As consumers change how they feel about their pets, it creates new challenges for pet food manufacturers that must respond to customer demands to feed pets like people.

Our society increasingly views pets as a part of the family and the data shows it, says Dana Brooks, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute (PFI). 

“There is 2016 research from Nielsen showing that 95% of pet owners considered their pets to be a part of the family, and this is a 7% increase from 2007. There’s no denying that we love our pets and want to take care of them. This goes alongside steady growth in U.S. pet food sales over the past decade as shoppers continue to look for more premium products.” 

As pet food manufacturers look to new and emerging trends, there are many factors they must consider when formulating their recipe. Those factors include the nutritional content of the ingredient, how the ingredient is going to perform during the extrusion process and, if not using extrusion, how the manufacturer will be able to appropriately control for pathogens, such as Salmonella, Brooks says. 

“Human food trends, such as clean label, have certainly entered the pet food market,” she says. “This may mean looking to natural preservatives or food colors during the manufacturing process. Another example might be what are typically called ‘limited ingredient’ diets.

“Regardless of what option the pet food maker is exploring, it is still going to be critical that the diet provides complete and balanced nutrition, meaning it contains all of the nutrients a pet requires and at the proper levels. No matter the niche the pet food maker is following, the nutritional adequacy of that recipe will be a top factor to consider.”

Steve King, CEO at American Pet Products Association (APPA), agrees. 

“Pet product trends, especially when it comes to food and nutrition, tend to mirror trends on the human side,” he says. “One example is the trend for humans to match diet to blood type. And now pet food manufacturers are offering customized nutrition based on a dog’s blood work. Certain diets may require a certain consistency of food, so there are now powdered options where owners can control the feeding consistency by adding water, making it more of a thick gravy or liquid consistency.” 

He goes on to say, “There are so many food choices available for pet owners these days, and what we’re seeing is a high interest in premium dog food. Premium dog food, or food with more nutrients, less preservatives and metabolized more efficiently than lower grade food, is purchased by 37% of all dog owners and is reported as a type of food used most often by 29% of dog owners.”

PFI’s Brooks adds, “Our dogs and cats need certain fatty acids and amino acids that typically come from animal-derived ingredients. Can you, as a manufacturer, make sure that this diet is still nutritionally appropriate for a pet, while meeting shopper needs and expectations?” 

According to movement in the industry, the answer is yes. Cargill’s Diamond V has expanded its Cedar Rapids, Iowa, manufacturing plant to complete all production and packaging of its natural immune support products in one facility; Purina opened its 21st factory in 2019 (this one located in Hartwell, Ga.), and Steve’s Real Food has expanded into international markets with the implementation of high pressure processing.

Transparency, Growth

Consumers demand transparency when it comes to the food they consume, and the same holds true for what they feed their pets. Cargill’s answer to its customers wanting to understand how animals are being raised, as well as the rising demand for animal protein that has been produced in natural and sustainable ways, was to expand its Cedar Rapids plant so that all production and packaging of its natural immune support products are made in one facility. 

According to Mike Goble, global managing director for Cargill’s Diamond V facility, “Diamond V has always been committed to offering products that support healthy animals, more efficient animal production, better preharvest food safety, stronger antibiotic stewardship and improved public health. The demand for natural animal health products is growing, and this expansion will allow us to support our customers.”

The $29.1 million, 100,000-sq.-ft. expansion began production at the beginning of February this year. The expansion added two production lines and is large enough to house up to eight lines as the business grows.

And Purina’s first new U.S. factory in two decades is its $320 million Hartwell factory. It reportedly represents Nestlé’s single largest investment in a pet care facility in the last decade in the U.S., Canada and Latin America. There are nearly 200 employees working at the Hartwell facility, and the number will grow to 240 as new lines and other expansions at the site are completed over the next few years.

Purina announced its investment in Hartwell in 2017 and began initial operations of a distribution center at the site in spring 2018. The company purchased a long-idled textile facility that it set out to completely remake and rebuild with the installation of modern equipment and technology for production of its brands.

Sustainable Practices

While ingredients and transparency are important trends that have translated to the pet food industry from the human food side, perhaps one of the biggest trends that has impacted food manufacturing is sustainability. According to Steve Ashkin, president of consulting firm The Ashkin Group and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, the past decade is when sustainability came of age. “There has been what I call a ‘sustainability shift.’ More companies now realize that sustainability, cost savings, risk aversion and business growth all go hand in hand.”

Ashkin reports that 10 years ago, only about 20% of the S&P 500 companies published sustainability reports; now that is closer to 90%. Only about 40% of U.S. adults believed protecting the environment was a top priority then; today that number is closer to 60%.

To Ashkin’s points, across the food processing industry in general, so many facilities have become better stewards of Mother Earth, and this includes those in the pet food segment. Take Steve’s Real Food in Cottonwood, Utah, for instance. Steve’s has been manufacturing raw frozen pet food for more than 20 years. 

According to owner Nicole Lindsley, all five of the company’s raw meat diets use grass-fed meats and antibiotic-free poultry. “We source all our produce locally to ensure quality and reduce our carbon footprint. Our products are sold in independent retailers nationwide, and we have expanded into international markets with implementation of HPP. Our target market is pet lovers that are not only nutritionally motivated but environmentally conscious.”

“Pet food is such an important partner in the sustainability story,” PFI’s Brooks says. “By using food that comes from human food production, such as the animal byproducts that we may not find palatable, pet food makers are able to include these nutrient-dense ingredients that our pets love in their recipes. Sustainability is a hot topic in the news and among shoppers right now, and pet food makers and processors can help share this positive story.”

APPA’s King says that some companies are using or “rescuing” unused ingredients and turning them into pet food and treats; for example, using the leftover spent grain from breweries. “The more they can look into upcycled supply chains, the more sustainable they can become,” he says.

And Purina made major investments in its Hartwell facility to ensure the company is producing healthy and high-quality products while protecting the environment. Purina reports that the Hartwell factory is using innovative water conservation and treatment methods, aims to be powered by 100% renewable electricity in the near future and, currently sends zero waste for disposal to traditional landfills, instead utilizing composting, recycling and energy recovery.

Additionally, in November 2019, Nestlé Purina PetCare announced a commitment to support environmental stewardship practices on 50,000 acres of farmland, driving sustainability in its grains supply chain to the scale of more than 9 million bushels annually over the next two years. The company reports it will work alongside Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, the sustainability solutions business of Land O’Lakes Inc., one of America’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives. Using the Truterra Insights Engine, an on-farm conservation management platform, the new initiative is designed to help farmers benchmark their current on-farm stewardship practices and identify areas of improvement. This aims to help them protect the air, land and water while keeping farm economics in focus.

Under the new program, Nestlé Purina says it is supporting conservation practices on Iowa farms initially, surrounding the company’s Davenport and Clinton, Iowa, production facilities. Working together with local agronomy retailer Innovative Ag Services (IAS), farmers will be able to use the platform to benchmark current practices and environmental impact on a field-by-field and acre-by-acre basis.

With this information in hand, farmers will be better able to model both the potential environmental and economic impacts of various conservation practices. By deploying a metric-based approach to measure stewardship outcomes, the initiative aims to support long-term conservation and productivity on farms and quantify the impact of conservation practices across many areas—nitrogen efficiency, erosion, soil quality, GHG emissions and carbon sequestration. This announcement closely follows Nestlé’s commitment to climate action and the company joining the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) coalition dedicated to scaling up regenerative agriculture practices to protect soil health.

In September of last year, Mars announced its ambition to accelerate action to tackle climate change, with the launch of its #PledgeForPlanet initiative. As part of the initiative, Mars is committing to further reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its direct operations in line with the most ambitious aim of the Paris accord—to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. 

The commitment is part of the ongoing Mars push—first announced more than a decade ago—to achieve 100% renewable energy in its operations by 2040. Today, Mars sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources—100% in locations including the U.S., UK, Mexico and, soon, Australia. 

Mars is calling on all its suppliers to participate through programming such as setting science-based targets, signing on to The Climate Group’s RE100, and embracing a future with renewable energy at the center of plans for direct operations. 

The new initiative follows Mars’ investment of $1 billion toward its Sustainable in a Generation Plan to accelerate progress against a range of global threats by looking beyond its own direct operations and into its extended supply chain. 

New Protein Sources

We can’t forget about alternative protein sources when we talk about the trends that have impacted the pet food industry. 

“Each year at Global Pet Expo, the pet industry’s largest annual trade show, we see more innovation and variety coming out of pet food manufacturers as owners look to meet their pets’ specific nutrition needs,” says APPA’s King. “For example, new products like dog food with kangaroo and insect protein were launched at Global Pet Expo, hoping to offer pet owners a high-protein, low-fat option for their animals. While we are seeing foods with novel or exotic proteins such as venison, rabbit, wild boar, alligator, pheasant, quail and ostrich in the market, only an estimated 10% of dog owners have purchased these types of dog food.”

Although we may not see these protein sources on the human food side, there is a definite crossover of plant-based protein from human foods to pet food. 

Even though only 3% of Americans identify as vegan and 5% as vegetarian (according to a 2018 Gallup poll), brands such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are strong in the market, and the desire for plant-based alternatives has extended to pets. According to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “Trends in companion animal nutrition often mirror trends in human nutrition, reflecting the desire for of pet owners to feed diets they consider healthy and beneficial for the well-being of their pets.” Several major pet food brands have answered consumer demand with offerings of plant-based pet food.

HPP and Pet Food

Just as high pressure processing has hit the food processing industry to ensure that food is safe for consumption, HPP has creeped into the pet food segment as well. When Steve’s Real Food was looking for a way to keep its food safe while maintaining the natural ingredients in raw pet food, it experimented with many kill steps to eliminate foodborne pathogens. 

“We tested acid sprays, biophages, test and hold, probiotic sprays, and environmental controls,” says Lindsley. “These were effective methods, but none of them could produce a 5-log reduction, which is what our goal was. After working with Hiperbaric, we were able to fine-tune our HPP process to achieve the 5-log reduction, complete a validation study and ensure the food was not nutritionally compromised.”

Steve’s began exploring HPP with Hiperbaric roughly two years ago when it became necessary to have validated kill steps to adhere to the FDA’s zero-tolerance policy for foodborne bacteria in raw pet food. The company conducted extensive research and tested the nutritional makeup of pre- and post-HPP food. A year later, the team determined there was not a significant degradation to the food and began using HPP on its poultry products to test the market’s response to the change. 

“After another year of research, we discovered that not only would HPP allow us to mitigate the harmful microbial environment, but it would also allow us to preserve the food without chemicals and with extended shelf life,” Lindsley says. “This is why we decided to use HPP.”

The nonthermal preservation technology eliminates harmful and spoilage microorganisms by holding the products under high hydrostatic pressure (4,000-6,000 bar/400-600 MPa/58,000-87,000 psi). Hence, it reduces or eliminates the need for chemical preservatives.

Steve’s Real Food uses Raw Advantage Processing, an HPP toller that uses the Hiperbaric 55 machine to process its raw pet food. Today, Lindsley is an HPP advocate, conducting consumer awareness efforts to educate pet owners about the benefits of HPP.

“HPP will ensure the growth of the raw pet food sector, as more consumers and retailers are educated about it,” Lindsley says. “As they become more knowledgeable, more pet owners will try raw pet food knowing that with HPP it is safe, nutritional and free of pathogens.” 

The End Game

Transparency, clean label, growth, sustainability practices and food safety are some of the challenges associated with the consumer trends that help shape the way pet food is made and delivered.  

Brooks says that there are still other opportunities to gain the trust of the human shopper and connect as mutual pet lovers. 

“PFI has begun to recently showcase the work manufacturers are doing to support pets outside of nutrition, such as working with animal rescues or donating food during times of crisis. We can all play a role in helping to demonstrate the love we have for pets,” she says.   

For more information:

The Pet Food Institute,
American Pet Products Association,
Cargill Diamond V,
Nestlé Purina Pet Care,
The Ashkin Group,
Steve’s Real Food,