A Matter of Trust

The pressure is on for manufacturers of domestically produced and sourced pet foods, as pet specialty retailers, acting on behalf of their trusting customers, seek higher-quality products from brands that can back up their made-in-USA claims. In response, savvy pet food companies are indeed heeding the call by offering a transparent view of their sourcing and production processes.

Trust is key, emphasized Michael Levy, founder of Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California.

"It’s not just about being USA-made, it’s about trust," Levy said. "Our customers shop with us because they trust us to carry the safest and best foods and treats."

The fact is, that in the eyes of the consumer, the onus lies on pet specialty stores to perform their due diligence in creating a product assortment that pet owners can trust. Working with manufacturers that are fully transparent has been a key to retailers’ research process. But it’s not always that easy.

Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., has found that when it comes to transparency, the degree to which companies are willing to open up can vary dramatically. While some companies will be very forthcoming in terms of answering questions, others are more likely to be guarded about their responses. Grow said that asking the right questions is key as nondetailed questions are likely to receive nondetailed answers.

B.C. Henschen, a partner at Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind., said that if he cannot get answers to his questions, then he simply won’t carry that brand in his store.

"Unfortunately, it’s up to the retailer to dig this information out," he said.

And that’s not very easy when a "marketing spin" can make any food sound better than it really is, he added.

"You really have to dig deeper to find out the truth," Henschen said. "One manufacturer talks about the use of free-range poultry in their food but when you dig into it, you stumble across the fact that they’re only using a small percentage of free-range poultry and the rest is coming out of a factory."

Beyond asking questions, participating in facility tours that allow retailers to observe manufacturers’ processes can also be beneficial.

Henschen said he has participated in various tours, but added that even they can be misleading.

"Some of those can come off like an open house where everything is staged and structured—whereas others have been a lot less official," Henschen said. "The latter has given me a better view of their operation.

"Recently, Answers Pet Food not only had a group of retailers out to the manufacturing facility, but they also took us to the farms that raise the animals that they purchase and that grow the produce that they use. It was really a unique look and one that I don’t think other companies would be able to attempt."

William Hoekman, nutrition science director for Answers Pet Food in Fleetwood, Pa., said that the company believes that "transparency is everything" in the pet food industry, and it assumes a great responsibility when it comes to helping retailers get answers about where their food is made and the ingredients used.

"We expect complete transparency of the companies whose products we use—so why wouldn’t we anticipate that our customers expect the same of us?" he asked. "When we hosted a recent facility tour, nothing was off limits. The only thing we won’t answer is the exact percentage of the amounts used in our formula."

Building Loyalty

At Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn., CEO Melinda Miller said that transparency is an important part of directly earning the trust and loyalty of pet owners.

"This is why we include country of origin information for all of our products on our website where it is easily accessible," Miller said. "If a customer is interested where we source our ingredients, that information is readily available. We also field direct questions from our consumers regarding the provenance of all our ingredients, and consumers are able to request results of our batch tests for any one of our products."

Karen Neola, founder of My Perfect Pet Food in Poway, Calif., said that the company educates pet owners by posting informational videos, but also invites retailers to see its operation firsthand.

"When we host visitors at My Perfect Pet, we offer lunch made with the same ingredients we use in our food blends—baked chicken or beef, fresh spinach or broccoli salad with kale, carrots, and cranberries, only adding seasonings for our human guests," Neola said.

Transparency not only plays a part in helping to build consumer confidence in the ingredients used, but can also go a long way in demonstrating a manufacturer’s commitment to product safety, industry experts report.

"Product safety begins with the selection of ingredients," Neola said. "My Perfect Pet uses only the highest-quality whole food ingredients from companies that deal exclusively with restaurants and grocery stores and are under constant USDA inspection for human foods."

For My Perfect Pet, committing to high safety standards also means avoiding the use of pre-ground meats, Neola added.

"While pre-ground meats are much lower in cost and may still be considered human-grade, we choose to buy only full cuts of roasts and fillets to ensure that the highest-quality cuts are used and to eliminate the risk of any pathogens being introduced to the raw meat during pre-grinding," she said.

Better Control

When it comes to product safety, manufacturers cited one key factor—control—stressing that the more control they have over the process, the more certain they can be of its safety.

"All manufacturing is done in our own good-manufacturing-processes (GMP)-compliant facility, giving My Perfect Pet 100 percent control over every aspect of our operation," Neola said. "Without geographical or language limitations, we know the standards under which our suppliers are operating and have the ability to personally visit every farm and supplier to audit control points from farm to delivery."

Miller agreed that when sourcing locally, companies have the advantage of meeting their suppliers face-to-face and ensuring that high standards are upheld. Bravo owns its own manufacturing facility and is very hands-on in all aspects of the process, she added.

"This allows us to react quickly in isolating anything that may be a potential issue and also allows us to consistently produce a quality product," Miller said.

Answers Pet Food recently opened a new manufacturing facility to align with its commitment to making quality products.

"More than any other product in the pet industry, understanding where your food comes from is so important," Hoekman said. "The best thing that retailers can do is find a food that they agree with ethically, environmentally and nutritionally. To us, the more transparent we can be and the more information we can put out there, the more we can help retailers make better choices when it comes to the products they choose to carry."