While they still represent a relatively small segment of the pet food market, organic food and treats are becoming more popular as consumers pursue healthier diets for themselves.
As society becomes ever more informed and selective about what we eat, pet food manufacturers have answered consumers’ desires for their pet food to reflect their values.
The three terms the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to label organic products all mean slightly different things. “USDA Organic” (also called “Certified Organic”) is supposed to mean that 95 percent or more of the ingredients are certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes. They also should not use genetic engineering. The other five percent may be foods processed with approved additives, however. If you see a food or treat labeled “100 percent organic,” the entire product should be made with 100-percent organic ingredients.
“Made with organic” means the ingredients must contain 70 percent or more organic ingredients. The remaining 30 percent of ingredients may be approved non-organic additives, but none of the components can be from genetically modified organisms (GMO).
It’s important pet parents know that all organic pet foods and treats will be non-GMO—but that not all non-GMO products are organic, says Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, senior nutritionist at Petcurean, based near Vancouver, B.C., which has been making pet food since 1999. “Organic is a broad, all-encompassing certification,” she says. “Ironically, the growth of the non-GMO label is exponential. They may not know what it is, but they know they don’t want it. Anything organic is de-facto non-GMO.”
Organic ingredients are often thought to be grown without any chemicals, but the organic product-certifying agency QAI clarifies, saying they are grown without any prohibited chemicals. The U.S. Organic Standards has approved over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops. The origin of these pesticides, however, is different than conventional, or synthetic pesticides. Organic pesticides are derived from natural sources and minimally processed—or sometimes not processed at all. When and if organic growers make the case for using a synthetic substance, such as pheromones to prevent crop infestation by insects, it must be “approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment,” according to the USDA.
The term “natural” has become somewhat of a catch-all term across many industries, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined “natural” as it pertains to pet food labeling. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has a definition, but it is 69 words long. And because it’s long and confusing, say Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based Radagast Pet Food, Inc., a pet food can be labeled “natural” while containing ingredients like meat meals, byproducts, grains and synthetic vitamins.
When Radagast labels its products “natural,” she says, that means minimal processing with free-range and organic ingredients, instead of mechanically separated meats. “We use whole muscle and organs and eliminate bone and skin from our products, which can comprise upwards of 10 percent of other frozen, raw diets,” says Hatch-Rizzi.
Radagast’s ingredients are not all organic, due to its desire to make a product that is affordable. “The only reason all of our meats and poultry are not organic is simply because those proteins are far too costly,” says Hatch-Rizzi. “So, we’ve done the next best thing and chose free-range and pastured meats and poultry.”
The company’s chicken is either free-range or certified organic; its turkey is free-range; its lamb and venison are pasture-raised; and its beef grass-fed.
“We eat organically ourselves, so for us, it’s natural for us to want to feed our kitties the best diet possible,” Hatch-Rizzi says. “We also like that the animals aren’t fed MO feed, and we look to support that wherever possible.”
Radagast produces a frozen, raw cat food made from whole meats, poultry and organs in 8-, 16-, and 24-ounce portions. For each of its organic ingredients, certificates from suppliers verify their organic status.
Although not all of its ingredients are 100-percent organic, The Honest Kitchen’s line of dehydrated whole foods for dogs and cats feature whole grains, flaxseed, quinoa, coconut and some meats that are organic, says company founder and CEO Lucy Postins. The company’s food and treats are also human-grade—and can say so on its labels, per the FDA.
Being human grade assures customers that The Honest Kitchen’s products are different than those from substandard pet food-rendering plants, in terms of quality, safety, cleanliness and record-keeping, says Postins. “In many cases, pet food becomes a ‘receptacle’ for condemned meats that would otherwise end up in landfills,” she explains. “I personally do not believe that cats and dogs’ bowls should contain foods whose only other ‘home’ is a dumpster.”
The majority of The Honest Kitchen’s products are for dogs, but it is working on new products for cats, set to launch in 2017. New treats are coming this fall, including 100-percent pure freeze-dried mussels, a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as USA–sourced chicken jerky and beef jerky.
Organic pet foods and treats still make up just a small segment of the pet food market, but demand is growing, particularly among consumers who favor organic foods in their own diet. “There is a demand for organic pet food, but it is still relatively small,” says Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Perham, Minn.–based Tuffy’s Pet Foods. “I think it’s more of a lifestyle for pet parents who live organic lives themselves.”
Tuffy’s organic food is certified by Oregon Tilth—a certifier, educator and advocate for organic agriculture and products. It is a process that Schmitz says has become more and more difficult over time.
Adolphe agrees that demand for organic pet food mimics demand for organic people food. In August, Petcurean—which sells the Go, Now Fresh and Summit lines for cats and dogs, and Spike treats for dogs—launched its first organic brand, called Gather, which is made with certified-organic and sustainable ingredients. It comprises three dog foods (Free Acres, an organic chicken for dogs and cats; Wild Ocean, a marine steward–certified cod for dogs; and Endless Valley, a vegan option for dogs).
“We chose organic for Gather because of the role those ingredients play for being sustainable,” says Adolphe, who has a Ph.D. in pet nutrition. “There isn’t enough data to show that conventionally grown ingredients are nutritionally superior; it’s more the focus on animal welfare and environmentally sustainable.”
The Clean-Label Trend
To create the new Gather products, the family-owned Petcurean visited farmers, growers and fishers. “We literally traveled the world in search of ingredients as far away as Australia and New Zealand, but we ended up sourcing very close to home because of the sustainable aspect,” Adolphe says. “Traceability is a big part of the consumer interest as well. They want to know where [ingredients are] coming from.”
Clean, easier-to-read labels are trending heavily in the people-food world, and pet food is the newest frontier. Consumers have developed a perception—even if it’s not scientifically accurate—that if it’s easier to pronounce, it’s better for you, Adolphe says, so pet food makers are responding with shorter, easy-to-pronounce ingredients lists.
“The clean label is one of the fastest-growing labels,” she says. “Everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon. Consumers are very suspicious and being trained to ask, ‘Why?’ You’ll see on packaging now: ‘Made with five ingredients.’ ”
“Pet parents are becoming more concerned about ingredients used in their cats’ and dogs’ food and are looking for as much information as possible,” agrees Hatch-Rizzi. “They really want to know where the food is coming from and how the animals that give their lives to produce those products are raised and how they are fed. As a result, I believe more manufacturers will respond to increasing demands for higher-quality products by producing food and treats with organic ingredients.”