Raw Dog Foods Sales Undeterred by Safety Concerns
Despite lingering fears over safety, raw food remains all the rage, according to industry insiders.
While many independent pet specialty retailers and pet food manufacturers continue to contend that a raw diet is best for their dogs, the warnings from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) continue. These warnings have put many retailers in the position of assuring pet owners that they can feed a raw diet without putting themselves or their family at risk. Even so, despite the ongoing controversy, there continues to be a growing interest in the category, and retailers and manufacturers report that raw sales are rising.
At Patton Avenue Pet Co., which has three locations in Asheville, N.C., owner/operator Jenna Wilson said that in the seven years her stores have been in business, she has never received a complaint about a pet or a person getting sick from feeding raw.
Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express, which has two locations in Bend, Ore., noted that the last “major impactful pet food recalls were kibble—not raw, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC.” She said that this is likely because most people are already well educated on the fact that handling raw meat requires washing your hands. But pet owners don’t always follow the same safety measures when handling kibble—even though they should.
“The truth is, both kibble and raw could have equal pathogens to make people sick, but most people have enough common sense to understand that handling raw meat requires precautions to not get sick,” McCohan said. “Most people don’t have that same mindset about kibble.”
Even with some uncertainty lurking, raw sales are steadily increasing.
“The truth is, our raw sales are going up,” Wilson said. “When following proper feeding guidelines and taking proper sanitary measures, like washing hands, there is no reason to fear a raw diet.”
Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., said that more knowledgeable customers have also helped the category grow.
“As more and more pet parents understand the need for bioavailable nutrition, not just the paper nutrition shown on the bag, their pets will thrive and so will the category,” he said.
Skylar Clifton, national sales manager for Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb., agreed, and added that a generational driving factor might also be at play.
“Raw is a fast-growing category,” Clifton said. “Millennial consumers are interested in feeding their pets the most natural, minimally processed food available, and that is, without a doubt, a fresh raw diet. Since millennials are putting off major life events like home ownership, marriage and starting a family, they are more focused than previous generations on their pets. This focus has spread the interest in raw diets.”
Freeze Dried Versus Frozen
Pet owners who make the decision to feed a raw diet will likely need direction from pet specialty retailers when it comes to choosing whether to feed their dogs a freeze-dried raw or frozen raw diet.
Jenna Wilson, owner/operator of Patton Avenue Pet Co., which has three stores in Asheville, N.C., said that she is a big believer in choosing frozen due to minimal processing and moisture content. But even so, she understands that many of her customers prefer freeze dried and said that it’s still a much better choice than canned dog food or kibble.
The fundamental difference between frozen and freeze-dried formats comes down to convenience, according to Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.
“Freeze-dried foods are the fastest-growing segment of the raw food category, driven in large part by convenience,” Rowan said.
Helping a customer decide which type of raw diet to feed their pets might simply come down to the type of customer a retailer is catering to. Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn., said that she believes each format appeals to consumers for different reasons.
“Our freeze-dried Homestyle Complete appeals more to pet parents with small- and medium-sized dogs,” Miller said. “It is a super-premium product, so it can be quite costly for families with larger or multiple dogs to feed this product, even though some do. Freeze dried also provides portability you don’t necessarily get from a fresh-frozen raw product, and there is less preparation involved with Homestyle Complete—just add water and let it sit. It’s also complete and balanced right out of the package.
“A good portion of our large/multiple-dog families do lean toward our fresh-frozen formulas, as they still get a high-quality product, but one that is more cost-effective,” she added.
Between the safety warnings from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the freeze dried versus frozen debate, there is a lot of room for pet specialty retailers to educate their customers when it comes to talking about feeding raw.
Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan, said that she gets tons of questions when it comes to a raw diet—many of which are safety related.
“We do a lot of training of store employees so that our team is able to answer these questions in the store,” Henson said. “After all, a well-trained employee is better than any pamphlet or handout we could give. But we also post a lot on social media so that we can try to answer popular questions before consumers even come into the store.”
Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., said that in-store consumer education is one of the biggest differentiators that independent retailers have going for them—and they should use it. Retailers should go out of their way to educate customers, Rowan said. But along with that, they should keep their focus on brands that are only available at independent pet stores.
“It doesn’t help a store to turn a consumer onto raw brands that they can find cheaper or more conveniently online,” Rowan said. “At Bixbi, our Rawbble freeze-dried foods are not only more nutritious and lower priced than the market leader, but are only sold through independent distributors to independent pet stores. We do not sell to Amazon, Chewy or big-box pet stores. Collectively, stores and manufacturers need to educate consumers not just on the health benefits of raw, but also on the benefits of purchasing those raw foods from their local store.”
Independent retailers are often viewed as having a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to raw feeding, added Nancy Peplinsky, managing director of Longevity Raw Pet Food in Little Falls, N.J.
“Many dive into the research and are happy to share what they know about raw diets and what works. Consumers who are not open to hearing about raw diets are the biggest challenge,” she said. “We encourage retailers to bring in local holistic veterinarians who are advocates for raw feeding to do events in their store and to have their raw feeding customers share their own experiences with a raw diet.”
There are several new raw food products on the market.
Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., said that the company has three new freeze-dried raw products. Rawbble Freeze Dried Chicken, Rawbble Freeze Dried Beef and Rawbble Freeze Dried Duck include fresh meat and just six to seven ingredients per formula, plus vitamins.
In addition, according to Nancy Peplinsky, managing director of Longevity Raw Pet Food in Little Falls, N.J., the company recently introduced Longevity Raw Bites for dogs, which are dehydrated raw treats using the same recipes as the Longevity dog food products.