It’s no longer enough for product packaging or signage to simply say "Made in the USA." That’s because today’s savvy cat owners are increasingly selective about what they feed their pets, and the interpretation of a made in the USA product can differ from one owner to the next.
"Some may simply be looking for a product that’s produced at American facilities, others may prioritize raw materials of U.S. origin, and others go to the length of requiring packaging that [is] also of U.S.-origin materials," said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas. "At the heart of their search is the perception that American-made products are safer, produced under stricter quality control, have a shorter farm-to-bowl life cycle, and support our country’s domestic economy and workforce."
Customers demand transparency in all aspects of the production process, said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.
"We’ve seen an evolution from overall wanting products made from better ingredients to wanting to know from where exactly ingredients are sourced," she said.
Customers at Leone Animal Supply Centers, a group of stores in the Pittsburgh area, primarily are concerned about quality ingredients and safe food production.
"Knowing a product is sourced and produced in the USA gives them reassurance of higher quality as they consider nutrition options," said George Leone, owner and CEO. "We do have a subset of our clients who require the details of where the plant is located and if the brand is independent or a subsidiary of a larger brand to help them in their discernment of quality."
Requests are on the rise for organic cat foods and treats that are minimally processed and GMO free as well, said Jackie Myers, owner of Pet Mania, which has stores in North Carolina.
"Customers are more concerned with food safety and additives in foods," she said. "For example, most customers prefer canned foods that use fenugreek or broth rather than carrageenan or gums."
Sustainability is also a prominent concern for cat owners.
"Many cat parents prefer products that are sustainably sourced and prepared in an environmentally responsible way," said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of R&D and procurement at PetGuard in Pittsburgh. "Consumers also value transparency, preferring to purchase products from companies that clearly communicate what they stand for, how their products are prepared and precisely where they are sourced."
On the Market
A Snapshot of Made in USA Options
Manufacturers are offering made in the USA food and treat options for the discerning cat and owner, and many include organic ingredients.
With a focus on the super-premium spectrum of U.S.-made products, Nulo introduced FreeStyle Bone Broths for cats and dogs in 2019. Available in three formulas—Grass-Fed Beef, Wild-Caught Salmon and Organic Chicken—the 100 percent natural, human-grade broths are sourced in the U.S. and slowly simmered in small batches for up to 48 hours in a facility that also produces bone broths for humans, officials for the Austin, Texas-based company stated.
Bravo Pet Foods recently repackaged its Healthy Bites and Healthy Medleys treats as part of its sustainable rebranding process.
"It is the final phase in our overall rebrand, which was launched several years back," said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn. "To be environmentally conscious, we’ve been phasing in the new packaging as our old supply ran out."
Both lines are made from 100 percent USA-sourced poultry and seafood, and the Healthy Medleys line contains added organs, according to the manufacturer.
The company offers a trio of USA-made fresh-frozen raw diets in limited-ingredient formulas, as well. Bravo Boneless chubs contain nothing but 100 percent raw venison or salmon. Bravo Basics are a medley of meat, ground bone and organs that feature raw chicken, duck, rabbit or turkey as the first ingredient. Bravo Blends combine meat, organs, ground bone and garden vegetables and start with beef, chicken, duck, lamb, pork or turkey as the first ingredient.
Also offering USA-made foods for cats, Pittsburgh-based PetGuard makes nine canned diets for cats, one of which is U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic. The company’s Organic Chicken & Vegetable Formula wet food is made with USDA certified organic chicken, which is the first ingredient, as well as vegetables and comes in two sizes.
PetGuard provides a highly digestible kibble called Lifespan Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe. It is prepared with USA-sourced chicken as the first ingredient, and the chickpeas, pea protein, dried carrots and dried spinach are grown in the U.S. as well, the manufacturer stated.
Consumer & Retail Staff Education
Many cat owners who enter a pet specialty store are looking for guidance, said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of R&D and procurement at PetGuard in Pittsburgh. And this is especially the case for those seeking food and treats that are sourced and made in the U.S.
These products have seen a lot of growth recently, said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.
"The category has really exploded, so pet parents are certainly finding their way into this space," Miller said.
Because misinformation abounds, insiders said educating staff and consumers is critical.
"Helping customers shift through all of that to find the best-fit products can be challenging," Miller said. So "educating retailers, who, in turn, educate the pet owner, is one of the important responsibilities we share with our retail partners and one of our most powerful tools."
George Leone, owner and CEO of Leone Animal Supply Centers, said he takes several approaches to educating his employees at all of the company’s stores, which are located in the Pittsburgh area. The first step is to gain support from vendor partners and use the food companies’ websites. He also creates cheat sheets for employees. Next is personal experience.
"We open food to see the consistency and encourage use of the new products by employees with samples and discounts," he said.
Finally, truly listening to the customer and asking questions to help understand the needs of both customer and pet is critical, Leone said.
"Once we understand the desire, we work to match up a brand," he explained. "If we do not have the answer due to a very specific question, our team will reach out to a vendor to help get the answer for the customer. This expands our knowledge base and is really appreciated by the customer."
There is a significant educational gap in understanding quality control standards, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas.
"While there is an inherent assumption that made in the USA products are better quality, have a shorter distribution life or are safer for their pet, that may not always be the case," she said. "[Consumers] should ask the right questions to verify that any assumptions about the claim are being met, [such as] asking companies what measures are in place to safeguard the quality of the product they are feeding to their pet."
However, retailers often vet the products on their shelves on behalf their customers and will only promote manufacturers that are forthcoming with requested information.
"I can keep my staff up-to-date with the latest product information because all food companies we work with are transparent with all their product information—and we like it that way," said Tim Gonzales, manager of Salty’s Pet Supply in Portland, Ore. "We are then able to pass along information and research to our customers to help them make the right choice for their cats."
Jackie Myers, owner of Pet Mania, which has stores in North Carolina, promotes label reading and asking questions.
"We make ourselves available to answer questions about our customers’ pet food needs and dietary concerns," she said. "We encourage our employees and customers to read the labels and ask questions about ingredients and their benefits."
The Cost Spectrum in Cat Food
Most customers want what is best for their cats, industry insiders agreed, and owners are open to suggestions when it comes to their pets’ nutrition because they realize the critical role nutrition plays in their health and longevity. Luckily for them, premium foods are available to suit owners with various budgets, from those who are highly price sensitive to those for whom cost is no concern.
"Generally speaking, the price point for a can or carton of wet cat food ranges from $1 to $5, and a bag of super-premium dry cat food can vary from $14.99 to $40 or more," said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of R&D and procurement at PetGuard in Pittsburgh.
His company’s strategy is to price its lines at the "‘sweet spot’ of market demand—low enough to upsell buyers of conventional brands, yet high enough to properly compensate our retailer partners."
For USA-sourced and -manufactured cat foods and treats, there can be a wide range of product prices, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas.
"Products that are sourced and manufactured exclusively in the U.S. may have an advantage for competitive pricing due to lower logistical costs," she said, "but they are limited by ingredient availability and fluctuations that can occur in pricing seasonally and year-over-year."
Several retailers agreed that cat food prices vary greatly in their stores.
"While we offer products to entice consumers that are comfortable with grocery store prices, we also offer options of air-dried meat diets and frozen-raw novelty proteins, which are more expensive," said Jackie Myers, owner of Pet Mania, which has stores in North Carolina.
That said, what’s best for the pet often wins out.
"As with most products, consumers are willing to pay a premium price for quality and convenience, but the product has to deliver on the promise," said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.
The approach that George Leone, owner and CEO of Leone Animal Supply Centers, a group of stores in the Pittsburgh area, takes is to "focus primarily on the needs our customer presents, such as taste and texture preferences, and dietary needs, and then share information on processing location to assist with product purchase decisions."
When it comes to treats, however, consumers tend to be more price conscious, retailers noted. Both Leone and Tim Gonzales, manager of Salty’s Pet Supply in Portland, Ore., attributed this to cats’ finicky natures.
"Treats are definitely more of a gamble for most cat owners; [they’re] high risk if their cat is especially picky," Gonzales said.
To help shoppers, Leone shares information about the most popular treat purchases, carries smaller packages and has opened bags of new treats to give samples to cat-owning customers to try with their pets before they buy.
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis
The fact that Whitebridge brand products are made in the USA and/or in proprietary, U.S.-based kitchens is prominently highlighted in the marketing and packaging for these products. What does this actually communicate to customers? What does it say about your manufacturing processes and the company’s mission and values when you promote this particular attribute?
Making raw food in small batches is very hands-on, and we’re committed to quality. There are lots of manufacturers in a category that has been challenged with quality problems, so it’s comforting to know that we control the process and that we have an experienced quality team on-site. We know exactly what goes into each Tiki Cat Raw recipe, and we know how it is processed. Consumers, especially those who feed raw, like clean ingredients and simple recipes—it’s how they would feed their cats in their own kitchens. We just make it safer and easier for them.
We source our ingredients locally when possible and strive to be good corporate citizens in the rural town where our team works and lives. We’re all proud to be part of a U.S.-based company, and we know our customers also try to buy local when they can.
Having our own manufacturing plant gives us more freedom to be creative. We firmly believe innovation is the growth engine of specialty—it’s what keeps us growing and what our partners expect from us to be successful. We control our destiny, and the success of Tiki is dependent on our ability to be creative and nimble. Pet parents want the best, and we aim to provide the best products in new and interesting formats.