Taking in stride the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) repeated warnings about foodborne illnesses and recalls of raw pet diets, many industry insiders assert that feeding raw is still the most biologically appropriate option for dogs—and many pet owners feel the same way. Manufacturers report that the raw dog food category remains steady, thanks to brand recognition and increased consumer awareness about food safety.
"These issues have not impacted our sales," said Patti Salladay, manager of Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Naturals, which manufactures raw diets for dogs and cats. "Our raw food category has remained steady and is growing due to food safety education on what type of facility we are. Morasch Meats, our parent company, is a USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] human food manufacturing facility, so all of our pet food is manufactured under the same guidelines that human food is made, with a USDA inspector on site for all production."
Stacy La Point, president and founder of Fresh Is Best, a Milwaukee-based manufacturer of raw freeze-dried dog and cat foods, said the company invests in antimicrobial processes, facility and equipment sanitation, and only human-edible ingredients.
"We really just keep our nose to the grindstone and make sure we are following a strict protocol to control, inhibit and eliminate bacteria," La Point said. "Due to our track record in the industry and customer satisfaction, our sales continue to grow."
The FDA’s warnings might cause a small hit on the retail level, but building trust and giving customers a place to ask questions without judgment can help alleviate this, said Ashleigh Higgins, manager at Loyal Biscuit Co., which has stores in Maine.
"You don’t want to disregard the concern, but it is important to put things into perspective," she said. "… Additionally, opening up people’s eyes to the fact that kibble has been recalled for salmonella as well. Feeding kibble does not preclude you from this risk. Safe handling practices are your best defense."
Conversely, the FDA’s investigation of a potential link between grain-free dog food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), has actually given raw food sales a boost, Higgins said.
"For all of our customers, this investigation has allowed us an opportunity to talk about variety and how illogical it is to rely on a single product—no matter how great—to meet every need for your dog," she said. "The importance of fresh foods has never been clearer than it is today, and just adding some fresh foods to their bowls has given the raw and freeze-dried foods a great boost in our stores."
New technologies and questionable farming and manufacturing processes have all contributed to concern about food safety, said Coco Levitski, director of brand marketing communications and creative services for Answers Pet Food in Fleetwood, Pa.
Levitski said Answers is the only pet food company that ferments its food for safety and preservation. Through fermentation, Answers’ raw frozen diets are packed with good bacteria that supports gut health and makes it easier for pets to process nutrients.
"Fermentation fights bacteria with bacteria, a microbiological science that has been used since the beginning of time," Levitski explained. "… Answers’ fermentation process inoculates food with billions upon billions of good bacteria, also known as lactic acid bacteria, along with the beneficial substances they produce. These conditions create a very high count of good bacteria, billions of lactic acid bacteria per ounce. Their job is to prohibit any potential pathogen cells from multiplying."
Fermentation also supports the immune system and increases B vitamins, digestive enzymes and antioxidants, she said.
Northwest Naturals uses high-pressure processing (HPP) to inactivate harmful bacteria in its raw freeze-dried diets.
"Our process, using cold or semifrozen product, applying pressure, inactivates salmonella, E. coli and listeria, leaving the good bacteria and enzymes intact," Salladay explained. "… All steps from production, HPP and freeze drying is done at our facility—no outsourcing."
Nicci Decrisantis, nutritionist and owner of Northpoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn., said there are many different "clans" and belief systems within the larger raw pet food community.
"I don’t necessarily think any one is better than the other," she said. "Many variables are at play when determining what is best for the dog. … Raw feeding, especially commercially, has evolved quite a bit in the last five years. Now, it can be almost as easy as feeding kibble if you want it to be."
Focus on the Freezers
As the dog food industry continues to grow, pet stores’ layouts will shift closer and closer to those of human stores, according to Coco Levitski, director of brand marketing communications and creative services for Answers Pet Food in Fleetwood, Pa.
"The future of pet food retailers will follow much of the merchandising floorplan of traditional grocery stores: fresh foods displayed along store walls in freezers and refrigerators, and processed dry foods on fixtures and shelves in the middle of the store, with impulse items at purchase counter," Levitski said.
Patti Salladay, manager of Northwest Naturals, a Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer of raw diets for dogs and cats, recommends that stores always have a backup freezer for overflow and keep the freezer or freezer section tidy. She said glass-front freezer doors are best for displaying products.
"Transparent freezers that display product on shelves in a repetitive manner that can be seen from a distance is ideal," Levitski agreed.
If a retailer’s freezers have opaque doors, in-store brand awareness becomes even more important, she said.
"We recommend freezer or floor clings, magnets, tents, floor or shelf displays," Levitski said. "The use of exciting imagery, colors and shapes that can catch someone’s eye across a uniform scene is sure to captivate attention."
Salladay said many retailers display freeze-dried foods and treats in an alternative feeding section.
Northpoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn., displays its commercial brands in a large glass freezer section, said owner and nutritionist Nicci Decrisantis.
"We also have a local organic blend that we have numerous varieties and options of," she said. "That line is just in chest freezers, and we have a large walk-in for the back of the store, as well."
At the Loyal Biscuit Co. store in Brewer, Maine, the raw food freezer and freeze-dried options are kept with the canned food.
Manager Ashleigh Higgins said a big misconception about raw feeding is that if you feed your dog any raw food, you must feed a 100 percent raw diet.
"People often feel overwhelmed at the thought of completely overhauling their dog’s diet," Higgins said. "… [But] small changes add up over time. … Many people start raw feeding as a topper or as a supplement to kibble, much like canned food has traditionally been used."
Keeping raw options near the canned food prompts customers to think about what else they can add to their dogs’ diets. Because freeze-dried foods are shelf stable and lightweight, many people may find them more convenient than cans, Higgins said.
More dog owners are open to feeding their canine companions a raw diet—whether it is frozen or freeze dried. With this increased interest, manufacturers are introducing new products to cater to dog owners’ needs.
As of press time, at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., in February, Northwest Naturals in Portland, Ore., planned to launch its new Bulk Nugget Box, a 15-pound box of its freeze-dried Original Raw Nugget flavors, which include: beef, chicken, chicken and salmon, lamb, turkey and whitefish.
This month, Answers Pet Food in Fleetwood, Pa., is adding duck to its protein lineup. Varieties include: Detailed Formula Complete and Balanced Diet for Dogs and Cats, as well as Straight Limited-Ingredient Diet for Dogs in 1-pound and 4-pound cartons, 1-ounce Nibbles, 8-ounce Patties and bulk chubs.
In 2020, Fresh Is Best in Milwaukee is focusing on expanding the reach of its freeze-dried dog foods, which currently include beef, duck, chicken and turkey.
"We did a soft launch of our new line of freeze-dried foods last year, just selling at a few stores and testing them out with our animals and online," said president and founder Stacy La Point. "Now, in 2020, we are in the process of making them available to our full customer base."
Fresh Is Best also has a wild game product in the works for this year.
When it comes to educating pet owners on feeding raw diets to dogs, addressing misconceptions is key.
"The psychological or emotional connotation that accompanies ‘raw chicken,’ for instance, is an immediate reaction to an idea of danger and foodborne sickness," said Coco Levitski, director of brand marketing communications and creative services for Answers Pet Food in Fleetwood, Pa. "It’s a behavioral reaction or mentality of our society. It’s a mentality we in the raw pet food industry are up against and need to teach to: Are we marketing to humans or to the biological need of pets?"
Manufacturers and retailers agree that the biggest myths revolve around safety.
"There are many fronts that we have to address when it comes to the ‘salmonella’ conversation," said Ashleigh Higgins, manager at Loyal Biscuit Co., which has stores in Maine.
Higgins said retailers need to be knowledgeable about their brands’ food safety procedures, like high-pressure processing (HPP) and batch testing, and to be able to put concerns in perspective.
"Think of all of the gross things dogs do—what they eat off the ground on your walk, getting into the trash, what they lick," Higgins said.
"And yet, in normal circumstances, they don’t get sick from these things."
Because dogs are natural scavengers, they are well equipped to process bacteria, Levitski said. Their short digestive tracts and antibacterial juices in their saliva and stomachs are designed specifically for processing raw meat.
Higgins said dogs’ biological makeup, manufacturers’ safety procedures, and safe storage and handling of raw foods easily minimizes safety risks.
Patti Salladay, manager of Northwest Naturals, a Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer of raw diets for dogs and cats, shared some raw food storage and handling tips that retailers and manufacturers can pass along to their customers:
• For frozen foods: Defrost only the amount of food to be fed and store any thawed portions in the refrigerator. Reseal the bag and keep the rest of the food frozen. Keep raw pet foods away from other foods, and use warm, soapy water to clean surfaces, utensils and hands that come into contact with the food.
• For freeze-dried foods: Store the food in a cool, dry place and prepare only the amount of food to be fed in one meal at a time. Clean surfaces, utensils and hands with warm, soapy water.
Fresh Is Best, a Milwaukee-based manufacturer of raw freeze-dried diets, has actually been able to take a step back from education, said president and founder Stacy La Point.
"We don’t do a lot of education anymore, quite honestly," she said. "People who want to feed raw seek it out and find us. … I take all the customer service calls and emails, and I really enjoy helping people when they have questions, but they are fewer and farther between as the public seems to be much more nutrition-savvy than when we started out."
Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.
Safety is a common concern for dog owners who are considering feeding their pets a raw diet. What safety procedures does Bixbi have in place regarding the process of making its Rawbble freeze-dried diets, and how does Bixbi address these safety concerns with consumers?
Bixbi’s approach to safety extends beyond the normal positive release testing protocols. Of course, we ensure none of the common pathogenic issues will arise. Nothing goes out the door before E. coli, salmonella, listeria and mold tests come back negative. But for our Rawbble food line, we also test for amino acid levels, protein digestibility, palatability and heavy metals. Each lot of finished product is also tested to ensure protein, fat, moisture, fiber, and vitamins and minerals meet strict guidelines.
We think safety and efficacy go hand in hand. Consumers rightly expect their food will not get their dog sick. But they also expect their pet to flourish, and Rawbble certainly delivers in that area. The Rawbble food line has the highest average protein digestibility in the industry, averaging 90-95 percent. We share this data with consumers and encourage them to compare to other brands.