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The popularity of USA-made pet foods has continued to rise, industry insiders said, with several pandemic-related consequences contributing to more robust sales.

An uptick in pet acquisitions contributed to sales of USA-made dog and cat foods being up 30 percent, according to Regina Crane, founder of All American Pets, which has two stores in Baltimore.

At Bend Pet Express, which has two stores in Bend, Ore., purchaser Stephanie Wright reported a sales increase of U.S.-made pet foods partially due to losing a local competitor.

“A local retailer who [sold] similar [brands as us] closed down due to COVID, and we have seen an uptick on those companies,” Wright said, adding that continued concern over the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement about the possible link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free foods has boosted sales in this category as well.

“We have seen approximately a 40 percent increase [in sales of NutriSource Chicken & Rice], and we believe it’s tied to the DCM announcement made by the FDA.”

When seeking out USA-made foods for their pets, owners prioritize several attributes, according to insiders. Quality and value top the list for dog and cat owners.

“Consumers of both dog and cat foods continue to prioritize nutrition, taste and high-quality ingredients,” said Brandi Kramer, marketing coordinator for Midwestern Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Evansville, Ind.

Foods with real meat as the No. 1 ingredient are, in part, meeting demands for quality, said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food, a manufacturer in Cos Cob, Conn. In addition, pet owners want foods with no byproduct meals or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, she said.

Sustainability is increasingly important among pet owners, manufacturers said, and product packaging in this category is now reflecting this trend.

Midwestern Pet Foods added packaging solutions such as its exclusive Earthborn Holistic PlantBag, which is made from up to 40 percent plant-based plastic, Kramer said.

More consumers are looking for the sustainability in the entire process, Wright said, so those companies employing these practices are seeing increased brand loyalty.

“We are starting to see more U.S. companies focus on the sustainability factors of sourcing and producing their foods in the U.S. for distribution in the U.S.,” Wright said. “Consumers can expect to see more regenerative farming, renewable energy production, and other sustainability factors being utilized and called out by brands.”

Quality, value and sustainability aside, demand and purchasing habits often differ between dog and cat customers, insiders said. For example, cat owners really look for palatability, variety and function (i.e., phosphorus for renal issues), while dog owners want high real meat content and clean ingredients, said Holly Sher, president and owner of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. and Against the Grain Pet Foods in Markham, Ill.

“We see much less desire for variety among dog owners than cat owners. Dog owners tend to buy the same product each time they go into a store, and a cat owner tends to pick a few cans of this and a few cans of that,” Sher explained. “Dog people will seek out a certain food or brand much more so than cat people. Dog owners will use our canned food to make snacks more exciting, like make treats from the canned food. Cat people use their cat food as cat food.”

New Products

Meeting Needs with Variety

Pet food manufacturers have continued to release made in the USA diets formulated to meet dog and cat needs and owner expectations.

Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. created its Evanger’s EvX Restricted Diet cat food line to “fit an affordable price point for a food solution that really helps with cats’ most common health challenges,” said Holly Sher, president and owner of the Markham, Ill.-based company. The complete, balanced dinners come in a variety of textures, from chunks in gravy to pâté in broth, and flavors to prevent food burnout. The line’s five formulas include: Weight Management, Low Phosphorus, Bland Diet, Urinary Tract and Senior & Joint Health.

Midwestern Pet Foods launched Ultimates Advanced Pet Nutrition for dogs and puppies in August. The line features eight ancient-grain recipes with premium meat proteins as the first ingredient, accompanied by hearty whole grains and essential vitamins and minerals, said Brandi Kramer, marketing coordinator for the Evansville, Ind.-based company. The products are available in the following formulas: Chicken Meal & Rice, Whitefish Meal & Rice, Lamb Meal & Rice, Sensitive with Lamb Protein, Sensitive with Salmon Protein, Large Breed Adult, Large Breed Puppy and Puppy formulas.

Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food unveiled several dry pet foods at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in August 2021. Classic Small Bites Mature Chicken & Brown Rice comes in two sizes and is geared toward smaller-breed senior dogs or dogs with dental issues, said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing for the Cos Cob, Conn.-based company. Classic Adult Beef & Brown Rice is offered in three sizes, while Classic Adult Large Breed Beef & Brown Rice is available in one size; both are pea- and legume-free recipes for dogs.

For cats, the company offers Classic Indoor Cat Tuna & Brown Rice recipe in two sizes with tuna as the first ingredient.

Merchandising

Made in the USA Pet Foods

Food is a focus for most pet specialty retailers, as it brings repeat customers and sales, industry insiders said. Highlighting the U.S.-made aspect of foods depends on each store’s offering focus, manufacturers reported.

Some stores only carry made in the USA products, said Holly Sher, president and owner of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. and Against the Grain Pet Foods in Markham, Ill. Others give the made in the USA pet food niche its own section or put out signs or shelf talkers to highlight the foods, she said.

Midwestern Pet Foods offers their retail partners a variety of promotional materials for in-store displays, said Brandi Kramer, marketing coordinator for Midwestern Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Evansville, Ind.

“Consumers are drawn to great products as well as effective marketing,” she said. “We offer attractive POS displays, which highlight the ‘Made in USA Kitchens’ aspect of our products. We also include ‘Made in USA Kitchens’ messaging on our packaging for additional visibility.”

The most effective merchandising is conversations with staff, insiders agreed.

“Promoting means educating,” said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food, a manufacturer in Cos Cob, Conn. “Retailers need to educate consumers on USA practices and regulatory demands, which will help to ensure safe, appropriate products for their pets.”

Education

Know Your Ingredients

An educated staff is paramount for success in selling made in the USA pet food, industry insiders agreed.

“In order for retail consumers to purchase the proper product for their pets, they need to be well educated, and that education is often achieved in-store,” said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food, a manufacturer in Cos Cob, Conn. “That being said, retailers need to have dependable facts and messaging.”

Manufacturers play a key role in staff education for many stores. Stephanie Wright, purchaser for Bend Pet Express, which has two locations in Bend, Ore., said she prefers that manufacturers directly educate their staff whenever possible.

“This way any questions are answered quickly, and it builds trust between the company and the staff,” she said.

Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. and Against the Grain Pet Foods invest a lot in retailer and staff education, said Holly Sher, president and owner of the Markham, Ill.-based companies. Sher and the companies’ reps are on the road 12 months a year, and they have a certified animal nutritionist on staff to support their retailer partners.

“I’m amazed how people are swayed to buy pet food because of the marketing,” she said. “Knowing what is inside a can is just as important as what is depicted on the photos in the front of the label. Some store owners are unaware of the benefits and safety aspects of canned food. We encourage questions always.”

Blandford agreed, adding that retailers need to understand what goes into the recipes to make them safe and delicious.

“Since we carry many life-stage products, it is important [to] understand each ingredient’s role [to know which] product will perform best for each stage of a pet’s life,” she said.

Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food also uses product packaging to educate staff as well as consumers.

“Our ingredient decks and GAs [guaranteed analysis] are prominently featured on the back of each bag,” Blandford said. “A highlighted benefits band clearly announces the unique benefits to each recipe by identifying the ingredient that helps perform that healthy attribute, guiding the pet parent towards a healthy decision for their dog or cat.”

Reading and understanding labels is part of staff education at All American Pets, which has two stores in Baltimore, said founder Regina Crane. Staff members pass that information on to consumers, she added.

It’s also important to understand the difference between products that are sourced in the USA and those that are only manufactured in the USA, retailers said.

“You can source from all over the world,” Crane said. “As long as the packaging and assembly is done here in the USA, you can claim made in the USA.”

Wright agreed, adding that international ingredients do not necessarily equate to poor quality.

“Wanting to know where ingredients are sourced comes into play a bit with companies that claim they are ‘USA made,’” she explained. “There are so many loopholes that companies [use] to still claim ‘USA made,’ but it’s not 100 percent USA made.

“Ingredients coming from New Zealand may make for a higher-quality ingredient, [but] it’s not technically ‘USA made’ anymore,” she continued. “I think this ‘USA-made’ push came after the issues created by chicken coming from China. I’ve seen companies that make their food in the states, but ingredients have come from all over the world.”

While U.S. manufacturers continue to experience the effects of the pandemic shutdowns—from ingredient and labor shortages to transportation challenges getting product to retailers—educated retail staffs can better manage product shortages and options, Blandford said.

“Product can be shorted to the retailer, and the end-customer may not be able to purchase the food they always feed,” she explained. “Because of this, sales associates should really understand what products provide what nutritional needs in order for them to offer viable alternatives to their customers. They also need to educate their customers on how to safely transition their pet to another food so as not to cause digestive issues.”