The definition of "natural pet foods" and the criteria by which they are deemed "natural" continue to become more nuanced as the category evolves and pet owners become increasingly discerning and knowledgeable, according to industry insiders.
Pet food manufacturers are responding to these changing consumer expectations and demands with new formulations and by offering carefully sourced ingredients and using manufacturing processes that make for the most nutritious and palatable outcome.
Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash On Life in Albuquerque, N.M., said thoughtful pet food companies are reducing the proportion of rendered meat meals in dry food as these are typically a combination of highly processed meat, carcass and bones that well-informed consumers often avoid when shopping for pet food. Additionally, some brands have removed rendered meals completely from their pet food and substituted dehydrated meats, which he said are considered a more natural choice.
"Other brands go beyond natural by formulating pet foods that are high quality, restricted in genetically modified organisms (GMO) and human grade," he said. "Many pet foods claim being ‘natural,’ yet they include ingredients that no self-respecting natural-product aficionado would ever consider applicable."
There is a continuing focus on clean and responsible sourcing of ingredients as well as environmental conscientiousness in product formulation, said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of The Honest Kitchen in San Diego.
"Consumers continue to become more and more aware of the harmful effects of many artificial additives in the food supply as well as the detrimental effects of extreme production methods—for example, very high heat processing that leads to the production of carcinogens like heterocyclic amines," she said.
Amy Fiumarelli, co-owner of Amy’s Animals Holistic Canine & Feline Nutrition Center in Wantage, N.J., said she tries to educate customers that the most healthful foods for cats and dogs are generally not found on grocery store shelves.
"I address every customer as they come in the store, and I utilize my knowledge and my ability to tell them what the real deal is in how they should feed their pets," she said. "When they try, they will see the difference and keep coming back."
Joe Toscano, vice president and director of industry relations for Nestlé Purina Petcare in St. Louis, noted that there are three trends evolving in human food now inspiring pet food purchase decisions—outcome-based nutrition, ingredient stories and food as an experience.
"The most successful retailers are expanding their pet department to accommodate new brands—capturing increased sales from the trade-up, while not losing existing shoppers, and supporting the overall department with a balanced promotional strategy," he said.
Demand for limited-ingredient diets that feature single-source, natural proteins as well as grain-free diets also remains strong, said Matt Golladay, president of Lisbon, Ohio-based BrightPet Nutrition Group, parent company of Blackwood, Adirondack and By Nature Pet Foods.
"Even with the recent U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) feedback about grain-free diets, that segment of the market continues to grow," he said. "Consumers are also wanting to feed the healthy ingredients they feed themselves and their families to their pets and are searching for recipes that contain superfood ingredients that offer an array of health benefits."
Catch the Eye
Highlighting the benefits of natural pet diets through merchandising displays can help educate the consumer and boost sales in the category, according to pet retailers and food manufacturers.
At Garden City Pet in Augusta, Ga., owner Tiana O’Neill keeps the natural pet food together, displayed on black wire mesh shelving in a prominent area of the store. O’Neill said she wants to be able to discuss the food with all customers who come in the store.
"At least 80 percent of my customers have never seen natural food, and none of this would sell itself if I didn’t educate them," she said. "I’m passionate about animal nutrition, and I explain why they should switch their dogs’ food, and about 95 percent make the switch."
O’Neill recently won a contest sponsored by Champion Petfoods where she set up an interactive and educational display, complete with signs, sample bags and brochures for customers to take with them.
"It has a diagram of a dog and explained why a dog is a carnivore more than anything and needed this food," she said. "People noticed it as soon as they walked in the store, and it helped me to engage with them."
The Honest Kitchen has seen a lot of success at stores that merchandise natural, organic and eco-friendly products together, to make them a destination within the store, said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of the San Diego-based company.
More to Come
Pet food manufacturers are launching new products and adding to existing lines as they seek to meet the booming demand for natural diets.
Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., expanded its organic dog and cat food offerings in 2018, and is continuing to increase its organic food line.
"Pet parents and retailers alike seek foods with certified ingredients," said Holly Sher, president and owner. "It’s very important to us to ensure the quality of every ingredient."
Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of The Honest Kitchen in San Diego, said the company is laser-focused on gentle production methods, such as dehydration, to help maintain the natural benefits of its raw ingredients. It plans to launch Whole Food Clusters in early 2019.
"Our new Whole Food Clusters will be the world’s first human-grade ready-to-eat dry food, which is made using a combination of slow baking and dehydration, instead of high-heat extrusion like most dry foods," she said.
Nancy Peplinsky, managing director of Dr. B’s Longevity Raw Pet Food in Little Falls, N.J., said more and more pet owners are moving toward natural, organic, and raw diets and treats for their pets as they become educated about the benefits of raw feeding.
"In the next six months, we will be launching our Longevity Raw Cat Food line and are excited to bring raw feeding benefits to our cat families," she said.
Purina showcased several new products at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in June, including natural line extensions, particularly with the Purina One and Beyond brands.
"We recently renovated all of our Purina One dog and cat formulas to be natural," said Joe Toscano, vice president and director of industry relations for Nestlé Purina Petcare in St. Louis. "In the
New Product Showcase [at SuperZoo], we featured Beyond Wild, a freeze-dried and prey-inspired food. The hallmarks of the new formula are natural, real meat No. 1, high protein, grain free, no corn, wheat or soy, and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
At SuperZoo, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Champion Petfoods launched a reformulated recipe and new flavors of Acana Singles LID products, which utilize fresh and raw meat in WholePrey ratios of muscle, organs and cartilage.
"We have increased the level of meat from 50 to 60 percent in the diet while simultaneously reducing the carbs," said Julie Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion Petfoods. "We’ve also added new flavors: Turkey & Greens and Beef & Pumpkin. Our goal is a cleaner, shorter ingredient panel with the right focus on high-quality proteins."
Product manufacturers and pet retailers are joining forces to market the natural pet food category, industry insiders reveal.
Holly Sher, president and owner of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co., based in Markham, Ill., noted the company works with pet retailers to help them gain new customers and keep customers coming back.
"We provide point-of-purchase merchandising signage, coupons and more because we know that if a customer reads the ingredient panel, tries the products with their dogs, cats or ferrets, and sees the way their pets get excited for the great taste and ingredients that promote health from the inside out, they will be customers for life," she said.
Evanger’s also offers pet owners an easy-to-follow Product-Solution Guide on its website to provide solutions to the most common pet nutritional, digestive or allergy-related problems.
"Retailers and their associates can use this guide to help train their employees on common challenges pet parents are facing when trying to find the right food for their dog’s unique needs," Sher said.
Joe Toscano, vice president and director of industry relations for Nestlé Purina Petcare in St. Louis, said retailers need to show customers they care about their pets by having a wide variety of pet items to choose from and weekly promotions that will stimulate loyalty.
Having a staff that is well versed on the subject also conveys to customers that the store has the best interest of shoppers’ pets at heart.
Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of The Honest Kitchen, based in San Diego, said retailers should become knowledgeable about the natural and environmental attributes of the products they carry so that they can competently answer questions that more-demanding consumers may have.
"Superior, knowledgeable customer service is a key way that retailers can differentiate themselves," she said.
"Special promotions such as buy-get offers allow consumers to try new natural products that they might not otherwise have purchased," Postins added.
When getting staff on board with the natural philosophy, Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash On Life in Albuquerque, N.M., said he encourages them to feed their own pets natural foods and witness the sometimes-dramatic transformations that occur with the health and vitality of their pets.
"There are few sales techniques as powerful as the genuine endorsement from a pet parent who has used the product and achieved best results," he said.