Freeze-Dried Food and Snacks for Pets
Dog owners are looking for ways to feed their pets nutritional food that is easily portable, sparking interest in freeze-dried foods and treats.
When it comes to the foods and snacks humans consume, the desire for products that can be eaten on the go has taken hold. Although this trend has been in play for a number of years, it has become more entrenched, thanks to our time-stressed and active lifestyles. At the same time, growing numbers of consumers are intensifying their focus on health and well being, and as such are increasingly drawn to products that support these concerns.
It’s no surprise that these trends are hitting the pet arena as well, with dog owners on the hunt for foods and treats that are highly portable and nutritious, causing many to consider freeze-dried products.
But it’s not just convenience and quality that are sparking interest. As Kyla Sternlieb, founder and president of Under the Weather, explains, these products also have a longer shelf-life than conventional foods and treats, allowing consumers to keep them on hand for greater periods of time without the products becoming dated. Additionally, freeze-drying does away with the need for preservatives, which is attractive to those drawn to chemical-free products.
“[Also], more consumers are taking their pets with them as they travel, confirmed by the rising number of hotels allowing pets,” Sternlieb says. “Freeze-dried products are light, so they’re easy to pack and easy to prepare by just adding water.”
Headquartered in South Burlington, Vt., Under the Weather provides freeze-dried bland diets, functional soft chews (including hemp-based chews) and gel supplements. The line of six freeze-dried bland diets is formulated for dogs experiencing temporary digestive upsets and includes electrolytes to help maintain healthy hydration.
Two of the most popular flavors include Rice, Chicken & Pumpkin, made from 100 percent cage-free chicken; and Rice, Hamburger & Sweet Potato, made from 100 percent grass-fed beef. According to Sternlieb, all of the diets’ ingredients are grown in the U.S. and processed in a human-grade USDA facility. Other versions include Rice & Chicken; Oatmeal & Bison; Rice, Turkey & Sweet Potato; and Rice & Salmon.
Duane Johnson, CMO of Sojos, also credits the growth of pet-friendly accommodations for shining more attention on freeze-dried options. These products make it easier and more “hassle free” than ever for dog owners to take their buddies along for the ride, no matter how long that ride becomes.
The company, located in South St. Paul, Minn., makes a variety of premixes, complete foods, toppers and treats, including Sojos Complete, the “raw made easy” centerpiece of the company’s offerings; and Sojos Mix-a-Meal, the newest addition to its menu. Sojos Complete foods provide a blend of freeze-dried raw meat or poultry with air-dried fruits and veggies. Varieties include Turkey, Beef, Lamb, Potato-Free Goat, Chicken and Pork. The Sojos Mix-a-Meal allows pet owners to measure out the base mix and stir in a prepackaged, freeze-dried raw protein. Options include Grain-Free or Original premixes and Turkey, Beef, Lamb or Chicken protein packs.
The fact that more dogs are experiencing allergies and food sensitivities contributes to this category’s momentum, since freeze-dried options with their limited ingredients can provide a good solution, says Mark Sapir, CMO for Stella & Chewy’s. Headquartered in Oak Creek, Wis., the company offers frozen and freeze-dried products along with raw coated kibble meal mixers, wet food (human-grade stew and broth) and treats.
The Meal Mixers, which serve as a topping for kibble, provide a good entry point into raw because no big change in pet owner behavior is required, says Sapir. The mixers are 95 percent meat, organ and bone, and are available in six flavors—Stella’s Super Beef; Chewy’s Chicken; Dandy Lamb; Tantalizing Turkey; Savory Salmon & Cod; and Duck, Duck Goose. The company also offers Wild Weenies, a new, all-natural, 100 percent freeze-dried raw treat option, available in six varieties.
The Freeze-Dried Consumer
Sapir says there are four “distinct, pet parent customer segments/entry points” when it comes to those looking for freeze-dried options:
• Those proactively seeking better solutions and premium ingredients.
• Those who have dogs that are picky eaters and/or have palatability issues.
• Those with a puppy or a new dog.
• Those looking for limited-ingredient diets because of dogs with allergies or food sensitivities.
“Overall, one of the biggest trends we see is pet parents wanting better for their animals,” he says. “It is not just about giving them healthy meals and then [unhealthy] treats. Now, they want to be more holistic and give healthy treats as well. This is a better, more consistent healthy diet for dogs.”
Consequently, driven by consumers looking for fresh food options for their pets, category growth is “explosive,” says Lindsay Meyers, marketing manager – veterinary outreach for Primal Pet Foods. Located in Fairfield, Calif., Primal provides complete and balanced frozen and freeze-dried raw foods along with various freeze-dried, frozen, raw or gently cooked treats and frozen supplements. One such offering is a balanced Quail formula, added late last year, says Meyers. It features cage-free whole quail from Spain, along with organic produce like celery, cilantro and kelp. The quail is raised free from antibiotics, steroids or added hormones (Primal batch-tests products for salmonella, e.coli and listeria prior to shipping).
“Toppers and whole food additions to the traditional scoop-and-serve kibble format are increasing in popularity as health-conscious consumers use their knowledge of healthy eating habits and apply that to their dog and cat companions,” Meyers explains. “Freeze-dried foods are a similar format to the kibble foods they are used to, but provide the nutritional benefits they’re looking for.”
Meyers says the company’s ultimate objective is using its freeze-dried options to drive consumers to the freezer via promotional or price-saving strategies.
“[However], the incredible growth in our freeze-dried sales despite this pressure and success in moving our customers to frozen formats tells us that many more consumers are entering the alternative category in general, and that freeze-dried can continue to be a driving force in that movement if properly executed,” she says.
Millennials are exerting an influence on this category, says Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer of Champion Petfoods, makers of the ORIJEN and ACANA brands. Located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the company competes in the dry kibble, freeze-dried and pet treat categories. Included in their product offerings is ORIJEN Regional Red freeze-dried dog food, made with fresh and raw beef, wild boar, lamb herring, bison and pork. Washington describes it as a biologically appropriate diet, containing 90 percent meat and fish protein ingredients and 10 percent vegetables, fruits and botanicals.
“Champion believes this generation cohort is helping accelerate the rise in premium pet food spending, due in no small measure to their delaying the start of families and treating pets as their firstborn,” says Washington of the millennials. “Equally, millennial desire for transparency and visibility to the supply chain in search of more clarity around product creation is changing the industry for the better.”
Millennials comprise a “significant” portion of the premium market segment, driven by their focus on higher quality foods and better-for-you ingredients, Washington says, adding that “the growth of the freeze-dried segment is an excellent example of the trading up phenomenon we’ve witnessed over the last five years.”
Washington says Champion believes the migration to premium consumables will continue, along with the demand for biologically appropriate foods and treats.
Making Freeze-Dried Fly
According to Meyers, it’s the rare pet specialty retailer that hasn’t created a specific section for freeze-dried foods, toppers and treats, adding that Primal “actively educates” its retail customers on the value of freeze-dried.
“Everyone, our pets included, can benefit from some whole fresh raw foods,” she says. “[And] some raw is better than no raw. We provide free samples and a robust in-store demo program to help retailers capture new consumers into the category.”
Even though this category is becoming more mainstream, misperceptions about the costs, convenience and safety of raw freeze-dried foods and treats are still relatively common, says Johnson, adding this makes it essential for well-informed sales associates to actively educate customers and address their concerns. Sapir agrees there is still more work required to raise awareness.
“The raw pet category is a newer food segment and requires more education to convert pet parents to raw food,” he explains. “But even for those who may be aware, there is still a misunderstanding about the safety of raw. The raw pet food industry has experienced some product recalls, resulting in some customers having trust/credibility issues with raw. This, unfortunately, gives the perception that raw pet food isn’t safe.”
Sapir says Stella & Chewy’s partners with neighborhood pet stores to support the educational process, for example discussing the company’s SecureByNature patented food safety process designed to make its foods safe from bacteria naturally, along with using high pressure pasteurization. It’s also likely that pet owners are unfamiliar with the freeze-dried process, so pet specialty retailers should work with customers to make sure they understand how the products are made, and how this helps the food retain the essential vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids and the related benefits, says Washington.
“Helping pet lovers understand how easy it is to prepare [these foods] by adding water is also part of the education necessary to promote the category,” she says. “Given that kibble has been the most pervasive product form for the last 30 years, it’s no surprise that consumers will require some guidance about these products while their use gains popularity.”
Washington also advises pet specialty retailers to:
• Offer price or value-added incentives to spark trial.
• Feature freeze-dried products in endcaps to draw customer attention. Also consider cross-merchandising these products in the travel section, since they’re so portable. If offering freeze-dried formulas for dogs with sensitive stomachs or intestinal upsets, consider placing them in the remedies section, as well.
• Conduct instore demos to show how easy they are to rehydrate and prepare.
• Utilize social media to inform, promote and educate. “These channels can be employed to tell anecdotal stories of pet lover outcomes for pets on a freeze-dried diet,” she adds.
• Reach out to local market pet influencers with trial samples.
Remember that one of the biggest consumer misperceptions pet specialty retailers will likely encounter is that these products are very expensive, preventing this category from reaching its potential. Addressing this concern forthrightly is the best strategy.
“It’s true that it can be costly to feed a large dog 100 percent of their diet in freeze-dried food alone,” Meyers says. “But we need to remind them that some raw is better than no raw. Consumers should think of the one freeze-dried nugget they add to their pet’s kibble meal as the apple with their breakfast cereal or the salad with their pasta.”
Meyers says retailers should be certain to offer multiple brands and formats. Sternlieb concurs, saying stores would only benefit by expanding their freeze-dried inventories.
“Their longer shelf-life ensures they will have fewer expired-product issues,” she explains. “Their lighter package weight is an advantage for senior customers and the employees who stock shelves. They also take up less shelf space and are lighter for shipping. [And] these products will answer a growing demand for options with fewer preservatives and better-quality ingredients.” PB