The pet food recalls in 2007 forever changed the way pet owners evaluate the food they feed their beloved animals, including where ingredients are sourced from and the safety precautions manufacturers take. Since then, manufacturer transparency has become crucial.
"Transparency in sourcing and manufacturing are of increasing importance to consumers and to retailers who want to offer the best products available on the market," said Jenn Holloway, category manager of frozen and alternative diets for Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California. "People want to know what exactly is in the food, where the food is coming from, how the ingredients are handled and how they are being manufactured."
Since the industrywide pet food recalls, shoppers have become more inquisitive about ingredient sourcing and product safety, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla.
"They’re searching for solid evidence that a pet food provider they’re considering truly cares about the health of their pet," he said.
Increasingly, pet owners are turning to pet foods that are made in the USA as the answer to their call for safe, quality foods—and they’re being more proactive about getting more information from the companies they choose.
Rick Rockhill, COO of Westlake Village, Calif.-based Lucy Pet Products, maker of the Lucy Pet Formulas for Life pet food line, said the company is routinely asked about the origin of ingredients as well as testing for safety, adding "companies willing to be fully transparent are winning."
While the assumption is that products made and sourced in the USA are better quality and have a high safety standard, savvy shoppers also recognize that global sourcing is a fact of life. And some countries have an impeccable reputation for quality, industry insiders reported.
"People generally feel more comfortable with the transparency of U.S. companies," said Bonnie Bitondo, owner of Maxwell and Molly’s Closet, which has two locations in northwestern New Jersey. "However, I have seen European and Canadian companies to be equally transparent and highly focused on quality sourcing and processing. Rabbit, lamb and venison are largely derived from overseas, so exclusive USA sourcing is not realistic."
When deciding on ingredients to include in their formulas, manufacturers said it’s a delicate balancing act. They must weigh several factors to determine where to source each ingredient.
"We always look to source from the U.S. first," said Steve Carstensen, senior vice president of operations at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food in Cos Cob, Conn. "There are, however, a limited number of ingredients that may be best sourced outside of the U.S., like lamb and salmon. And there are a limited number of ingredients that are not available in the U.S., like vitamin packs. We always look to use the best possible ingredients available."
Foods made and sourced in the USA is just the beginning for a growing number of consumers, insiders noted. Another concern is mass-produced foods, Pettyan added.
"They’re searching for statements that the product has been responsibly sourced and processed, such as ‘made in small batches,’ ‘crafted with wild salmon,’ ‘prepared with non-GMO ingredients,’ ‘from a family-owned company,’ ‘no artificial preservatives’ and the like," he said.
When choosing which products to carry in their stores, pet specialty retailers said USA sourcing and manufacturing play a big role, along with trust for the company itself.
"At a minimum, our consumables are made in the USA, from human-grade ingredients, with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives," said Sheila Spitza, co-owner of Wet Nose, which has two stores in Illinois. "Our clients trust us, so we only carry brands that we trust."
Keeping Clients Informed
While many pet owners are very aware and informed about ingredients as well as the benefits of diets made and sourced in the U.S., a lot of misinformation remains. Also, most are unaware of the complexities involved, according to industry insiders.
"Due to the complexity of manufacturing, it’s not practical that consumers can be fully educated on the process," said Rick Rockhill, COO of Lucy Pet Products in Westlake Village, Calif. "They can’t be expected to understand every component, just that basic quality standards and government standards are being followed and met."
Some pet owners are taking the initiative to contact a manufacturer directly. Rockhill has some advice for those consumers: They should ask, "What procedures are you following to make sure the food is safe?" Then the manufacturer has the opportunity "to educate the consumer by listing the certifications for safety that your plants follow," he explained. "Be honest, direct and transparent with the consumer."
Evasive responses or a refusal to answer questions will result in lost trust and customers, from retail partners to end users, insiders said.
"If a food producer is being elusive with their manufacturing practices or isn’t answering the questions asked of them, consumers will move to someone else with transparency who will answer these questions," said Jenn Holloway, category manager of frozen and alternative diets for Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California.
Several manufacturers reported using their packaging and websites to help communicate with and educate consumers. However, the importance of educating their retailer partners is also crucial. For example, Caru Pet Food Co. provides "extensive training materials including an online tutorial to make sure they’re knowledgeable about all the pluses of our natural products," said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of the Vero Beach, Fla., company.
Don’t underestimate the power of verbal conversations, Rockhill noted.
"Talking to a live person always is the best approach," he said. "In today’s day [and] age, consumers are pleasantly surprised when a human calls them back."
In fact, educated human interaction is something that sets many pet specialty retailers apart from the competition, insiders added.
"Having a well-educated and informed staff at retail is the best way we educate pet owners," Holloway said.
Bonnie Bitondo, owner of Maxwell and Molly’s Closet, which has two locations in northwestern New Jersey, agreed and takes educating customers seriously.
"When pet owners leave Maxwell and Molly’s, they are able to critique an ingredient panel and connect directly with the company for further information," she said. "That availability and accessibility exceed any information that can be obtained from big-box stores."
On the Market
Hot Sellers and New Offerings
For many manufacturers, providing quality pet foods that are sourced and made in the USA is standard now.
"Consumers like to know they are buying American and supporting the American worker," said Rick Rockhill, COO of Westlake Village, Calif.-based Lucy Pet Products, maker of the Lucy Pet Formulas for Life pet food line. "There’s an inherent belief that made in the USA is safer, so following real and perceived safety practices are beneficial to consumers."
It doesn’t stop there for pet food shoppers.
"Consumers are savvy," said Sheila Spitza, co-owner of Wet Nose, which has two stores in Illinois. "There continues to be a demand for single-protein-source foods, organic ingredients and hormone-free/antibiotic-free meats."
Manufacturers of made in the USA pet foods strive to meet those consumer demands. For example, Caru Pet Food’s Daily Dish Dog Stews are U.S. made in a human-grade facility using human-grade ingredients sourced in the USA, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of the Vero Beach, Fla.-based company.
These limited-ingredient, everyday-priced stews are packed with added vitamins, minerals and taurine, and do not contain any wheat, gluten or soy ingredients or animal byproducts, he said, adding that they also come in Tetra Pak cartons.
"This BPA-free sustainable packaging keeps stews fresh without preservatives," Pettyan explained. "The Tetra Pak is made from up to 70 percent renewable materials that are post-consumer recyclable, making them environmentally friendly."
In April 2019, Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food reformulated its grain-free dry line for dogs to include additional taurine to help support canine heart health. For consumers concerned about dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a type of canine heart disease that affects a dog’s heart muscle, and its potential link to grain-free diets, the company launched four 13.2-ounce wet products in December that contain no peas, legumes or potatoes.
"As always, our canned products do not contain animal byproducts, corn, wheat or soy, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives," said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing, adding "real meat is [the] first ingredient."
The Impact of FSMA
The 2007 pet food recalls served as a wakeup call for many pet owners, who became more concerned with product safety, ingredient sourcing and manufacturer transparency as a result.
Years later, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) passed a law with the intent of "transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it," according to the FDA.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011, and includes good manufacturing practices (GMP) for preventive control for both human and pet food.
Since FSMA passed, the FDA has been working on implementing GMPs for animal food manufacturers of varying sizes.
Jenn Holloway, category manager of frozen and alternative diets for Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, described it as a proactive move.
"The FSMA is an effort to shift the FDA’s focus from reacting to foodborne illness over to preventing it," she said. "One of the rules that this act confirmed was the Preventive Controls for Animal Food rule, which requires animal food facilities to have HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] and other food safety plans in place to minimize hazards related to foodborne illness. As pet food is held to higher standards than human food in some circumstances, having hazard analysis and prevention plans in place is critical."
In September 2019, the FDA reported that it "finalized seven major rules to implement FSMA," and those "FSMA rules are designed to make clear specific actions that must be taken at each [point in the global supply chain] to prevent contamination."
GMPs are not new, said Rick Rockhill, COO of Lucy Pet Products in Westlake Village, Calif. Most pet food manufacturers were using GMP, he said, but now it’s a requirement.
Steve Carstensen, senior vice president of operations at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food in Cos Cob, Conn., agreed.
"From a standpoint of quality manufacturing, it hasn’t really impacted the medium-to-large-size manufacturers too much as most all of them already had in place very stringent quality programs that incorporated the requirements set forth by FSMA," he said.
The improvements emerge with the consistency of the entire supply chain, especially with what’s not U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-regulated.
"FSMA has established high standards to ensure safe and high-quality ingredients, especially on ingredients that fall outside of the USDA domain," Carstensen explained. "FSMA gave the FDA more power in the oversight of ingredients in the supply chain and has ensured the entire supply chain is continuously working hard at all food safety aspects."
A benefit to manufacturers is in obtaining more consistent quality ingredients, Carstensen added.
FSMA also affected the pet food industry in some increased costs, insiders noted.
Higher requirements may result in higher costs, Rockhill said. It might cost a little more to bring a noncompliant facility up to the new standard, he said, and that can increase costs along the supply chain.
"The big deal is because the FDA can now go in, so there’s wide-ranging impact," Rockhill added. "There are impacts on how and where things are stored, pest control, safety, etc.
"This is consistent with the overall trends we’re seeing with the consumer having more power," he continued. "Whether it’s transparency, safety, etc., it’s resulted from consumers demanding more transparency. They held the government accountable to step in and do something because it wasn’t acceptable for their pets to get sick from food or have food recalled, so the FDA decided to step in and make sure."
Among the FDA’s latest initiatives was the introduction of the FDA Food Safety Dashboard. Launched in September 2019, the Food Safety Dashboard—which is part of the FDA’s agency-wide performance management system, FDA-TRACK—is a tool that tracks key metrics of FSMA regulations.
"We believe this is working but will take time to fully develop," Carstensen said. "This is somewhat evident just from the decline in the number of recalls that have occurred since implementing FSMA."