With the United States still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and customers looking to support local and domestic businesses, the made in the USA dog food and treat category is poised for success.
Simply put, pet owners feel good when they support made in the USA brands, said Aaron Merrell, CEO of Plato Pet Treats, a manufacturer in Fresno, Calif.
“Not only are pet food and treats that are made in the USA more trusted by American consumers, but [shoppers] also feel good that they are supporting businesses within our economy,” Merrell said.
All of Plato’s treats, with the exception of its Single Ingredient Fish line, are made at its factory in California.
“When we built our Plato operation in 2006, we chose to locate in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley in order to be close to the farms we source from,” Merrell said. “We can, and often do, hop in the car to visit the chicken farm where we source the majority of our chickens from. We believe that knowing our suppliers and their operations is very important to ensure that we are offering a high-quality product.”
Perhaps even more important than where ingredients are grown is their quality, said Bob and Susan Goldstein, co-presidents of Earth Animal, a manufacturer in Southport, Conn.
“We believe that it is important to use raw ingredients that are sourced in the United States as it supports local farmers and the USA economy,” Susan Goldstein said. “That said, the more important factor for the health of our animals is the quality of the ingredients. There is a vast nutritional difference between fresh locally gown meat, fruits and vegetables as compared to byproducts of the human food chain, such as meat and poultry meals, and byproducts of the processing of wheat, rice and corn, regardless if they come from the USA or not.”
Earth Animal’s treats and No-Hide Chews are made in Lancaster County, Pa., and its new Dr. Bob Goldstein’s Wisdom Dog Food is made at the manufacturer’s Riverstone Plant in Westminster, Md.
All of Earth Animal’s meats are sourced from Global Animal Partnership-certified farmers, which Susan Goldstein said ensures “the animals are raised, fed, housed and slaughtered using practices that are gentle and kind for the animals, the farmers and the land.”
Sustainability is a big focus for Earth Animal. It operates with a zero-waste food policy, diverting food waste into compost instead of landfills, and collects grease waste from its dehydrator to be used in other industries. Its broccoli, carrots and beets are sourced from crops that would otherwise go to waste because they are not “pretty” enough for grocery store shelves.
“Upcycling the ‘uglies’ creates additional revenue streams for farmers, reduces landfill waste and decreases greenhouse gases,” Susan Goldstein explained. “Continually evolving our sustainability program will always be at the forefront of our decision-making process.”
Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, a retailer with three locations in Pennsylvania, said pet owners are increasingly aware of the benefits of purchasing U.S.-made products, and independent pet specialty retailers play a key role in spreading the word.
“I feel that we as independents are making headway in educating the general public,” she said. “Word is spreading that made in the USA and supporting local matters. I hope to see it continue to grow, which in turn supports the independent pet retailer nationwide.”
Moving forward, the Goldsteins hope to see increased consumer focus on and awareness of supply chains, ingredient sourcing and quality, use of whole foods as ingredients, digestibility and bioavailability of foods. Citing the examples of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, they hope that pet food companies can move toward plant-based options that reduce the need for meat.
“The plight of factory-farmed animals will hopefully be at the forefront of everyone’s objectives, which will be of benefit to the health of billions of animals and the planet,” Bob Goldstein said.
Manufacturers of dog food and treats made in the USA are focused on bringing new innovations to the category as well as updating existing product lines.
In November 2020, Earth Animal in Southport, Conn., released Dr. Bob Goldstein’s Wisdom Dog Food, which is made from three gently dehydrated and air-dried components: meat, with each diet being 70 percent chicken or turkey; Dr. Bob’s Vitality Cubes, which are made with oats, flax, vitamins and minerals for the food to be complete and balanced for all life stages; and organic fruits and vegetables.
“All raw ingredients used in making Wisdom are sourced from the United States,” said company co-president Bob Goldstein.
In December, Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., introduced a line of single-serve On the Go Energy Bars for dogs. They come in Salmon & Carrot, Lamb & Apple and Chicken & Mango.
“They are our most substantial treats made with real meat as the first ingredient, [and] real fruits and veggies,” said CEO Aaron Merrell. “They have a rich, meaty texture and are perfect for active dogs who are on the go.”
In late 2020, Evanger’s Food for Dogs & Cats in Markham, Ill., updated its Against the Grain Nothing Else line by adding Turkey. Nothing Else is the only canned single-ingredient pet food line, said owner and president Holly Sher. Turkey joins Beef, Chicken, Duck, Pork and Salmon in the collection.
Evanger’s also relaunched Hi Bio Superfood for Dogs and Cats, an air-dried, raw diet alternative for both dogs and cats. Hi Bio Superfood is available in Chicken and Beef and can be used as a treat, meal enhancer or complete meal.
Manufacturer Location Doesn’t Dictate Price
While manufacturing overseas can be cheaper, pet food manufacturers and pet specialty retailers say dog diets made in the USA don’t necessarily have higher price tags than those made elsewhere.
“Price is more determined by ingredients, quality and format,” said Heidi Neal, owner of Loyal Biscuit Co., which has seven stores in Maine and carries mostly U.S.-made foods with a few Canadian and European exceptions. “Some of my best priced, and some of my most expensive, are both USA-sourced and -manufactured foods.”
Consumers aren’t necessarily after the fanciest or most exotic diets on the shelves.
Evanger’s Food for Dogs & Cats in Markham, Ill., offers a multitude of canned and dry dog diets, with grain-free, super-premium, organic and single-ingredient options—but its best-seller is its canned Heritage Classic Chicken & Rice Dinner, according to president Holly Sher. While Evanger’s pricier grain-free diets run up to $46.91 for a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans, a 12-pack of 12.8-ounce cans of Chicken & Rice Dinner is listed at $22.68.
“[It] is surprising [that Chicken & Rice Dinner is our best-seller] because, while it is a staple, it is not generally that unique,” Sher said. “It is a good value, feeds well, clean ingredient panel, and I think because there’s nothing fancy going on there, it connects with the customer.”
Earth Animal’s new Wisdom Dog Food is priced competitively with other premium diets, said company co-president Bob Goldstein. The dry Chicken and Turkey Recipes range from $11.99 for a 1-pound bag to $89.99 for a 10-pound bag on the company’s website.
“Premium diets today range from high-end specialty kibble to frozen raw, freeze-dried and dehydrated foods,” Goldstein said. “Earth Animal’s Wisdom falls squarely in between that spectrum of higher-end specialty foods—more expensive than highly processed kibbles, but more affordable than freeze-dried and frozen raw meat diets.”
The higher price tag for premium foods comes from nutrient quality, he said. Wisdom diets are air-dried and gently processed to preserve nutrients, and pet owners can visibly identify the dehydrated meats, fruits and vegetables in their dogs’ bowls.
“The more nutrient inclusion, the better the diet, and consumers are beginning to understand that, and that is why more expensive, higher-quality foods are becoming more in demand,” Goldstein explained.
Made in the USA treats do come with a higher price tag, said Aaron Merrell, CEO of Plato Pet Treats, a manufacturer in Fresno, Calif. Plato’s best-selling line of Thinkers air-dried meat sticks are sold on its website for $2.49 apiece, or $14.59-$14.99 for a 6.5-ounce bag, depending on the protein.
“We have found that, since consumers of high-quality treats have more trust in a treat that was made in the USA, they are more than willing to pay the slight premium that accompanies it,” Merrell said.
Made in the USA versus Sourced in the USA
Pet specialty retailers agree that one area where many customers are misinformed when it comes to dog food and treats is the distinction between “made in the USA” and “sourced in the USA.”
“I don’t think many have thought about it, and manufacturers have polluted perception of these two things with deceptive marketing,” said Nicole Cammack, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co., a pet store in Cheshire, Conn.
Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, a retailer with three locations in Pennsylvania, agreed.
“Most customers do not understand that a product can be made in the USA but not sourced in the USA,” Shelaske said. “They definitely care once they realize the difference.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees claims that products are made in the USA. To meet FTC standards, “all or virtually all” of the product’s parts and processing must be of U.S. origin, with the product containing “no—or negligible—foreign content.”
This leaves room for gray area, Cammack said. “Negligible” is not explicitly defined, and doesn’t necessarily mean a small amount of the final product.
“According to the FTC standards, sourcing for foreign vitamin and mineral mix would be considered ‘negligible,’ and therefore allow a pet food company to use ‘made in the USA’ on the label, so long as a significant majority of the remaining ingredients were indeed U.S. sourced,” she explained.
The FTC takes into account the economic factors of where both the ingredients and the final product are processed. The economic impact of processing a final product in the U.S. could outweigh foreign ingredient sourcing, meaning a company could still use the “made in the USA” label when its ingredients are sourced elsewhere, Cammack said.
Furthermore, retailers and consumers should be aware that being made in the USA doesn’t necessarily mean a product is better quality.
“[A made in the USA label] doesn’t guarantee anything, and if someone tells you otherwise, you’re being lied to,” Cammack said. “Instead, retailers and consumers should be asking questions that actually measure the quality of the food.”
Cammack said some of these questions include:
• Will the company provide evidence of certification by a third party for safety and manufacturing practices?
• Will the company provide proof of nutrient analysis and digestibility profiles?
• Is the company inbound testing its raw ingredients for safety and adequacy?
• Are its diets formulated by someone who is legitimately qualified, like a veterinary nutritionist or companion animal nutritionist?
• Is it conducting nutritional analyses on the final product complete with vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids—or just relying on predictions based on a computer formulation?
• Is the company conducting true digestibility tests on all formulations? This means feeding the food to animals, collecting poop and analyzing it to make sure animals are actually able to digest and utilize the food’s nutrients.
• Is it testing the final product to make sure there are not contaminants like heavy metals or bacteria and holding all lots until those tests come back clear?
“At the end of the day, if companies are able to verify that their product is free of contaminants, formulated adequately and made in a safe and clean environment, a country of manufacture becomes less of a qualifier,” Cammack said.