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Taking Pet Food to the Next Level

Following human food trends, organic and ethically sourced dog food is gaining traction with many consumers.


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On the human food front, “organic,” “ethical” and “sustainable” are familiar terms these days, and as with many developments in the two-legged sector, the demand is filtering down to nutritional selections for pets.

More and more, consumers expect the same transparency and sustainable, organic ingredients in the manufacturing process of pet foods as in their own diets, said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

“Consumers want to know their purchases are doing a good thing, are seeking food choices to align with those values and are driving the trend to healthier, more natural foods,” said Isaac Langleben, co-founder of Open Farm in Toronto.

Educated pet owners tend to be socially conscious as well as nutritionally aware, said Stephanie Volo, vice president of brand and communications for Earth Animal in Southport, Conn.

“These consumers want the livestock contributing to the health of their companion animals to have been well treated and humanely raised during their lives,” she added. “They also understand that organic produce is free of chemicals that may impact good health over time.”

Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas, agreed that this shift in insight is following that of the human market.

“A shopper at Whole Foods, for instance, will find sustainably harvested and humane products, and we see that call pouring over into the pet market,” Redwine said. “As demand goes up, we hope more farms will become ethical.”

As consumers, millennial pet owners are exerting a strong influence in the pet industry, and causes are important to their everyday lives, said Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of TailsSpin Pet Stuff, which has stores in Georgia.

“Millennials are definitely teaching other generations to pay attention to how pet foods are being manufactured,” he said. “‘Humanely raised,’ ‘cage free,’ ‘antibiotic free,’ ‘hormone free,’ and ‘organic protein sources and ingredients’ are increasingly important wordings when bags are being labeled.”

Further, consumers have personally seen the positive changes in the health of their animals when fed a biologically appropriate diet, Volo said.

As this recognition intensifies, Odyssey Pets is seeing an increased call for these foods, Redwine noted.

“We carry Open Farm and Smallbatch, and I am on the lookout to bring in more brands of this type,” she said.

Redwine also said that while the term “humanely raised” is self-explanatory, “natural” and “organic” are often thought by many to be synonymous.

“We sometimes have to explain the difference,” she said.

Manufacturers are heeding expanding consumer demand.

“Since introducing our certified organic, sustainably produced Gather line of pet food late last year, we’ve seen interest intensify,” Immega said. “We actually had to increase production sooner than planned.”

However, there are still long-held beliefs as to what constitutes an adequate diet, which might require some pet owners to start thinking differently, said Vanessa Quick, co-founder of Purpose Pet Food in New York.

“We talk to so many owners whose dogs have become sick over time from eating a diet that lacked nutrition or simply wasn’t appropriate for the species,” Quick said. “It’s sometimes difficult to think of our pets as carnivores, but in the time that humans have domesticated the canine, on the inside, they’re still more like wolves. Reframing how we think of our pets’ biological needs is important.”

Organic & Humanely Sourced Selections

Savvy consumers want to know what goes into the production of the food their pet is consuming. For example, foods that are prepared with humanely raised, antibiotic-free and steroid-free meats as well as organic produce resonate with pet owners striving to provide the highest-quality food for their pets, said Vanessa Quick, co-founder of Purpose Pet Food in New York.

Along these lines, Purpose Pet Food recently unveiled a line of freeze-dried dog food.

“The recipes are 95 percent protein, 5 percent organic produce and supplements, and are formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles for all life stages,” Quick said. “We plan to add two more dog food formulas by the end of 2017.” 

Based on the diet a dog would eat in the wild, the grain-free offerings feature beef, chicken and turkey selections, each with vegetables. The locally sourced ingredients come from the highest-quality organic produce and humanely raised animals from family farms across the U.S., Quick said.

“We support humane farm animal practices and American family farms,” she added.

As consumers focus on food sourcing methods that embrace ethical practices and a positive impact on the environment, Open Farm is committed to raising the bar for farm animal welfare, said Isaac Langleben, co-founder of the Toronto-based company.

Open Farm recently debuted two dog food recipes. Grain-free Pasture-Raised Lamb Recipe is formulated with exclusively pasture raised, grass-fed lamb sourced from third-party audited farms and non-GMO fruits, vegetables and legumes, Langleben said.

“We are proud to expand our association with Global Animal Partnership (GAP), making this product the first pet food in the world to achieve a GAP Step-4 animal welfare rating,” Langleben said.

Open Farm’s grain-free Wild-Caught Salmon Recipe features 100 percent wild-caught salmon, which is sustainably caught off of Alaskan coasts. The product expands Open Farm’s partnership with Ocean Wise, a leading organization in the field of seafood sustainability, Langleben noted.

An Emerging Pet Food Concept

Education is the key to enabling consumers to make informed dietary decisions for their families and pets. When presented with the alternatives of natural and ethically sourced products versus conventional food, consumers are eager to make the leap to products that are more premium and sustainable, said Isaac Langleben, co-founder of Open Farm in Toronto.

“Retailers in today’s market are smart, educated, and want to carry the very best, highest-quality, socially and environmentally sustainable products,” said Stephanie Volo, vice president of brand and communications for Earth Animal in Southport, Conn.

And with the increased power in millennial spending, an understanding of how to market to this generation is key to providing education, said Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of TailsSpin Pet Stuff, which has stores in Georgia. 

“Social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, are the most-used forms of communication because of the immediate availability of information,” he said.  

In-store trainings and workshops are helpful in shaping sales associates’ understanding of these products.

“We have done trainings for our staff with these manufacturers,” said Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas. “However, as far as customer education, we prefer to feel each customer out; if we mention ‘humanely raised’ and a customer is not interested after an explanation, that food may not be for them. I think this trend is in its infancy, but hopefully it will grow.”

Consumers are connecting the dots between food sourcing and health issues within both human and pet populations, said Julie Paez, co-owner of The Big Bad Woof in Washington, D.C.

“Beyond the obvious of humane animal treatment, we talk to our customers about the impact on the end product of how these animals are raised and fed,” she said. “This provides an understanding that, for the most part, farms that follow humane, organic practices will produce foods that are cleaner, leaving a smaller environmental footprint.

“For example, confined cattle typically suffer health issues requiring antibiotics, which are stored in the meat,” Paez continued. “GMO-sourced corn is treated with pesticides, which are also stored in the meat. Finally, humane slaughter lessens the cortisol and adrenaline released by animals that are stressed or frightened.”

Discussion of the distinctions between “natural” versus “organic” is another important part of consumer education.

“There has been confusion in the industry with many brands making ‘natural’ claims; however, there is no government regulation for that assertion, which can cause confusion,” said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

“A certified organic ingredient provides a guarantee that the ingredient has met strict government standards for how foods are grown, handled and processed using organic agricultural methods, such as soil and water conservation, and regeneration and pollution reduction,” Immega said.

Purposeful Shopping

Behind most authentic, natural brands is a great story, said Isaac Langleben, co-founder of Open Farm in Toronto. Retailers embracing organic and ethically sourced products can benefit from this platform as they engage in new and interesting conversations with their customers.

“Merchandising plays a key role here,” Langleben said. “A shoppable front-and-center display with a warm and inviting story offers a way for retailers to approach customers.”

Organic products with sustainably and humanely produced ingredients tell that great story, and many consumers are eager to listen, said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

Retailers are aware that food brings pet owners into their store, and merchandising that highlights these selections will further consumer awareness, said Stephanie Volo, vice president of brand and communications for Earth Animal in Southport, Conn.

Humanely sourced and organic products lend themselves well to creative merchandising techniques, Immega said. For example, designing an endcap as a farmer’s market stand, complete with fresh—or high-quality replica—fruits and vegetables, or the creation of a cornucopia-style window display, will serve to visually demonstrate superior-quality ingredients.

“With so many options to choose from, demonstrations with food, offering samples and asking the right questions of pet parents and, in turn, providing nutritional education, are incredibly beneficial attributes to selling food,” Volo said.

“It’s also crucial that any signage or educational materials lead with the industry terms that resonate with this key consumer demographic, such as ‘organic’ and ‘non-GMO,’” Immega said.

Sourcing a Movement

As pet owners expand their nutritional knowledge and competition diversifies, demand for organic and humanely raised sourcing of pet food will continue to increase, said Vanessa Quick, co-founder of Purpose Pet Food in New York.

“Organic and humanely raised is a movement reflected in industry trends over the last few years, and we are so excited to be on the front lines,” Quick said.

Isaac Langleben, co-founder of Toronto-based Open Farm, sees significant growth on the horizon.

“It is inspiring to see pet parents who are excited by the positive social impact their purchase dollars can make, particularly when it relates to ethical sourcing, animal welfare and sustainability,” Langleben said.

As a result of the consumer-to-pet trend, Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, said she expects the call for organic and ethically sourced pet foods to persevere.

“We are focused on helping our retailers understand and adapt to this market change,” she said. “These recipes offer a unique opportunity for retailers to differentiate themselves from mass competition.” 

Moreover, these ethical values resonate with animal lovers of all types, Quick said.

“A number of vegan and vegetarian pet owners have made a point of letting us know that while they do not consume meat or animal products, they understand that dogs and cats are carnivorous, and therefore require meat biologically,” she said.

However, Stephanie Volo, vice president of brand and communications for Earth Animal in Southport, Conn., cautioned that while growth potential in the category should shadow the human food market, a large portion of the limited organic raw materials available are funneled into the human food chain, restricting supplies to pet food manufacturers.

“So sourcing is going to be a challenge in terms of both availability and pricing,” Volo said.

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