Rachael Ray is best known as the host of the hit, Emmy Award-winning daytime television show, “Rachael Ray,” as well as her Food Network TV shows, signature line of cooking implements and her lifestyle magazine, Rachael Ray In Season. Enroute to becoming an internationally known female business mogul, Rachael Ray has remained dedicated to her passions.
In 2007, Ray launched Yum-O!, a nonprofit organization that empowers kids and their families to develop healthy relationships through food and cooking. A year later, following the melamine pet food recall, Ray partnered with Ainsworth Pet Nutrition to develop a line of premium pet food and treats called Rachael Ray Nutrish.
Proceeds from the sale of Rachael Ray Nutrish is donated to The Rachael Ray Foundation to help her support the cause of helping animals in need. According to Elizabeth Ross, director of animal initiatives for The Rachael Ray Foundation, the foundation and its predecessor (Rachael’s Rescue) have donated more than $56 million to nonprofit organizations that benefit animals.
“The foundation has provided funding for specific programs at organizations such as spay/neuter programs, transport programs, intake diversion programs and shelter-to-shelter mentorship programs,” Ross noted. “General funding to organizations and also established grant programs directly administered by trusted national and regional partners. In addition, the foundation has been able to help organizations facing disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires, as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It should come as no surprise that COVID-19 has had a major impact on at-risk animals, and the foundation has responded by establishing the Rachael Ray Save Them All Grants COVID-19 Relief Program at Best Friends, the network of 501(c)(3) animal shelters, rescue groups and spay/neuter organizations.
“Separate from this grant program, we have helped various partners offset the impact of the pandemic,” Ross explained. “Regarding The Rachael Ray Save Them All Grants COVID-19 Relief Program, this donation was a portion of Rachael Ray philanthropies’ collective efforts to provide whole-family COVID relief and underscored one of the foundation’s bedrock principles, which is a fundamental belief that the animals we share our lives with and the animals waiting to share lives with new pet parents are more than just pets … they are family.”
Pet Age recently spoke with Ray to learn more about her views on a variety of topics, from her philanthropic causes to her support for independent pet retailers. An exuberant Ray also discussed her cherished dogs, including Isaboo, her beloved pitbull that passed away in May 2020, and Bella Boo Blue, a pitbull-wiemaraner mix that Ray and husband John Cusimano adopted the following month.
What inspired you to create the Nutrish brand?
RR: It was the year were people were buying food from China. People were inadvertently killing their furry family members with food. I had to travel so much for my job – I used to go on book tours, do other people shows and do shows for Food Network that was in other cities. I was away from home, John’s a pretty good cook and he can cook for himself, but he wasn’t going to cook for the dogs. So when I wasn’t there, of course we’d rely on food that’s sold from our trusted places.
When I saw that this was becoming an animal pandemic of bad food, I was interested in how do we change this as quickly as possible, and can I find a partner that would make safe food that I, as a human who cooks for a living, could eat myself? That was my opening question.
We went to a few partners, and my partner at the time was called Dad’s. It’s still our partner today, but now it belongs to the J.M. Smucker Company. All of the people we have worked with since the day I started this brand care about animals as much as human beings …
I wanted [Nutrish] to be great food that would be offered at the best price possible for that level of quality. Let’s take the smallest cut, not a big cut. Can we all take less to make great food more affordable for everyone? This has been the business concept from day one: Can we all take a little bit less to sell a whole lot more and fix a larger issue?
And how does Nutrish play into your charitable endeavors?
RR: It started with helping humans and the model worked, and that’s why it went to pets. The kids model was so successful – why can’t we use a business model, President Clinton, Oprah and a lot of other smart people told me over the years: “Use your business to create a business model for your philanthropic measures.”
Can you give us an example of how your foundation has helped needy pets?
RR: We have these crazy, super long RVs, they’re mini dog and cat hospital/rescue vehicles. We have a couple of them now, and they go out and make these runs. They start on [the East Coast], they start in Texas and make their way through the south, and we try and bring back as many animals as we can from kill shelters so we can get them to … North Shore Animal League America in North Shore, Long Island. The vehicle is so nice. It’s amazing. They can do emergency medical in it. There’s roomy crates. The animals get baths and good food – our food, of course. Then they go to North Shore to find their forever homes.
[North Shore Animal League America] has always been a beautiful space for dogs. No one’s going to hurt them or kill them. It’s a non-kill, safe place for them to find their forever family. And we’re so proud that the cat sanctuary is totally cage-free. They have all these different environments. I have my own dedicated, little wing. It looks like upstate New York, it’s a giant tree. It looks like the Adirondacks, where I come from and where I am now. There’s a nursery there for the litters that come in, so they are protected.
Earlier this year, I attended the Muttville virtual Cuddle Club event where you made a surprise guest appearance. You informed the senior dog rescue group that throughout February, all adoptions of senior dogs by seniors will be free, and that Nutrish would be providing a year’s supply of food and free wellness checks.
[Editor’s note: Due to connection issues, Rachael was unable to appear on video and had to phone in to the event.]
RR (laughs): Oh my god! Where you only heard my voice? … The give is to non-kill shelters of any kind that save any animal … if it’s non-kill, we can give our money to them. We give large and small all the time. The picking up the medical cost? We did that as a special thing for an event. In normal times, most folks that are adopting an animal think, “I should buy pet insurance, I’m going to need to care for this dog, I’m going to adopt a dog because I know I can afford it.”
[The free medical checks] was something that we did to give an incentive because of these times that we’re living in. If the barrier for a shelter that’s focusing on senior animals is that people [have concerns adopting] senior animals with pre-existing conditions – like I have to fix their teeth, they have pancreatitis, we thought this would incentivize people to take that risk by taking away the costs to going to the vet. I wish I could do it for every animal, but we make sure that tiny shelters and large ones keep going. Once shelters are in the program, we don’t take them out. They become a member of the family that we give to in perpetuity.
Do you have a working relationship with mom-and-pop shops to help them carry Nutrish products for their dedicated customers?
RR: We do not, and that’s a great idea! We should involve incentives. Maybe we do, and I’m ignorant to it? But I don’t know about it, and I love that idea. I love that idea! Is there an incentive for tiny suppliers in rural areas? I love this concept… This is brilliant! I love this idea! I think that’s a great thing. Could we give some incentive for smaller businesses? We do mom-and-pop rescues, why don’t we do mom-and-pop shops?
What can you tell us about the process of conceiving the Nutrish recipes?
RR: I cook for my animals, and I give them [Nutrish] because I’ve eaten it myself so many times – cat food and dog food – to show people how much I believe in the quality. In knowing how it’s produced and physically seeing how it’s produced, I eat our dog and cat food. It needs salt, for me. Other than that, I’m proud to show people that I’m happy to eat wet food and dry food so you understand that’s how much I believe in it.
Every single [recipe] is tested on my dog and my mom’s cat. We get the first run. For instance, Big Life is coming out soon. Bella got Big Life when she was 65 pounds, about a month ago. She loves it. [During the testing process,] I make stupid comments like, “Isaboo picked out the peas and spit them out across the room. She hates them. I don’t know how other dogs do with the dehydrated peas. Ask other people that are testing this in our friends and family group how their dogs like dehydrated peas. Maybe it only works in wet food.”
In wet food, Isaboo would eat the peas, maybe because it was a cooked product. If it was dehydrated, she would literally find a pea like a princess and spit it across the room like 10, 12 feet.
My mother’s changed the cat recipes 87 times. She’s taken this so seriously. She worked in restaurants for 60 years, and she had, at her height, 14 cats at the same time in a tiny little cabin, and she also had outdoor cats. She tests everything and will say, “OK, they only like the broth of this but they won’t eat the actual product” or visa versa, “They like the product but they don’t like the smell of it so they come to it late.”
We give [Nutrish] all of this feedback, and they really care about it. That’s what’s so great. The people who work on this give a hoot.
All of the recipes begin with me. The reason we found it so easy to work with Dad’s was [because] they said we want to work with you, you write food for dogs. I wrote dog recipes for my magazine every single month with the disclaimer at the bottom: “You should check with your doctor for your breed.”
Every single recipe in our original line, which still exists today, of our wet food for dogs is a recipe that I wrote – the Muttballs, Stroganwoof – every single one of them I wrote as a recipe that I made for Boo or Isaboo. They were all things that started with things that I actually made and gave my dog.
My mom and I talk about fun ideas, but they send me the samples and they’re tested. Other people develop recipes now as well. But everything began with the magazine and the fact that I had a dog column in a food magazine.
What are some ingredients that you believe are overlooked or underappreciated?
RR: Greens. I don’t think the people understand that there has to be something green in there. Isaboo, God rest her soul, she would eat every type of grass and plant, and half the time she would end up throwing up. I had to change my entire garden, landscape, everything in my back yard and make sure it was pet safe. If your pet is eating something like grass or greens, they’re telling you they need that type of element, those minerals and those things in their diet. They need vegetables. They need proteins, yes, but they also need what my dogs love: pumpkin and butternut squash.
Oh, and this one. Bella? Wholly gosh, does she love herbs. She adores sage. She jumps on the counter if she smells sage up there. Parsley, adores. All my dogs love parsley. Parsley, sage. I haven’t found a dog yet that likes rosemary or thyme. Too citrusy for them, maybe? But they’re halfway to the Simon and Garfunkel [album title], Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. [laughs]
We put vegetables, and recognizably so, in everything I possibly can. I haven’t figured out how to make it pretty enough with an actual just parsley. We try to make grain and vegetable as much a part of our story as protein. But at home, absolutely everything I cook has that in it, and that remains my thing. Can we get a little herb packet or herb mix in it?
What area of pet food and treats intrigues you these days?
RR: CBD is in so many treats and things. When [Isaboo] was battling cancer, catastrophic back injury, so many things, as she was getting to the end of her days, I was trying everything. Chinese medicine. Every herb. Everything. She had an acupuncturist come to the house. I was trying every single thing I could think of to not keep her longer than she should, but to keep her comfortable while she wanted to be with us. Quality of life. Quality of life, all capital letters. Giant exclamation mark!
CBD, I don’t know. Isaboo appeared to like it. It seemed to make her less anxious. She had so much disease in her toward the end. You don’t know. I think I speak almost fluently in dog, but no one really does. I don’t know, but she seemed to find comfort in the tinctures. When I gave her some drops, she would sniff the air and take a nap. I thought, “Oh, that’s calmed her.”
CBD is an element I’d love to see us get to, if the research proves it out. Ethos [Veterinary Health] was the last [veterinary] clinic that I used with Isaboo. They’re the most cutting edge, brilliant people. They’re all over the world, from England to Boston. [Ethos chief science officer, veterinary oncologist] Chand Khanna is such a brilliant person, and he works with human cancer researchers. Chand collaborated with my other friend, Dr. William Li. Will is a human doctor and researcher, and his wife is a vet. Chand and Will worked together on how to adapt human drugs for animals that are suffering from cancer. They gave Isaboo a half a year, which is about 3½ years of human life, people guess. That gave her six months of beautiful time where we were all home together.
Ironically, because of the pandemic, it allowed us the time that we were all together. There wasn’t a moment of her day that she wasn’t with her pack, her family. Every single minute we were together, and she passed comfortably in my arms. Literally in my arms. When they stop taking water and food, don’t you be an animal. You let them have grace. That dog had grace.
It’s because of Ethos and good food and all of us working together as a community – doctors, scientists, food producers – all of us working together as a community, it’s how we get to knowledge, power and grace for our beloved pet family members that are as important to us as humans.
(All photos courtesy of Rachael Ray.)