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Pet Food Quality, Safety Rising to Human Food Levels

Sept. 6, 2023
As consumers make their pets more important members of their families, they’re searching for pet food and treat options that keep the health and safety of the cat or dog a high priority.

The humanization of our pets continues, and with that follows the premiumization of pet food and the processes that produce it. And the news is good for companies that produce pet food and treats, according to data from the American Pet Products Assn. (APPA).

Consumers spent 10.8% more on pet products in 2022 versus the year prior, feeding $136.8 billion in sales into the industry. Of that, $58.1 billion was spent on pet foods and treats, a figure that rose 16.2% from 2021. The APPA believes that inflation played a role in the increases, but also expected 2023 numbers to follow a similar trajectory and remain steady.

Through the better part of the last decade, the popularity of having pets has not waned — a good thing, for sure, for the many dogs and cats that need loving homes. But pet ownership has also taken on a life of its own — and been accepted by society overall, says Tony Moses, fellow in product innovation at CRB (www.crbgroup.com).

“‘Fur baby’ used to be a term that was kind of novel, and now that novelty has just dropped off and it’s become an ingrained concept, out in the open,” he says. “Consumers are shopping for their pets like they’re shopping for their children.”

Indeed, marketing firm Vericast surveyed more than 700 pet owners and found more than three-quarters viewed their pet as their child, and roughly 78% of respondents were willing to spend more on pet food and treats in 2023 than in 2022. Those pet owners also indicated an interest in higher-quality products.

Mary-Grace Danao, research associate professor for the Dept. of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (foodscience.unl.edu/), says pet owners are looking for high-quality ingredients and good nutrition today. “In addition to wanting premium products, people want convenience products that also are kind of homemade,” she adds.

Dennis Collins, architectural practice manager for CRB Consulting Engineers, has also seen the popularity of minimally processed products growing in demand. “You see pet food manufacturers focusing on making it look natural, with fresh vegetables that don’t just look like fresh vegetables — they are actually peas and carrots,” Collins says. “It’s not just kibble or wet food in a can; it has the appearance of fresh and natural with those ingredients.”

Another trend pushing on the industry is the recent rise in direct-to-consumer and e-commerce business, says Tom Woodward, chief commercial officer for Universal Pure (www.universalpure.com), a provider of high-pressure processing and cold chain solutions.

“Home deliveries certainly created a real convenience for consumers, and people adopted more pets who were treated like family members,” he says. “Those people still have pets and they’ve developed new shopping habits over the past few years.”

In addition, the development of raw or minimally processed pet foods have piqued the interest of many consumers, who are migrating to the subcategory in search of fresher meals with fewer ingredients and preservatives.

“You read more about how raw or lightly cooked diets, without fillers and without grains, are potentially more compatible with the digestive systems of pets, and how that helps with prevention of allergies that we’ve introduced to dogs and cats through their foods,” Woodward adds. “As more brands enter that subcategory, they’re really looking at the safety of those foods as well.”

Moses adds that the raw pet food movement is particularly interesting from a processing standpoint because of the need to create a new type of lethality step that doesn’t alter the product.

“You have to reduce the microbial load of the product without a thermal process,” he says.

Safe enough for the (human) baby

Danao has seen the shift toward minimally processed pet foods and treats as well; she cautions that extra effort must be made to ensure those items are as safe as the traditional kibble and canned foods.

“If there is a way to get animal organ meats from traditional meat processors and then use them in the pet’s diet, you then have to figure out a way to have that kill step or add microbials to start using a multi-hurdle approach to food safety,” she says.

Even if the pathogens present in the product won’t make a dog or cat sick, processors understand that humans will be handling the food or a curious child or baby might get into it — so it needs to be pathogen-free. This goes back in the supply chain to the functional ingredients often added to food and treats to help create a complete, balanced diet for the pet.

“The food typically can’t be pure meat by itself for a balanced diet,” Danao says. “You might add vitamins, minerals, amino acids — all definitely integral to that pet’s nutrition — and the safety of those ingredients has to be taken into account as well.”

Moses says newer technology like high-pressure processing (HPP) can help ensure lethality is achieved in raw or minimally processed pet foods and treats, but there are other considerations that need to be addressed if a processor takes this path.

“HPP changes your downstream processing because it’s not as extensive a kill step as thermal treatment, so you’re seeing freeze-drying coming into play now and the need to maintain the product in a chilled or frozen state across the supply chain,” he says. “Compared to dry kibble that’s thermally treated, [raw or minimally processed] affects the throughput too, because it becomes a batch process, whereas an oven uses a continuous process — so it’s also more expensive to manufacture.”

Woodward agrees that HPP has become more relevant as a processing step in pet foods, both with raw or minimally processed foods as well as on the ingredients themselves that go into pet foods. In addition, consumers don’t seem as concerned about how the product they’re buying achieved its level of safety as long as it reached that point.

“Consumer expectations are safety of the product and maintaining its quality,” he adds. “They recognize that raw and lightly cooked products are safe and high quality from the brands they trust, they’re willing to pay for it, and they’re typically not considering the technology step that gets the product there.”

Collins says pet food companies are adopting these new technologies and designing for them, treating their pet food production with the same level of importance as any human food processor might.

“We see pet food companies really stepping up their efforts in terms of hygienic zoning and food safety design in general,” he says.

New regulations, nutrition drive change

In July, the Assn. of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) approved new suggested labeling guidelines that will bring updated packaging and label information to pet food, treats and supplements. This move, years in the making, is expected to help standardize nutrition information as well as provide clear ingredient statements, storage and handling instructions. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the industry, Moses says.

“These new labels will help empower consumers to shop for their pets like they do for themselves and their human babies,” he adds. “They highlight the broader trend of the humanization of pet food in that they’re going to look a lot like human food labels and communicate a lot of similar things that we see on human food nutrition labels.”

Danao believes the new guidelines will rid pet food and treat shelves of the confusion caused by different presentations of nutritional facts and ingredients on different products.

“Standardizing this should help the consumer along the way,” she says. “I think industry will see value in it right away, but it might be a little harder for some of the smaller entrepreneurial companies trying to get their labels up to the standards.”

Woodward points to single-serve and limited-time-only pet meals as initiatives to watch moving forward, while Danao is keeping her eye on e-commerce and newer formats for areas in which pet food and treats companies can innovate.

“Companies are trying to figure out how to make their product just a little bit different, thinking about ingredient sourcing or fresh formats,” she says. “If you’re making a chicken and rice dinner for pets, you have a choice of using human-grade ingredients or not, or a different protein; there’s rabbit, bison and others, and what was exotic 10 years ago is not any longer.”

Moses agrees that e-commerce is an untapped opportunity that he’s curious to watch grow, because even though consumers treat their pets like children, there’s one caveat that benefits meal delivery.

“Traditionally, it’s pretty expensive to go direct-to-consumer, but if a pet potentially eats the same product day-in and day-out, that sets up nicely for a regular delivery that can be put on autopilot,” he says. “The pet food industry could be leaders in that area compared to human food companies.”

In turn, consumers are looking for help with feeding their pets the proper amounts, and Woodward thinks processors can give a big assist here beyond the feeding instructions.

“Portion control, single-serve and smaller packaging definitely allows the consumer to have flexibility and comfort knowing they’re feeding an appropriate portion to their cat or dog,” he says.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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