Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
The home page of a horse feed website, www.equidiet.org.uk, seen in December 2017, stated "What is EquidGel? ... EquidGel is unique in that it is taken in the form of a highly nutritious palatable drink which appeals to the horses [sic] very strong natural instinct to forage and therefore making it the only complete feed that nourishes and hydrates at the same time. EquidGel is specifically designed as a complete fibre based daily ration".
A web page entitled "Products" provided information on the ingredients and nutrients in EquidGel. Text stated "Because EquidGel is a complete, balanced feed, it is not recommended to be fed in conjunction with any other feed, balancer or supplement. This may have the effect of unbalancing the levels of nutrients recommended by the NRC 2007. EquidGel is suitable for all types of horses in light to heavy work".
The complainant challenged whether the following claims were misleading and could be substantiated:
1. EquidGel was a "complete" feed; and
2. EquidGel was a "balanced" feed.
1. & 2. Equidiet (UK) Ltd said that EquidGel was a liquid feed. While it came in powder form, it could only be fed mixed with the necessary levels of water. Usually horses had access to hay and grass (forage) as well as fresh water, therefore most nutrients came from their daily ration of forage. However, EquidGel could balance any deficiencies in the forage ration. EquidGel was not primarily intended to be fed on its own, and should not be fed as a sole diet to exercising horses. However, for idle horses or those in clinical situations, it was capable of providing adequate quantities of nutrients to sustain life as a sole diet without any additional forage or water.
Equidiet said they had assessed the nutrient content of EquidGel according to the requirements of the “Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition (2007)”, published by the National Research Council in the United States (the NRC 2007). They said those were internationally recognised parameters that reflected the minimum levels for vitamins and minerals required in order to ensure that classical deficiencies did not occur. Equidiet said that EquidGel provided the correct recommended daily intake (RDI) for all vitamins and minerals for a horse in moderate work according to the NRC 2007. They provided a breakdown of nutrients to be found in a sole diet of 10 kg EquidGel, and in a ration comprising 10 kg of hay and 2.5 kg EquidGel. They said that vitamins did not appear in the nutrient requirement tables, therefore each vitamin had to be compared to a study paper within the text for assessment purposes. They said that all vitamins fell within the normal ranges listed in the NRC 2007. All B vitamins were generally synthesised within the body, so there were no deficiencies or toxicities associated with those vitamins. Equidiet also provided test results from an independent laboratory, extracts from the NRC 2007, and the summary of a clinical trial on the use of EquidGel for enteral tube feeding of sick horses.
Equidiet said that a complete diet should be formulated to emulate the natural diet of the horse. However, the energy density was required to be increased to enable the horse to perform at a higher level on a more natural diet, without the use of grain and starch. The performance horse required more energy and nutrients over and above what was gained from their basic forage ration, to be available for work, than a horse in light work or maintenance. EquidGel included a plant-based Omega 3 oil which increased energy density and provided a complete protein, vitamin and mineral profile. The ingredient had been approved in 2010, and therefore it was not represented in the NRC 2007.
Equidiet noted that the complainant had carried out nutritional analysis of EquidGel using a website which maintained a public database of commercial equine feed products and allowed users to input a customised diet to check whether it was nutritionally balanced. However, Equidiet said that the website set their own parameters for levels of vitamins and minerals to enhance the performance of horses, rather than the levels that prevented classical deficiencies. The baseline nutritional composition figures for forage used in the database showed low levels of nutrients. They said this was because the website was based in New Zealand, where there were many proven deficiencies in the forage available to horses, compared with the UK. Therefore they needed to supplement to a much higher level.
Because the nutritional requirements of the NRC 2007, on which Equidiet had based their analysis, were set lower than those used by the website the complainant had used, EquidGel showed on the website as being deficient in certain nutrients. In addition, Equidiet said that the data on the website was incomplete as their nutritional content information for different commercial feeds was taken from the NRC 2007, which did not include the oil in EquidGel approved in 2010. They provided an email from the website stating that some of their nutrients were calculated as per the NRC 2007, while others were set at higher levels. Equidiet said that many feeds labelled as “complete” in the UK would show as being inadequate according to the website database, despite meeting the NRC 2007 requirements, and provided examples.
Equidiet said that EquidGel provided slightly less sodium than recommended by the NRC 2007. However, sodium was rarely without chloride, so they believed that the deficiency was made up by chloride levels, which exceeded the RDI taken from the NRC 2007. The feed also showed relatively low levels of iodine. Equidiet said that most feedstuffs contained 0–2 mg/kg of iodine. However, iodine was not indicated in the NRC 2007. It could be assumed that forage contained an average of 1 mg/kg, which provided adequate levels for maintenance, and with the levels reported in EquidGel a deficiency was unlikely to occur. The copper and zinc requirements were accounted for by trace levels of those elements in tap water, which was required in order to administer the feed. They provided a World Health Organisation (WHO) paper on zinc in drinking water.
Equidiet also provided documentation relating to a European patent application for EquidGel. They said that the patent would shortly be granted and highlighted that the patent application stated that the formulation was a complete, balanced diet, and the patent examiners had not objected to that.
Equidiet offered to make some changes to the wording of their website.
1. & 2. Upheld
The home page described EquidGel as the “only complete horse feed that nourishes and hydrates at the same time”. It also stated “EquidGel is specifically designed as a complete fibre based daily ration”.
EC Regulation 767/2009 on the placing on the market and use of feed defined a “complete feed” as a “compound feed which, by reason of its composition, is sufficient for a daily ration”. The ASA considered that consumers would understand that the nutritional needs of individual horses would differ due to a number of factors, including age, size and level of activity. We understood from Equidiet’s comments that the feed was not intended to be fed as the sole diet for a horse, in most cases. The product page, however, stated “Because EquidGel is a complete, balanced feed, it is not recommended to be fed in conjunction with any other feed, balancer or supplement”. An embedded video on how to prepare the product stated “EquidGel can also be used to make a complete diet by adding some alfalfa or any suitable non-molassed chop”. The product page also stated “EquidGel is suitable for all types of horses in light to heavy work”.
We considered that the information on the website about how EquidGel fits into a horse’s overall diet was likely to confuse consumers. While some would be likely to understand that it could provide a nutritionally-complete diet when fed in combination with another type of feed or forage, many were likely to understand that EquidGel could provide for a horse’s complete nutritional needs when fed as its sole diet, without any additional feeds, supplements or forage. We considered that consumers would understand that the product could provide for the full nutritional needs of all horses, including those in heavy work. In context, we considered that consumers would understand the claim that the product was a “balanced” feed in a similar manner. We acknowledged that Equidiet were willing to amend their website to explain their basis for using those terms. However, we did not consider that the proposed changes were sufficient to resolve the issue.
We took expert advice. We acknowledged that part of the reason that the nutrient profile of EquidGel had appeared as deficient on the website used by the complainant was because that website did not hold the full nutrient profile for the product.
We understood that the quantity of water required to administer EquidGel as a sole feed exceeded the average intake of a horse in medium work by 84 litres. We understood that it was unlikely that a horse would ever consume that much water, which meant that a horse would be unlikely to ingest the full ration per day. We noted Equidiet’s argument that EquidGel had a unique water-holding capacity, which would cause a horse to ingest more water than it would in normal circumstances and thus absorb minerals from the water, supplementing the nutritional shortfall found in the feed itself. However, we had not been presented with clinical evidence to demonstrate that this was the case.
The clinical study on horses in a veterinary hospital being fed a sole diet of EquidGel reported that the product was accepted by horses via naso-gastric intubation. It did not observe whether horses would consume the full daily ration of feed via their own natural ingestion mechanism, and did not report any nutritional parameters.
The NRC 2007 was the generally accepted industry standard on the nutritional requirements of horses, and therefore we evaluated the nutritional data provided by Equidiet against the NRC 2007 standards for a 500 kg horse in moderate work. We noted that the nutrient content of forage was inherently variable, as was the mineral content of water. We understood that EquidGel met energy and crude protein requirements, and a diet of 10 kg forage + 2.5 kg EquidGel would likely meet the NRC 2007 standards, depending on the forage used. However, analysis showed that a diet of 100% EquidGel (mixed with water as instructed) would not meet the NRC 2007 standards for vitamins and minerals. We understood that was because feed was deficient in zinc, copper, sodium and vitamin E.
We did not consider that there was anything in the patent documentation to indicate that the examiners accepted that EquidGel met any definition of a “complete” feed.
Equidiet believed that the nutritional deficiencies we identified were so small as to have a negligible effect on a horse’s overall health. We understood that the deficiencies, while slight in real terms, were nonetheless deficiencies that were likely to negatively impact the health of horses if they were fed EquidGel as a sole ration over the long term.
We concluded that the claims that EquidGel was a “complete” and “balanced” feed, as they were likely to be understood by consumers, had not been substantiated and were therefore misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.11 3.11 Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product. (Exaggeration).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told Equidiet (UK) Ltd not to claim EquidGel was a “complete” or “balanced” feed unless they held evidence to substantiate their claims.