Truth and Transparency in Organics
Increased consumer interest in tracing food to the source is leading pet food manufacturers to provide detailed information regarding the origins of their ingredients—and they expect pet retailers to follow suit.
Organic foods are no longer the preferred choice of only health-conscientious pet parents following the latest nutrition craze. Transparency in food production has become a primary concern of many consumers, leading organics to become more mainstream. And as information becomes available immediately via online product review sites, social media and engaged shoppers, manufacturers of organic pet food and treats have recognized the importance of not only serving as a trusted source for quality products, but also providing knowledge to consumers.
According to the 2015 Organic Industry Survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the organic-food category has enjoyed an 11-percent annual growth rate. And just as the overall organic-food industry has been expanding steadily over the past few decades, pet organics have also grown over the years, most recently showing a five percent increase in 2014.
Sharon Sherman, president and cofounder of PetGuard, is one industry executive who can get behind this growth. She has spent her career pushing organic nutrition to the forefront of the industry and views the increasing popularity of organic pet food as the result of consumer education. If retailers want to remain key players in this category, she says, they too must become valuable sources of knowledge for their clientele, not simply a store that carries pet food.
“We’ve all become more educated. I see the growth of the entire category will come through education,” says Sherman. “How can independent retailers differentiate themselves from big-box stores? By understanding organics and every ingredient because the consumer is becoming educated...this is a new conscientiousness and responsibility.”
Manufacturers are relying on retailers to take this new responsibility seriously by learning about the health benefits of their products and specific solutions to address an array of pet-health concerns.
In With the New
While many pet parents remain loyal to brands that have proven their worth as providers of quality food, the lifestyles, health and nutritional needs of animals shift over time. If a solution to pet health issues must be found, answers are often sought by adjusting an animal’s diet to more nutritious, wholesome food options that contain fewer ingredients and more nutrients, and have a reputation for optimizing wellness. As manufacturers fulfill this role by offering limited-ingredient, healthful solutions, retailers must learn how to match pets with the appropriate solution.
While retailers must be willing to learn about the array of options within the organic pet food category, companies that produce these products must be willing to show, tell and explain. “There are many cats with serious health conditions, such as IBD, FLUTD, dermatitis and diabetes that no longer have to rely on medications and are thriving after their pet parents transition them to raw [diets],” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice-president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food, Inc. “The chicken we use is certified organic, our turkey is free-range and our lamb is pasture-raised.” It was Hatch-Rizzi’s own experience with her kitten Juno’s inflammatory bowel disease that drove her to develop raw-food options, using chicken hearts from organic farms—which also supply the company’s thigh meat and livers—as a natural, whole-food taurine source for their products. “I believe that using natural, whole-food ingredient sources are always best,” she says. “And, heart muscle is incredibly flavorful, which makes our products particularly appealing for cats.”
Though Hatch-Rizzi is not aware of any threats from including synthetic taurine in cat food, she believes sourcing this essential amino acid from natural ingredients is the best option for pets. Recognizing and understanding details such as this are integral for pet-store staff to fulfill their duty to the manufacturers whose products they sell.
When pet parents engage animals in active lifestyles, high-protein diets tend to become the focus of a nutritious meal plan. It is through these diets that pet parents seek to increase lean muscle and performance. Regarding the challenge of incorporating high-protein ingredients into organic pet food, Dan Schmitz, sales manager of KLN Family Brands, parent company of Natural Planet Organics, explains, “As a manufacturer, we are very limited to certified organic protein sources, as fish and many animal protein sources are unable to be raised organically from a certification standpoint. Kangaroo is a very lean meat, and the venison product offers another unique protein source that is somewhat rare in super-premium pet food.”
Manufacturers must continue to produce formulas that prove popular with consumers, but meeting the needs of animals from puppies and kittens during their life until they become senior pets—and every stage in between—is one of the most important factors when cultivating a successful organic line.
Here to Stay
Following July’s SuperZoo, pet-food manufacturers revealed that they were most impressed by retailers that are embracing their new role within the industry by remaining curious about organic products and showing a genuine interest in learning about food sources. “People were asking the origin of our products, ‘Are they sourced in the USA?” recalls Sherman. “They all understand that New Zealand has better venison and lamb than the United States. A lot of them were asking about the fish and vegetables, they were very interested in supplementation and understanding toxins animals are exposed to. They understand that it isn’t a fad.”
Working with manufacturers to provide transparency, when consumers seek information, is the best method retailers can use to remain relevant as the demand for organic products continues to grow.
While pet parents are contributing to the growth of the industry’s organic segment, there are always new trends appearing and improvements that can be made to existing products. As pets continue to be accepted as family members, the expectations placed on food and treat manufacturers to produce more healthful, ethically sourced products will increase.
According to Matt Koss, president and founder of Primal Pet Foods, Inc., “Human-grade or edible-grade ingredients are not commonly used in the pet food industry by traditional and some alternative pet-food manufacturers. Thus, for brands utilizing edible-grade ingredients, this quality characteristic is a significant differentiating factor from brands utilizing pet grade or inedible ingredients. As more consumers become aware of this quality differential, it is this quality trend that will become the most crucial for both manufacturers and consumers alike.”
Utilizing human-grade ingredients is not simply a means for manufacturers to produce better-quality pet food. The continued inclusion of pets as family members leads to viewing animals as requiring goods that are the same quality they purchase for their own use. “Organic customers also have an organic lifestyle for themselves,” according to Schmitz. “These type of people see benefits of organic food, and with the humanization of pets even more elevated, we are seeing this lifestyle getting passed along to their pets.”
In 2016, the industry must monitor changes that might result from new regulations and proposals regarding monitoring the organic category. There is the proposal of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program to regulate standards for organic pet food that is being reviewed. A nationwide conversation regarding labeling foods that include genetically modified ingredients has led to state-mandated laws in certain areas. As these changes continue to take place, pet-food manufacturers must expand their offerings, and retailers must remain informed regarding advancements in the organic pet food and treats segment within the industry.