Transparent Pet Nutrition

As transparency gains traction in pet nutrition, retailers and consumers are developing an appetite for clean labels and traceable products.




Pet parents are breaking out the magnifying glasses and fine-tooth combs. They are not searching for fleas and ticks, mind you, but scouring over ingredient panels on bags, cans and boxes of pet foods and treats in an effort to find pure, wholesomely-sourced ingredients free from artificial preservatives, colors and grain fillers. Also increasingly on the “do not buy” list are proteins that may be from animals raised in questionable, inhumane factory-farm conditions, excessive carbohydrates and anything made in or sourced from China.


“Transparency is the most important word we have to offer our clients,” says Barbara Ratner, owner/CEO of Holistic Pet Cuisine Market, a one-unit, all-natural and holistic pet food store in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s called honesty! Our clients expect honesty with regards to where we purchase our goods, and what is going into our goods that we sell to them for their dogs and cats. The most important thing to our clients when it comes to transparency is being able to speak with the manufacturer and find out where their ingredients are sourced, and how their items are made. It is very important to our clients that they do not see any by-products, fillers or food coloring in any of their products.”


Of course, it’s not just retailers who have picked up on shoppers’ increasing demand for transparency when it comes to what they feed their pets.


“We’ve seen pet parents take more of an interest in knowing where their dog’s treats are made and how they are sourced,” says Tony de Vos, president of Azusa, Calif.-based Cardinal Pet Care. “Part of this trend is growing awareness for the need for transparency and the understanding that supporting businesses that align with their core values will help drive change.”


“Consumers often want to know where the ingredients come from and how they are produced,” agrees Jeff Johnston, senior vice president of research, innovation and product development at Champion Petfoods, based in Edmonton, Alb. “They also want to know that we test for quality throughout our processes and ensure the safety of the food.”


Learn how one pet food manufacturer is taking the conversation about transparency to a whole new level.


Champion operates manufacturing facilities in Kentucky and Alberta, Canada. “Both are positioned in or near areas where there is quality farm production and fishing,” Johnston notes. “Sourcing ingredients close to our kitchens means fresher ingredients, and a greater ability to work closely with our suppliers to ensure quality.”


The biggest proponents of pet nutrition transparency appear to be consumers in tech-savvy metropolitan areas, with the movement quickly spreading across the nation.


“We just opened our first store in San Francisco, and what was very surprising to me was that everyone was very knowledgeable about transparency,” says Uriel Chavez, experience trainer at Healthy Spot, a 15-unit chain based in Culver City, Calif., which primarily operates in greater Los Angeles. “In L.A., we actually have to educate customers on a lot of this stuff, but there are definitely areas in different parts of the state where people are much more knowledgeable and are actually looking for these types of products.”


Customers of Dog Krazy come to its stores when they are at the end of their leash about finding suitable foods for their dogs and cats and confused about everything they read online.


“They just come to us because they want an honest answer as to what to do,” says Nancy Guinn, president of the five-store Fredericksburg, Va.-based chain. “We try to make it as easy as possible for them. I only carry things that I would feed to my own pets. I don’t carry things because they are listed as best-sellers or my distributors tell me that this is a great food and everybody likes it. I only carry foods that I’ve done the research on and that I know I would bring home to my own dogs.


“If it is made or sourced in China, it is not in my store.”


To further help customers, Dog Krazy breaks down the ingredient panel information. “For every single one of our foods, we have a little card on the shelf in front of the product that highlights the points about that particular food—where it’s made, sourced, the fat content, its recommendation for certain types of dogs, like large breed puppies,” Guinn says. “We break it down and make it simple so it is not overwhelming, and we give them a couple of different choices per type of dog or cat.”


That eliminates the doublespeak that consumers sometimes find when reading labels.


“Transparency means we say what we do and do what we say,” says Dan Schmitz, national sales manager at KLN Family Brands/Tuffy’s Pet Foods, based in Perham, Minn. “As a family-owned company, our values are very strong and our customers are treated like family and part of this amazing relationship is the honesty and integrity of our company! These values start at the top and are a part of our company morals.”


“Integrity is the new transparency,” says Michael Landa, founder and CEO of Nulo, based in Austin, Texas. “People often think of the word ‘transparency’ as sourcing or something like that, but I think consumers are looking for ‘transparency’ to be the brand’s integrity.”


Cutting the Carbs

Landa says he founded Nulo after discovering that most of the big major pet food brands are high in carbohydrates, which he believes is leading to skyrocketing diabetes rates. “It is kind of like a Fast Food Nation for pets,” he explains. “Obesity and diabetes are huge and growing problems for dogs and cats. They are carnivores and have very little to no dietary requirements for carbohydrates.”


As a result, Nulo’s mantra is to develop species-appropriate foods. “Cats, in particular, have really no dietary requirements for carbohydrates, but many people want the convenience of a kibble, so our kibbles are high in animal-based proteins, and the carbohydrates that we have to use to bind the kibble together have to be low glycemic.”


Landa takes issue with labels that list ingredients by weight before cooking, since the water in meats and produce, like blueberries, are cooked off during processing, lowering their percentage of nutritional value.


“That is where we really depart,” he says. “We look at everything from the bowl standpoint. When we think about functional foods, it’s got to be in the bowl as the animal consumes it, not on the ingredient listing on the bag, because a lot happens between when it is brought into the plant and what actually ends up in the bowl.”


Transparency is an issue near and dear to the hearts of the folks at Cardinal Pet Care. After all, the company says its products are designed by pet parents for pet parents and the people that care for them, so all of its products are made in FDA-approved facilities, certified under Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and meet Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).


“Cardinal Pet Care believes information should be clear, concise and easy to access,” says de Vos. “Ingredients should be clearly listed, and icons should simplify communication, not hinder it. That is why our team devotes a large percentage of time on our packaging and retail education programs. Certifications such as the Oregon Tilth seal for ‘Made with Organic’ reinforce the authenticity of select ingredients.”


Human Pet Food Factory

Raised Right is a family-owned, human-grade pet food company that works with veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker to develop home-cooked style whole food recipes for dogs and cats. Because its foods are sold frozen, they are lightly cooked to the minimum temperatures required to kill pathogens—145 degrees Fahrenheit for beef, and 165 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry—compared to up to 275 degrees for canned foods, allowing them to retain more moisture and nutritional integrity.


An added benefit is that it has its foods manufactured at a USDA-inspected human grade plant.


“For our food to be made in a USDA facility, by law, every single ingredient must pass the same standards necessary for human consumption and it is frequently inspected,” says Braeden Ruud, co-founder/CEO of Raised Right, based in Rye, N.Y. “The USDA inspectors have their own office on-site and come and go very, very frequently, as opposed to most feed grade facilities, which is where most pet food is made. Those are regulated by the FDA and get inspected maybe once per year.”


Ruud notes that every single batch of Raised Right is lab tested for E. coli, listeria and salmonella, and the company maintains a hold and release program, where it will never ship its food unless it passes a lab safety test.


“For transparency, we post the results of these tests on our website home page for everybody to see, along with a map tracing all of our ingredients to their source, and a video showing how our food gets made,” he says.


Tuffy’s offers retailers a firsthand experience by giving tours of its new, state-of-the-art plant.


“We give plant tours and have open candid conversations with our QC team, our formulations team and our ownership group,” Schmitz says. “With consumers, we have a customer service team that is as transparent as possible and we also disclose our safety credentials on our website and direct mail campaigns.”


Schmitz notes that Tuffy’s is certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and has achieved an “A” rating for the last seven years.


“All of our food is positive released and is tested prior to leaving our facility. Our QC team is very particular and thorough and our safety recall free record speaks for itself,” he says.


Healthy Spot’s Chavez says an increasing number of manufacturers and consumers are not only concerned about the quality of factories, but also about the farms where the animals are raised. As an example, he cites dry food brand Open Farm.


“They go above and beyond to where they actually set a standard with their ranchers, farmers and fisheries,” he says. “If they are sourcing chicken, the chickens have to have the proper rest where the lights are turned off for six consecutive hours, so they are emotionally stable. Their fish has to be sourced ocean-wise, so they are only sourcing from what is in season and sustainable.”


Up until now, transparency efforts have largely been limited to dogs and cats, but watch for the movement to expand to other creatures.


“We are actually going to put out a public post and ask our customers if they want us to carry food for other types of animals,” says Guinn, of Dog Krazy. “More and more of our employees have snakes and fish and small mammals, and they have been asking us to special order things. We’re a sponsor of the Richmond Flying Squirrels [minor league baseball team] and we have a picture of their cartoon mascot at a game. I’m going to post that picture and ask our customers if they want us to carry small animal supplies,” she says. PB


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