Unleashing the Potential of Raw Foods
While it is well positioned for explosive growth, the raw pet food category will require manufacturers and retailers to be diligent about safety to realize its full potential.
If there’s one pet food product that’s popping up more and more, it’s raw foods. Manufacturers of these diets agree—interest in this relatively new category is spiking.
“The movement has officially moved beyond early adopters and die-hards,” says Catherine McCarthy, senior director of innovation and insights at WellPet. “The growth is happening because it’s based on a universal consumer truth: ‘I want health for my family, and I think real, less-processed food is healthier.’ In addition, people want their pet to experience food joy—variety, taste, texture, excitement, fresh—just like they do.”
The category has grown from $43 million in 2012 to a $100 million market in 2016, according to GfK’s U.S. Pet Retail Point-of-Sale tracking panel, representing around 11,000 pet shops in the U.S.
“Pet parents want to see simplification of ingredients, meaning whole-food ingredients, similar to what they would eat themselves,” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food. “For cats, dogs and ferrets, that’s really a raw diet. Raw has been a small but fast-growing category for many years now.”
Also from 2012 to 2016, retail distribution increased from 38 percent of stores carrying raw food to 58 percent in 2016. The average number of raw pet food items carried per store increased from about 12 to 19 items per store.
“Growth for the raw pet food industry is certainly a mix of growing awareness, availability and customer demand,” says Maria Lange, group director of GfK’s Pet POS Tracking team.
Still, despite more eyes being drawn to the raw category than ever, it still accounts for a small percent of food sales. Only 1.3 percent of all sales at pet specialty retail in the U.S. come from raw. By comparison, kibble brings in the majority of all sales at 68 percent, wet food accounts for 16 percent and treats make up 13 percent.
Lange says one of the largest barriers to the raw category reaching its full potential is customer fear of bacteria in raw food. A lot of this fear has been validated by a study conducted by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Between 2010 and 2012, the CVM screened more than 1,000 samples of pet food for harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Compared to other types of food like dry, semi-moist and jerky treats, raw pet food was more likely to contain bacteria such as salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Of 196 raw pet food samples, 15 were positive for salmonella and 32 tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
The study “identified a potential health risk for the pets eating the raw food and for the owners handling the product,” said Dr. Renate Reimschuessel, a veterinarian at CVM’s office of research and one of the study’s principal investigators.
Raw food manufacturers across the board are well aware of studies like these and are prepared to defend their company’s integrity and both the safety and nutritional importance of their raw offerings.
“The results of the study indicate a need for anyone producing raw pet food to be very diligent about assessing the risks holistically and developing food safety systems to properly deal with and manage the risk,” says Greg Kean, vice president of research and development at WellPet.
Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, recognizes the inherent risk associated with distributing raw meat and poultry items and encourages his fellow vendors to take the duty of safety seriously.
“Manufacturers of raw pet foods have the sole responsibility of assuring the FDA and the general public that their products are in fact pathogen free,” he says. “Manufacturers that ignore this critical standard are jeopardizing the category as a whole, as well as consumers and their pets. [These companies] should be audited by the FDA to establish that a pathogen elimination process is being incorporated into the processing procedures.”
Hatch-Rizzi says there’s a double standard between the way we view raw meat products meant for humans versus those meant for pet consumption. Ultimately, she says, pet parents just need to use the same safe handling methods they use for handling raw meat purchased for human consumption.
“Many raw manufacturers, including [Radagast Pet Food], take extra precautions in handling meat products that exceed those taken at the grocery level,” she says. “Many of us have implemented intervention steps, such as HPP, ozone and other applications, that reduce or eliminate the presence of pathogens.”
WellPet uses sanitation methods and microbial testing of the company’s freeze-dried meats prior to release. Primal Pet Foods’ raw materials are supplied by USDA and FDA-regulated and inspected vendors. Primal’s poultry products are produced under hydrostatic high pressure, a process meant to render pathogens inactive. Additionally, all Primal foods, bones, treats and goat milk are managed under the company’s test and hold program, which requires all products to be verified pathogen free by third party laboratories.
Along with practicing food safety in its manufacturing processes, Primal educates its retailers via its customer service, national sales and retail training teams that perform regular seminars with retailers and consumers about the company’s food safety program. Primal also offers literature and web-based education on the safe food-handling guidelines when feeding raw foods.
At Radagast, the company fields many calls and emails from retailers with questions about raw.
“We are very transparent about our processes, quality control and assurance programs,” Hatch-Rizzi says. “We have excellent customer service and are always happy to talk to customers about concerns and answer their questions.”
If retailers and manufacturers want to make raw food products more than just niche products and more on par with canned and kibble products, there are a few key elements to focus on. McCarthy says it comes down to the way raw pet foods are discussed and marketed.
“We need to reframe the conversation around raw pet food,” she says. “As manufacturers, ultimately the question we need to ask isn’t, ‘How can we make raw pet food more convenient?’ But instead, ‘How can we make real, clean, less-processed food more convenient?’ It’s the exact same challenge being played out in the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.”
According to Koss, category growth will come when all manufacturers start to appropriately source and produce safe raw foods.
“The opportunity manufacturers and retailers have to educate and capture an even greater population of consumers and their pets will be hindered by the ongoing industry recalls due to a lack of food safety protocols at some manufacturing plants,” says Koss.
In deciding which raw products to carry in your store, Koss says retailers should consider three main things: quality (edible grade proteins), safety (guaranteed free of pathogens) and whether the product is nutritionally complete and balanced.
Hatch-Rizzi points to merchandising as the key to increased raw sales. Giving ample attention to the raw products in your store—not just shoving them to the back—will create greater awareness of the category.
“Many stores have their freezers toward the back of the store,” she says. “If retailers don’t have glass-front merchandisers to draw attention to what is inside the freezer, having a display of empty packaging on shelves or close to the register can really bring attention to what is sometimes ‘hidden’ in the freezer section.”
Hatch-Rizzi also advises retailers to have an endcap with a small sign that directs customers to the freezer. This way, customers who might not usually wander back to the freezers can see the containers and might be more inclined to engage with employees about raw foods.
Lange noted another factor that might be driving pet parents away from raw: convenience. “Raw food requires some time commitment,” she says. “The food has to be thawed before being fed. Some pet owners may simply not have the time for it.”
To combat this, McCarthy suggests that retailers provide messaging that highlights how easy it is to “add a little raw” into their current routines—perhaps without even having to commit fully. “A solid ‘My dog is obsessed!’” story from the retail associate will help turn the tide from radical to routine,” she adds.
Above all else, manufacturers say retailers must communicate why raw food is worth feeding to a pet from a nutritional standpoint.
“Raw foods are species-appropriate foods that offer pets a natural form of eating that most closely mimics their diet in the wild,” says Koss. “Through uncooked, fresh, wholesome, edible-grade proteins, fruits and vegetables, dogs and cats are consuming foods that are rich in amino acids, vitamins, minerals and active enzymes that enhance both digestibility and nutrient absorption.”
From a feline perspective, Hatch-Rizzi says cats have a very short, acidic digestive tract, which means they have a limited amount of time to extract nutrients from their food.
“Raw food is perfect for their specialized physiology because nutrients are in their most bio-available form,” she says. “It takes very little time to break down proteins in raw meat and assimilate nutrients. Cooked proteins take more time and energy to digest and some of them are never completely broken down, which can lead to digestive problems, compromised nutritional status and smelly litter boxes.”
With a combination of added focus on food safety, education and marketing, the raw category has the potential to become a booming industry favorite.