Feeding Natural

The trend toward natural foods is here to stay, and retailers should educate themselves in order to properly serve their customers.




As the humanization of pets continues, we see pet owners increasingly feeding their furry friends diets similar to their own. This is especially true in the sense of all-natural foods that are both preservative- and filler-free, as well as beneficial to the pet’s overall health and well being.


“As consumers pay even more attention to their own eating habits, they’re naturally looking more closely at what they’re feeding their pets,” says Brad Johnson, chief marketing officer at Nature’s Variety. “They’re taking what they’ve learned and seen in the natural aisles of their grocery store and they’re looking for those same healthy qualities in pet food.”


The St. Louis-based company produces a variety of food products for both cats and dogs under the Instinct brand, including limited-ingredient diet and ultimate protein kibbles coated in freeze-dried raw, and kibble mixed with freeze-dried raw, as well as two frozen raw lines for each dogs and cats.


“Every product line in our assortment is based on our belief in raw and includes some element of raw, so that all pets can benefit—whether they eat a fully raw diet or need a combination of dry food and raw,” says Johnson.


Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food based in Portland, Ore. agrees regarding the benefits of feeding raw diets, especially to felines.


“There are remarkable changes in cats’ health when feeding raw—even if raw food is a small part of their overall diet,” says Hatch-Rizzi.


Radagast produces a raw cat food diet made from human-grade and organic ingredients that are antibiotic- and hormone-free. The company uses whole meats and doesn’t add vegetables or grains as fillers, staying as close to a cat’s evolutionary diet as possible. The diet comes in six varieties, to please picky felines.


Raw Alternatives

While raw food is the purest form to feed to your pets, some companies worry about potential contamination, which is why the dehydrated, air-dried and freeze-dried categories have gained momentum.


“Safety is really one of the most important things people are looking for,” says Dr. Bob Goldstein, co-founder of Earth Animal. “So the categories of dehydrated and freeze-dried, which are one step below raw foods, still retain the good nutrients that the animals’ bodies require, but there’s a safety involvement in them—there’s what’s called a ‘kill step.’”


The Westport, Conn.-based company is launching Wisdom dog food in September. Wisdom will be a dehydrated complete and balanced food with real ingredients and no by-products, created in a plant owned by Earth Animal to ensure specifications and safety meet company standards.


“We trace everything right from the farm, all the way through the manufacturing plant which we own, all the way through the consumer,” says Goldstein. “So, we know that the consumer is getting exactly what we say they are getting.”


Other brands, like Ziwi, are using an air-drying method to preserve the nutritional integrity of dog and cat food while eliminating the potential for bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and listeria. However, Ziwi still totes a 98 percent meat recipe with no need for artificial preservatives, sugars or glycerines.


“Being that pets are family members, we want them to have long and healthy lives, and feeding them ideal nutrition is one way to make a difference and reduce the risk of diseases and premature death,” says Sharon Durham, marketing communications manager at Overland Park, Kan.-based Ziwi. “Brands like Ziwi are leading the way, by championing the movement towards high meat diets with no fillers or added carbohydrates.”


All of the meat used in the recipes are sourced from free-range New Zealand farms, while the seafood is sustainably sourced from the waters surrounding the country. New Zealand’s biosecurity measures protects farms from pests and diseases, allowing Ziwi to only source ingredients from grass-fed animals that were raised without hormones.


In addition, the inclusion of New Zealand Green-Lipped mussels in all of Ziwi’s recipes not only contributes omega fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin to a pet’s diet, but also gives back to the environment.


“Not only are mussels good for pets, they also benefit the environment,” says Durham. “A single mussel filters up to 95 gals. of water each day to extract the nutrients it needs to grow.”



Promoting Natural Foods

While ingredients and process are extremely important in the creation of natural pet food, manufacturers can’t forget about marketing and promotion. Communicating a company’s values and facts to pet parents is nearly as important as the food itself.


For example, Under the Weather’s Freeze Dried Bland Diets for Dogs prominently display icons stating product highlights such as “grass-fed bison” or “made in the USA” on the front of the package.


“We now communicate the main product features using graphic icons with just a few words so that consumers can get the highlights in just seconds,” says Kyla Sternlieb, founder and president of the South Burlington, Vt., company. “Two of the four icons across the bottom are about the ingredients and where it’s made.”


Under the Weather’s dog food is freeze-dried in a human-grade, USDA-inspected facility with USA-sourced meat, including cage-free chicken and turkey, grass-fed bison and beef, and wild-caught salmon. The freeze-drying process prevents the food from needing any added chemicals or preservatives, providing a natural product.


“As the demand for natural products rises for humans, those that are pet parents are looking for the same healthy, nutritious choices for their pets,” says Sternlieb.


Tuffy’s Pet Foods is another brand that touts its natural ingredients and health benefits on its products to ensure consumers are aware of what their pets are getting from the food.


“Tuffy’s calls out natural diets features and benefits on all our packaging in compliance with AAFCO guidelines,” says Jim Farrell, Tuffy’s Pet Foods Special Projects.


The Perham, Minn.-based company utilizes organic non-GMO ingredients along with omega fatty acids, prebiotics and probiotics to create a complete and balanced diet for cats and dogs.


Retailer Responsibilities

When it comes to selling natural food and products, retailers need to first figure out what the term “natural” means for their stores. Consumers want to know the stores they purchase their pets food from stands behind the products it sells.


“Everyone needs to define what the term ‘natural’ is for them, make decisions on what products they carry that are in line with that definition, and then communicate that decision-making process forward to their employees,” says Hatch-Rizzi.  “Many retailers are looking closely at what manufacturers are doing and the ingredients they’re using to help educate their staff and customers.”


Manufacturers like Nature’s Variety are ensuring their retailers are well-versed in the natural segment by providing educational content to explain the process and benefits.


“We provide how-to videos and other shareable content that explain ‘why raw,’ as well as how to feed,” says Johnson. “We make sure retailers, as well as our brand ambassadors, are armed with that information and belief so that pet parents believe that feeding raw is within reach.”


When it comes down to it, however, Sternlieb believes that gaining the trust of customers is on the retailers’ shoulders. “Today’s savvy pet parents expect pet specialty retailers to do the research to make sure that only truly natural products are displayed in their ‘natural’ section.” 


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