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By Eve Adamson

Blame the pet food recall. Blame the Internet. Blame aging baby boomers concerned about their own health. Blame Al Gore. Or thank them depending on whether you love natural, holistic, organic pet products or haven ’t committed to this category yet and wonder what all the fuss is about. And there is a fuss or a buzz that has grown louder since the pet food recall in March. Driven by a combination of forces and amplified by fear and alarm, the market for holistic products is settling in to an ever-more secure place in the pet product industry.

Holistic pet products have long enjoyed a niche, a certain segment of consumers who prefer these products for themselves and, by extension, their pets. But since the pet food recall, formerly conventional pet product buyers have switched to holistic products. 

“People who never would have considered these foods before are suddenly turning over the bags and reading the labels and asking where the ingredients come from,” said Peter Atkins, president of Natura Pet Products in San Jose, Calif. “This niche has expanded dramatically in a very short time.”

The change has been dramatic for retailers, too. Sales are still up at Everything Pawsible in Salem, Ore., said owner MeloDee Glaser, who couldn’t keep pet food on the shelf in the weeks immediately after the recall. Chip Sammons answers questions about ingredients all day long at the Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore.
 
Even non-pet-food companies feel the effects. Pam Wheelock’s voice sounds like Lauren Bacall, she said, because the owner and founder of Purrfect Play in Chesterton, Ind., has been on the phone so much, answering questions about whether her organic pet toys come from China.
 
“The pet food recall influenced everything,” said Sonia Alexandra, founder and president of Stone Healing in Boca Raton, Fla. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and suddenly everyone is more conscious. People who never would have considered holistic products and services before are now asking questions. The recall was the catalyst.”

Natural and holistic pet food manufacturers in particular have experienced sharp spikes in sales. 

“We’ve seen tremendous growth since the recall,” Atkins said. “We were on a good trajectory before, but since the recall, it’s gone to a whole new level and it’s been a challenge to keep up from an organizational standpoint.”
Grooming product, toy, even pet litter manufacturers have felt the effects, too.
 
“The more people get educated about dog food, the more they become educated about toxicity issues in other products,” said Kim Colella, co-owner of Earthdog in Nashville, Tenn. 

Mark Hughes, general manager of Swheat Scoop in Detroit Lakes, Mich., still gets calls from people asking if his wheat-based cat and small-animal litter comes from China (it doesn’t).   

More Pet Owners Are Asking About the ‘C’ Word
   
The pet food recall has people worrying about safety, and while many people view natural products as safe, nothing represents danger to consumers right now more than the word “China” on a label.”
    "China is the new dirty word,” said Chip Sammons, owner of the Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore. “It doesn’t matter if the company has a great reputation and great quality control. If it came from China, people no longer believe it is safe.”
    Ingredient sourcing has become a primary issue for Michael Levy, president and founder of
 Pet Food Express in San Leandro, Calif.
    “In the past, nobody ever brought it up,” he said. “Since the recall, people are asking. As retailers, I believe it is our responsibility to push manufacturers to disclose this information so we can share it. If it’s a high-quality ingredient and it costs the retailer more, we should also be able to tell thecustomer why.” And customers want to know about China. 
    “A question we get again and again is, ‘Does your food contain anything made in China?’” said John Marsman, director of marketing and nutritional services for 
Eagle Pack Pet Foods in Mishawaka, Ind. “Back before the recall, a company might be able to claim they didn’t know where all their ingredients originated. Now, manufacturers have no excuse not to know. You see articles about ingredients sources in USA Today, MSNBC and all over the Internet. If you get caught lying, word will get out.”
     Doug Daymond, president and founder of Kicx Nutrition Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, agrees that manufacturers must be forthcoming now. 
     “The recall brought about a quick and rude awakening for some companies,” he said. “We have to be able to trace their ingredients right to the beginning of the supply chain.”      
    But Sammons adds that China has become a scapegoat of sorts.              
    “Blaming China is an easy way out,” he said. “We know China has some very poor ingredients, but because we know that, companies have to spend money on good quality control. It comes down to a question of morality. Don’t blame China. Blame the people who use the ingredients without testing them.”

Wheelock finds the recall has paved the way for conversations about toxic dyes and carcinogenic phalates in pet toys.
 
In other words, consumers appear to trust natural products more than conventional products, at least right now, based on concern about anything their pet might be exposed to.
 
“People really love their pets and they trusted companies to provide safe products, but after the recall, people don’t trust what a company says anymore,” Wheelock said. “They are more educated and more skeptical than they used to be, and that’s a change for the better.”


HEALTH MATTERS 
The pet food recall isn’t the only phenomenon spurring on natural and holistic products, even if it is the most obvious one. As the population ages, baby boomers have turned slowly but surely to organic, holistic and natural products in an effort to preserve their own health.
 
“When people experience the problems of aging, they are more likely now to turn around and look at their pets and say, ‘Hey, maybe my dog is having the same problems I’m having,’” said Arnie Costell, president of Watson’s Senior Pet Supplies in Santa Monica, Calif. “And in many cases, the dog is having the same problems.”

That association has contributed to a rise in pet supplement use, as well as other natural and holistic products, from organic grooming products to natural litter to holistic services like pet massage, homeopathic remedies and veterinary acupuncture. Holistic veterinary centers opening around the country and programs like the Privileged Pup pet massage pilot program at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota, Fla., are all testaments to increasing perceptions that holistic care is a legitimate effort for pets, Alexandra said.
 
Glaser sees the same people concerned about chemicals, growth hormones and antibiotics in their own food looking at their pets’ food with a more skeptical eye. Alexandra also believes a sea change in veterinary opinion about holistic products has driven the trend.  ”Holistic pet care is directly related to the way people are treating themselves more holistically,” she says. “When veterinarians began to recognize that holistic approaches can make a real impact on pet health, they began to accept it more. When insurance companies saw the research and the benefits, holistic health became profitable. These changes have helped legitimize the category.” 
 

AL GORE'S INFLUENCE
Ever since Al Gore’s Academy-Award-winning movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” encouraged people to take a more active role in the reduction of global warming by reducing their carbon footprints, environmentally conscious pet product retailers have been on the lookout for greener pet products. That road is a tough one, said Bruce Kelling, president of Big Shrimpy in Seattle.

"The evidence of the trend is the number of companies trying to get in on it, but it isn’t easy to do it right,” Kelling said. “Cream rises to the top eventually, but it isn’t easy being green.”

Still, a segment of consumers and retailers, particularly on the West Coast, expresses a desire for environmentally conscious products made by ethical companies. The latest buzz word is sustainability.

“You can recycle, but if what you recycle just gets thrown away again, it’s a dead end,” Kelling said. “It still goes into the landfill. People want products that are both recycled and sustainable, products that last and can be continually renewed rather than thrown away. The goal is not cradle to grave, but cradle to cradle.”

Preference for domestically produced products, a side effect of the pet food recall, also dovetails nicely with environmentalism, said Jeffrey Brill, chief executive officer of Paw Naturaw in Lake Mills, Wis. 

“Local products from small manufacturers cut down on the supply chain, he said. “Transporting something long distances uses more oil, so acquiring ingredients close to the manufacturing facility is more carbon-conscious.”

Packaging matters to some retailers and consumers, too, but only to a point, said Doug Daymond, president and founder of Kicx Nutrition Inc. in Guelph, Ontario. 

“Consumers find environmentally friendly packaging and sustainable products attractive, but does it translate into sales?” he said. “I’m not sure how much impact it has yet, I think it’s still a very niche market.”

But, Daymond said, a recent increase in viable packaging alternatives will help manufactures make this leap more cost-effectively.
 

OPTIMISTIC TREND
Many manufacturers committed to environmentalism, fair trade and organics express optimism.

“I would hope Al Gore’s movie has had a ripple effect in our industry,” Colella said. “Even if people didn’t see the movie, there is so much information out there about global warming and becoming earth-friendly and greening your life that it has become mainstream, and the pet industry is pretty quick to pick up on trends, even if safety is more of an issue right now than environmentalism.”

"It’s all happening very fast,” Daymond said. “The impact of the green movement, the pet food recall, education via the Internet and in the schools, it’s all wrapped up to elevate the quality of pet products. That means it’s a great time to be in business.”

From a retailer’s perspective, it’s also a great time to step up to the plate, Daymond advised. “You need to understand your demographic, so as the market continues to shift, you won’t miss this vast opportunity, with its associated margin gain,” he said.

While the bottom line keeps retailers in business, Sammons encourages the independents to go one step further because no matter the public perception and manufacturers’ efforts or claims, the retailer remains the middleman, and a primary source of knowledge that directly impacts pets.

"We’re the difference,” Sammons said. “We’re the educators. If we don’t have the answers, we only reinforce the manipulators and the propaganda. But if we do know, we can help consumers by explaining the facts. Without knowledge, we won’t make any difference. With knowledge, we can change everything.” <HOME>

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