Has Enough Changed Since the 2007 Pet Food Recalls?
Companies would do well to bring their pet food safety messaging front and center.
I’ll never forget the moment. Day one of Petfood Industry’s Petfood Forum 2007, and I was up next to give a talk. With what would come to be known as the Great Pet Food Recalls well underway, the mood was already grim at the typically upbeat annual event. But like salt in the wound, word now had it that Natural Balance had been added to the recall list. It was significant not just as a continuation, but because it marked the expansion of the recall from mostly mass into pet specialty brands, from wet foods into kibble, and from a single melamine-contaminated ingredient (wheat gluten) to a second (rice protein concentrate).
For the next several months, the ordeal dragged on, with more than 100 well-known pet food brands linked to a dog and cat death toll that would climb into the thousands. Industry committees were formed. Congressional hearings were held. And new pet food safety initiatives were signed into law, including authority for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to order mandatory product recalls, Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) for all animal feed facilities, more frequent plant inspections and a zero-tolerance policy for pathogenic bacteria including salmonella. Implementation of the measures has been slow and at great expense to manufacturers, but as of 2018, the new systems are more or less fully in place.
Why then, seemingly every week, does another pet food recall pop up in my pet industry newsfeed? One can argue that such “catches” are a sign that the new safety net is working. But it also seems fair to observe that, 11 and a half years following the Great Pet Food Recall, there’s still cause for concern. U.S. pet owners agree. In Packaged Facts’ Q1 2018 Survey of U.S. Pet Owners, 57 percent of dog owners and 55 percent of cat owners agree that “Fear of pet food contamination/product safety is a key consideration in the dog foods/cat foods I buy,” and 69 percent of dog owners and 63 percent of cat owners agree that they are concerned about the safety of the pet food, treats and chews they buy.
Within months of the start of the 2007 recalls, numerous industry watchers, myself included, speculated that, horrific as the disaster was, there might be a silver lining for products perceived to be safer, and that prediction seems to have played out mightily. Post recall, annual sales growth of natural and organic pet food surged into the double digits, lifting the natural/organic segment from less than 5 percent of overall pet food sales in 2007 to nearly one-third at present—and more than 70 percent of pet specialty channel pet food sales, per GfK.
For more than a decade, natural foods have driven the pet food market, along with spin-offs promoted on claims including limited ingredient, made in the USA, free from ingredients sourced in China (the primary culprit in the 2007 recalls), non-GMO and “clean.” An even half of dog and cat owners feel that natural/organic brand pet products are “often better than standard national brand products,” the Q1 2018 survey found, with 49 percent considering natural and organic pet foods to be safer than regular pet foods, an increase of 7 percentage points from 2017. Marketers of regular pet food are justified in pointing out that there’s little if any proof that natural pet food is more nutritious or safer. But at the very least it seems logical that products with fewer sub-optimal ingredients might be, and pet owners who buy natural foods for their own consumption probably need little convincing.
Now perhaps more than ever, product marketing messages—backed up, of course, by products that deliver—need to capitalize accordingly. Pet food recalls aside, as of late 2018, the U.S. pet food market is a different place than it was even three years ago, facing headwinds including intensive pricing pressure from online sellers and mass premiumization, and a possible association between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free foods. At the same time, the cost of producing pet food continues to rise due to the increasing costs of ingredients and, yes, compliance with the new governmental safety standards.
Already, product safety is implied in many of the current marketing claims, as well as apparent in corporate efforts toward transparency regarding production and ingredient origins. But a straight-up safety pledge might go a long way for an industry that is in search of a new superpremium pet food standard (customized home-delivered? freshly made in store?), not to mention one catering to pet owners willing to do almost anything to protect their “fur babies.”
In response to the 2007 recalls, marketers came on strong with advertising, public relations, online programs, and packaging emphasizing product safety and quality control, including proprietary safety seals and independent laboratory testing of ingredients. At present, however, most such messaging seems to have been relegated to small-print FAQs on pet food websites.
Safety concerns are not limited to pet food, with problems having also arisen in other areas of the market, including plastic products and chews. One somewhat unlikely pet market contender (crossing over from automotive accessories) tackling the issue head-on is WeatherTech. In a television advertising campaign substantial enough to have smacked me in the face several times during major cable news programming—and the first I can recall for a pet feeding/watering product—the company is touting its made in the USA PetComfort Feeding System (stainless steel bowls and elevated plastic stands) as the only NSF-certified bowls on the market, “making them safe for even human food.” The website further states, “the PetComfort Feeding System is not just BPA free. It is also free of phthalate, lead, radium, mercury and other toxins.”
It’s an approach that might or might not be entirely suitable for pet food, but it got my attention.
David Lummis is the lead pet-market analyst for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, and author of Packaged Facts’ U.S. Pet Market Outlook, 2018-2019—August 2018 Update. Data cited are from Packaged Facts’ Q1 2018 Survey of Pet Owners.