a subsidiary of Cooke Inc., a family-owned global seafood leader offering a range of ocean-based proteins and ingredients for the food industry. Bioriginal entered the fish oil business in the 1990s with a Norwegian fish oil product and has since accelerated this segment of the business by extending its Omega 3 offerings to the pet supplement industries.

“In the early 1990s, we collaborated closely with early innovator brands in the pet industry to develop specialized formulas using Omega 3 fish oils and other essential fatty acids, specifically GLA from Borage oil,” said Cameron Kupper, vice president of business development at Bioriginal. “These formulas targeted conditions such as skin and coat health, joint support, and overall vitality. Through this we gained an understanding of the unique nutritional needs of companion animals and, coupled with our expertise in sourcing and formulating Omega 3 fatty acids, it has made us a trusted partner in the pet nutrition space.”

Yamamoto launched Vital Pet Life in 2017 as a side gig, but the brand quickly became her full-time focus. The fish oil market for pets has since gained significant traction due to its skin, coat and other health benefits, but not all fish oil is created equal, and not all players in this space are playing by the rules.

In an effort to secure its supply chain and advance the integrity, sustainability and transparency of its salmon and pollock oils, the brand partnered with Bioriginal in January 2023.

Vital Pet Life's line of fish oil supplements for petsSource: Vital Pet Life 


A fish oil frenzy

Supplementing a pet’s diet with fish oil has become increasingly popular to help them achieve an optimal balance of Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. According to Kupper, many commercial pet foods on the market today inherently contain higher levels of Omega 6s. Therefore, adding Omega 3s as a meal topper or supplement can help create nutritional balance.

As Yamamoto pointed out, a diet that is balanced in Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids can better equip pets to deal with stress and inflammation. These Omega fatty acids have also become a popular way to ease itchy skin, improve coat health, combat allergies, relieve joint pain, and serve as a source of “good fat” that contributes to overall health and cognitive function.

“Because Omega supplements are so widely used on the human side, pet owners are more apt to understand the efficacy of using them for their pet’s health,” she added.

Omega 3 is an excellent source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). According to Kupper, the global market for finished products containing EPA and DHA is experiencing steady sales growth of around 3% annually. However, the available supply of these sources is dwindling under the weight of this demand and exacerbated by global warming and increasingly strict fishery regulations.

“The surging demand for fish oil has intensified the pressure on the global supply,” he said. “The sustainability of fish oil production is a critical consideration. Overfishing, habitat destruction and bycatch can have significant negative impacts on marine ecosystems.”


The catch

Wild Alaskan salmon is a kingpin source of Omega 3 fatty acids for both human and pet supplements. However, the global supply chain supporting these markets are located in Peru and Chile, but others exist in West Africa, Turkey, Nordic Europe, and — to a lesser extent — Alaska, Kupper shared.

081023_Fish oil-BioriginalLandscape_Embedded.jpgSource: Bioriginal 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in a normal year, Peru produces one-third of the global annual fish oil supply. However, ahead of the country’s first anchovy fishing season and following an exploratory measure to better understand the supply, the country’s Minister of Production Pérez Reyes announced the season would not begin as usual in the North Central region. In fact, it would not happen at all.

“An important issue for the ministry is the preservation of the fishing resource; if we lift at this time and allowed the anchovy fishing activity to develop, what we would do is depredate the resource,” Reyes said in a public statement on June 8.

Kupper described this situation as the “Peruvian fishery disaster” of this year. While a shortage of Peruvian anchovy does not directly affect the pet supplement category, it does create “global price pressure on the category as a whole,” explained Benedicte Garnes, sales manager at ORIVO, a raw material verification company for various food industry value chains based in Molde, Norway. Additionally, demand has overtaken supply for wild Alaskan salmon oil, which is the primary source for pet supplement products.

Rapid growth of the fish oil industry for pets has created space for e-commerce entrepreneurs, like Yamamoto, to capitalize. However, according to Kupper, most new entrants to the pet supplement marketplace are unfamiliar with the business, especially the particularly nuanced global supply chain for marine coproducts like fish oil. This can lead to a lack of checks and balances along the value chain, with bad actors mixing non-Alaskan salmon oil into products that are marketed as pure wild Alaskan salmon oil in light of supply disruptions.

081023_Fish oil-ORIVOfingerprint_Embedded.jpg

ORIVO uses NMR, DNA and IRMS methodologies to determine and validate the species and region of origin for ingredients used in the food and feed industries, including fish oil.

| Source: ORIVO

Combined, these trends and pressures create a perfect storm for financially motivated adulteration. This makes ingredient validation to prevent food fraud and protect brands and consumers crucial.

This is where ORIVO comes into the picture. According to Garnes, the Norwegian company is the only one in the world to use NMR, DNA and IRMS methodologies to determine and validate the species and region of origin for ingredients used in the food and feed industries. Vital Pet Life earned certification from ORIVO in early 2023 to set itself apart from other fish oil brands who are either unknowingly or worse, in all conscience, committing food fraud.

 “Through advances in analytical methodology, it has now become possible to hold supply chains accountable for the quality and sustainability of ingredients,” Krupper noted. “Food fraud is not a new concept, especially in terms of high-value ingredients like fish oils. As pet food consumers become increasingly savvy, the demand for transparency will follow. I expect we will see a further influx of brands prioritizing transparency for the safety of our pets.”


Ingredient validation

Certifications programs such as those offered by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Friends of the Sea (FOS) have developed to help preserve wild fish stocks, promote responsible fishing, and establish best practices for aquaculture. But while there are several certifications like these in place to advance sustainability and ethical sourcing, there is a lack of label validation and ingredient integrity going on in the marketplace for fish oil products for pets, according to Yamamoto.

For example, a recent market screening of 15 salmon oil supplement products for pets, which were purchased directly from e-commerce platforms across North America, concluded that more than 80% of the products were mislabeled. ORIVO found undeclared oils from other marine sources in products whose origin touted “pure wild Alaskan salmon oil,” meaning consumers of these products did not get what they paid for. What’s more, the suppliers behind these fish oil products are likely substituting wild Alaskan salmon oil with cheaper ingredients that could compromise the integrity of the final product, according to Garnes.

081023_Fish oil-ORIVOcomp_Embedded.jpg

Product testing results on the left reflect a wild Alaskan salmon oil product that is true to its origin claims, whereas the results on the right were marketed as wild Alaskan salmon oil but actually contain oils from anchovy, sardine and other sources.

| Source: ORIVO 

This mislabeling is not necessarily causing severe danger to the pets ingesting the product, but it could cause inadequate — or excess — nutrient intake resulting in nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, Garnes added. And in an emotional industry where transparency and trust are becoming increasingly paramount to consumers, these unethical practices hold potentially devastating consequences for fish oil brands who don’t validate their label claims.

“We believe that brands need to be transparent and accountable, meaning that their label matches the ingredients in that product,” Yamamoto said. “Third-party certification or verification would solve this issue, and origin and species verification would be key.”

ORIVO’s testing capabilities can help suppliers of fish oil coproducts and manufacturers alike verify authentic origin and, if needed, clean up their fish oil supply chains through better, ongoing testing practices.

“Many brands are not aware of the fact that they are selling mislabeled products,” Garnes said. “So, initially we can help by testing their existing products for authentic origin… As a brand, the most valuable thing they have is their reputation, and through our product verification, they are verifying their supply chains in addition to building trust with consumers.”

081023_Fish oil-BioriginalComp_Embedded.jpg

On the far left is a fraudulent wild Alaskan salmon oil product containing refined anchovy and pollock oils. The middle and far right oils are true wild Alaskan salmon oil produced by Bioriginal. Real wild Alaskan salmon oil can vary from orange to brown in color.

| Source: Bioriginal 

For its day-to-day testing operations, ORIVO collects samples straight from production and requires samples from each batch. ORIVO works with crude suppliers, coproduct brokers and brands to validate label claims against what actually appears in the final product.

“Future generations will be far more educated about product fraud, and it will be harder and harder to get away with mislabeling/false label claims,” Garnes said. “The industry will need to adapt to this, and I think origin verification programs such as the one ORIVO is applying for seafood, pet food and dietary supplement — both for pets and people — will be mandatory for most product categories in 10 years.”


Future-proofing fish oil

The breakdown of the fish oil supply chain will mean many brands in business today may not be around a year from now, Kupper predicted. Those who are willing to adapt their products and brand strategies have several other options to continue delivering Omega pet supplements using algal oils, krill oil, and plant-based sources such as flaxseed, hempseed and chia seed.

“If roughly 50% of the world’s supply basically disappears for a year, brands aren’t going to be able to substitute with lower cost material because there won’t be any available. That's my concern, — they will need to adapt” Kupper said. “…If I were to say to Donie, ‘We would like to have a $50 million or a $100 million salmon brand,’ I would be completely misleading them because there is not enough oil for them to create that.”

Kupper noted a unique and sustainable opportunity to meet demand without committing food fraud or making tradeoffs is by changing the narrative around farmed fish sources. Most consumer complaints surrounding farmed fish are based on heavy metal contamination and “factory farming,” both points that are becoming moot as farm fisheries adopt cutting-edge technology and aquaculture practices.

Sustainable aquaculture practices — like those used by ASC and that follow Best Aquaculture Practices (BAPs) — can help fill the gap in wild-caught supply in a way that is more environmentally friendly and still nutritionally beneficial for people and pets.

081023_Fish oil-BioriginalFishing_Embedded.jpgSource: Bioriginal 

“We're trying to determine what to do with the biomass of oil that we actually have coming out of Alaska to guard and develop Donie’s business, with the support of ORIVO for the verification, and plot forward into the market, because 2024 will be a very strange year for the for the pet supplement market for oils,” Kupper said.

Ultimately, the fish oil market may have already bitten off more than it can chew. The onus is now on crude producers, middlemen and brands to come clean, adapt, or go out of business.

“Vital Pet Life sees this moment as an opportunity to bring increased awareness, transparency and accountability to the pet industry,” Yamamoto concluded. “We are calling for pet retailers, state and federal governing bodies to require pet brands to use third-party verification to authenticate ingredients, ensure trust and combat label fraud.”

Keep up with the latest pet food trends on our Trends page, and read more about supply chain topics affecting the industry on our Operations page.

Get to know more about Donie Yamamoto and Vital Pet Life in our exclusive Women in the Pet Industry Q&A.