Pet specialty retailers and industry manufacturers have found that pet owners’ knowledge and understanding of what they’re feeding their dogs continues to grow substantially. For a lot of pet owners, it’s no longer enough to just see "made in the USA" on packaging—they are seeking specifics. Following recalls and past health concerns, safety is the primary concern, industry insiders report.
There’s no doubt that news reports of product recalls have driven a major shift in the industry. Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World, a pet store in Natick, Mass., said he remembers the sheer panic that some of his customers experienced more than a decade ago when pet food and treats that were made in China were recalled. Since then, everything has changed.
"Today, almost everything we carry is made in the USA, and most of our customers are very savvy in terms of checking on that," he said. "There is often a lot of research done before they even make a purchase."
Lynette Cano, founder and president of Sancho & Lola’s Closet and a member of the board of directors at Bestnpet, a Fremont, Neb.-based pet product manufacturer, said that she has noticed more questions from consumers about where products are farmed.
"[Consumers] are privy to the fact that ‘made in USA’ can mean the ingredients/raw materials can be grown or farmed elsewhere," she said. "Transparency in sourcing is and will continue to be a growing trend for all consumable pet products."
In response to the demand for transparency, last year, Sancho & Lola’s Closet updated descriptions to include which of its products were farmed in the USA and which were just processed, inspected and packed in the states. The company’s raw materials from the USA include pork, beef, poultry, elk, duck and turkey.
Cano said that she has seen the category evolve dramatically.
"Before 2007, few consumers ever read the back of labels of dog food and treats, and few paid attention to the country of origin," she said.
"By 2008, consumers started reading labels and asking questions. They became hypersensitive to dog products made in China. USA manufacturers have done an impeccable job positioning made in USA as the ‘gold standard’ for quality and safety. In my opinion, what solidified made in the USA as the gold standard in the minds of veterinarians, retailers and consumers was overseas recalls, social media and political unrest."
There’s no doubt that educated consumers are responsible for expanding this category, said Janie Smyser, owner of K9 Granola Factory, a York, Pa.-based manufacturer of dog treats. As they ask more questions and demand more of the food and treats they are buying, Smyser said manufacturers are stepping up their game, and she only sees this continuing to grow.
"This trend certainly does not appear to be a fad," she said. "More buyers are reading ingredient labels and asking informed questions regarding dietary needs. That includes consumers asking questions about where and how product ingredients are sourced."
Smyser said the inquiries begin from the time consumers pick up a bag and start examining it. In response, K9 Granola Factory has spent recent months researching consumer packaging trends. The company’s new packaging will reflect what consumers want—clean, simple and easy-to-read packaging. K9 Granola Factory will keep the USA flag symbol and the recyclable brown paper bag that it already uses for its treats, Smyser added.
Kate McCarron, founder of Portland Pet Food Co., based in Portland, Ore., said that manufacturers continue to make progress in setting better standards for ingredient sources—but it’s not easy. Manufacturers face their own roadblocks.
"In general, I believe manufacturers are trying to source with better transparency," she said, adding that all of Portland Pet Food’s ingredients are sourced in the USA. "But the Federal Trade Commission does not do a great job in monitoring these claims. A key component of our business is to be transparent and document the ingredients and sourcing of our ingredients. You must be very diligent, as sometimes the suppliers are not aware that something may be grown in the USA but processed in another country. This situation would require the product to be labeled as made in the country in which it was made."
Overcoming Common Misconceptions
When it comes to pet food and treats, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the made in the USA category, industry insiders reported.
Some of the biggest misunderstandings seem to be raised around verbiage.
The word "natural" is often used in conjunction with "made in the USA," Smyser said, and this can get confusing.
"For the past several years, ‘natural’ has been desired verbiage on packaging, yet it can be easily misleading," she said. "With an educated consumer base, they are asking more probing questions regarding sourcing, producing, synthetic free and more. While ‘natural’ is important, pet treats have really evolved beyond this single word."
Cano added that even surrounding recalls, there are misconceptions.
"Consumers are hypersensitive to China, but interestingly, few consumers are aware that the biggest volume from recalled pet products came from Canada," she said. "Even lesser known is the fact that major recalls from both China and Canada were primarily related to contaminated vegetable proteins—wheat and corn gluten—used as pet food ingredients."
Know Your Stuff
Independent pet retailers can play an invaluable role in helping to educate their customers about dog food and treats that are made in the USA.
After all, most dog owners go to local shops—as opposed to buying online or at big-box stores—specifically for their trusted advice.
"Retailers have to know their stuff," said Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World, a pet store in Natick, Mass. "Shoppers are counting on you.
We’re selective in what we sell so that customers already know we’ve done our research in terms of what we choose to carry. But we also have to be prepared to answer their questions."
Lynette Cano, founder/president of Sancho & Lola’s Closet and a member of the board of directors of Bestnpet, a Fremont, Neb.-based pet product manufacturer, agreed.
"Retailers can suggest that customers ask questions and pay attention to how their questions are answered," she said.
In general, Jason Ast, owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, N.C., said that he believes it is a retailer’s responsibility to keep up with the latest nutrition information across the board.
"I feel at the specialty store level, ‘made in the USA’ has come to be expected—and, honestly, it’s the bare minimum at this point," he added.
"We’ve seen a wider breadth of customers eager to pick our brains about higher-level nutrition concerns, especially since the latest dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) announcement [from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration regarding the possible link between certain diets and DCM]. These customers have been doing their research, and they come to us to bounce ideas and theories around. So, we need to be educated."
Ast noted that it behooves the independent retailer to remain vigilant and up-to-date. This is often why customers come to independent retailers in the first place.
"There was some major panic in the dog food world in 2019, along with a great deal of misinformation, half-truths, scare tactics and confusion," he said. "First and foremost, our focus was on staying calm. If people in the community turn to you for advice, you owe it to your community to be an informed, logical voice—prepared to talk about the subject from all viewpoints."