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Roundtable: What is Natural?

Key industry players provide insights into the meaning of natural and its significance to and place within the pet specialty marketplace.

From foods to clothing to toys to supplements, the word natural appears on a wide spectrum of pet products these days. Yet, what exactly does the term denote? Does it mean all the ingredients or content in a product are natural? Does the term refer to the way those natural materials are processed? Moreover, what are the benefits to retailers and consumers of “going natural”?

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Pet Product News International invited a group of natural-pet-food manufacturers and retailers to discuss the meaning of natural, how it is applied to pet foods and the term’s importance to the market. The following is excerpted from our hour-long discussion on the topic.

Panelists Moderators
Rick Rockhill, VP of merchandise, Petco Animal Supplies  Sherri L. Collins, editor, Pet Product News International
Bette Schubert, director of sales, Bravo! Raw Diets

Brian Hutchins, news director, BowTie Inc.

Ken Wilks, director of sales and marketing, Merrick Pet Care

(Editor’s note: The transcript has been edited for length and clarity).

Pet Product News International : What is natural? Is it the ingredients, the process, or both?

Ken Wilks: I think natural in the independent pet specialty channel is really determined by the quality of the ingredients. There is a totally different message on the grocery side, you’ll see pictures of meat and carrots on the front of the bag, but you’ll see ingredients on the bag’s panel that don’t really reflect those pictures.

On the independent side, there is a lot of education going on about the quality of the ingredients. The ingredient panel is the defining element of what natural is.

Rick Rockhill, Petco Animal Supplies 
Rick Rockhill, Petco Animal Supplies

Rick Rockhill : I agree with Ken completely. There is a tremendous amount of consumer confusion on what is natural. A variety of mixed messages out there, mostly around marketing and imagery, makes it difficult for the consumer. It’s really what Ken said. It’s about what is not in the food and exactly how it is formulated. From Petco’s standpoint, we’re saying natural foods have to have high-quality [ingredients] typically whole-food ingredients, no chemicals, nothing synthetic, no preservatives, no animal by-products, no artificial flavors or dyes, things like that.

Natural is a higher standard, when consumers read the ingredients, they can see clearly and register that it has higher quality and they should know what should not be in the food.

Bette Schubert: As a manufacturer of raw food, when I think of natural, I not only think of the source of the food—the meat and everything in it has to be all natural—but it certainly has to be grown that way, too. I find that a lot of the consumers are now looking not only at what we’re getting, but where are we getting it from. We have that component of natural, but we also have the component of how is it actually being produced. Are we adding things to it? What are we adding? Where are those additives coming from? I think there is consumer awareness that having additives is not part of the word natural, even though they say they are natural additives.

PPNI: Where are natural pet foods as far as the evolution in the market? Are they still in their infancy as far as market share?

Wilks : I’ve seen some data from an industry report that stated (and this was about a year ago) 150 natural foods had been launched since the pet-food recalls. I would say that natural is out of the infancy and into the teenage years, so to speak. With mass and grocery [channels] adopting that term or co-opting (depending on how you look at it) away from pet specialty, natural is becoming a brand category.
And, it’s one that now has awareness across a broad spectrum of consumers and not just people who are very interested in ingredients and health. I think everyone at this point, through advertising and through visits to the grocery store, is beginning to see and internalize the natural message.

Bette Schubert, Bravo! Raw Diet 
Bette Schubert, Bravo! Raw Diet

Schubert : We certainly see raw growing. I think raw is still very much in its infancy. It has really only be around since the late 1990s, which was when the first company evolved for raw. Although we’re making great strides, I think we have a long ways to go. I would say raw is still in its infancy, but the consumers who are coming to raw are becoming more and more educated about raw. I see it evolving and I hope more and more will see the benefits of raw.

Rockhill : I agree with both Bette and Ken on this. But I’d add that if you think about this, there’s some really good news happening. If you look at the whole evolution of pet food, over the last 60 years, the food is getting better; the quality is going up gradually and that’s a good thing for our animals, members of our family.

It’s encouraging, what’s happening with the whole natural, holistic organic and raw segment. I agree we’re in the early stages of this and it’s really an evolution that is happening. We had that phase in the ‘80s and ‘90s where the premium scientific-type brands (using my own term) took everything up a notch. The natural, holistic organic and raw segments are really moving it beyond that; it is a natural progression.

PPNI : Does there need to be an industry standard that is in some way enforceable about the use of the word natural in pet food?

Wilks : From a marketing perspective, the term natural is being co-opted by grocery and mass [market]. Companies like Walmart and Target, and grocery stores are attaching natural to their product offerings—of course, they’re not doing it, the manufacturers that sell in grocery and mass are responding to market demand. But nevertheless, the term natural has, in my opinion, already been diluted. And it would be a little bit like closing the barn door after the horse got out if we tried to get an industry standard or regulate it.

Rockhill : We have issues with the current AAFCO definitions on pet food. They allow for too much ambiguity—a lot of companies take advantage of it and create confusion around how they formulate their ingredient decks. So yes, we do need better definitions. We are still waiting for the pet industry to adopt the standard on organic. The same would even hold true for holistic. We need that clarity.

Schubert : I agree with Rick. That is that one thing we as manufacturers can do is hold ourselves to a higher standard. And not go down the road of playing in the mode of ambiguity that we are now allowed to do.

PPNI : As manufacturers, are you at a disadvantage if you hold yourself to a higher standard, as compared to some of your competitors?

Wilks : My perspective, as a manufacturer, is that we just continue to try to raise the bar. What Merrick is trying to do is offer things that grocery and mass today, are not prepared to offer, and its taking the natural message one step higher to what we term as functional foods. If the pet industry moves in that direction, it’s going to be difficult for grocery to keep up just by the very nature of the expense of these ingredients. Rather than trying to fight a relatively big piece of the market, we just do what we do best, which is control the message, raise the bar, raise the awareness on what is better and better nutrition for pets.

Rockhill : I think that we in the pet-specialty industry have a responsibility to really take a leadership position and provide clarity to pet parents so that they can understand how to really ready a pet-food bag, how to interpret it, how to understand the benefits of the ingredients. The strength of our channel really depends on us taking a stand and almost protecting the consumer, because ultimately what we’re really trying to do is help pets live longer, healthier lives. That’s what we’re really about, so as a group we really should be thinking, ‘how can we work together to provide pets with better quality food.’ That’s an opportunity for us, and part of that is for our own survival as a business interest, but also because we think it’s the right thing to do.

PPNI : Is there a non-disparaging term to describe those food products that would not fall under the natural-product umbrella?

Rockhill : Being a retailer, we’ve struggled with that. Because there are a lot of people who feed at various levels of quality. What you can afford, what your own interests are, how you view your pet. I’m not making judgments about people, but you know consumers are at different places in their lives. And part of it, I think, is providing options and solutions for people for what is appropriate for them and their pets’ needs. Not every diet is right for every pet. We’ve taken an approach that there are basic nutrition formulas, and are they advanced nutrition and there are natural, holistic and organic segments.

If someone can only afford to feed a basic nutrition food, we don’t want him or her to feel horrible on the spot, we just need to educate them a little bit. And they may decide how to shift their spending to afford to feed a better quality food. That’s really shifting the whole conversation away from how much does this cost versus what is value of the best quality.

PPNI : Regarding holistic, how does it fit in? What is the difference between holistic and natural?

Schubert : For me, natural is looking at the product. Is the product natural in its natural form? When I think holistic, I think of the whole body, of the whole animal, of the whole human being, so I tend to look at holistic coming from the veterinarian standpoint as opposed to the food. I look at them as two totally different words. I know that consumers interchange them all the time; just because it says it’s natural, it’s holistic. I don’t think that’s always so.

Wilks : The term holistic has never been easy to define exactly what it means. Generally, I think that people look at the use of the term holistic as being slightly better than natural, or much better than natural. As a company, we tend to try not use to that term very much, particularly since some manufacturers have actually included the term holistic in the name of their product offerings. Instead, what we try to do is speak in terms of functionality, and educate consumers, retailers and the supply chain on what constitutes a functional food; how can this food help your animal rather than refer to a label of natural and holistic.

Rockhill : We see natural and holistic as different. I think of natural as an umbrella term; within natural, holistic is natural, organic is natural, raw is natural, but obviously not all natural is holistic, not all natural is organic. [Holistic] involves a preventative, homeopathic-type approach to nutrition. It’s like a philosophy of nutrition; that’s how we define it.

This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser

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Roundtable: What is Natural?

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Reader Comments
I don't think these people understand the term. You can't make up definitions just to suit your own agenda. Quality of ingredients has nothing to do with natural. If you have a wonderful high quality ingredient soaked in chemical preservatives for that natural?
Natutal should mean natural (no man made ingredients).
Jim, Lee's Summit, MO, MO
Posted: 2/10/2012 2:30:32 PM
None of the people gave a definition for natural. They all flunked a 10th grade english vocabulary test. Somehow our industry needs to start talking in tightly defined terms, not in marketing hipe. By the way, my family fed our dog raw dog food in the fifties. It was cheaper than canned or dry.
Bill, Exton,Pa, PA
Posted: 2/10/2012 10:36:47 AM
Very interesting points of view. As a veterinarian that nowadays work with international regulatory affairs, I believe that most important after all is high quality products. In the consumers perspective, since they are having much power decision over the years, the important issue is to make clear the right information. Misunderstandings about natural in long-term can be very negative for consumers and consequently for their pets.
Daniela, Weston, FL
Posted: 2/10/2012 10:10:54 AM
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