Nourishing pets and pet store profits alike, food products are the cornerstone of the pet specialty retail channel. Nothing inspires repeat customer visits, differentiates a pet store’s selection from competitors’ or provides a platform for retailers to demonstrate their pet-related expertise quite the way pet food does.
So, it should go without saying that a pet store’s ability to offer its customers a reliably safe source of pet nutrition is paramount to achieving sustained success. Failure to do so will inevitably undermine customer confidence and loyalty, and will have a decidedly negative impact on a store’s bottom line.
While this has always been a fact of life for pet stores, the issue of food safety has taken on a whole new dimension in the wake of the 2007 pet food recall. An event that shook consumer confidence to its core, the massive recall has driven pet owners to cast a suspicious eye at products that they often used to take for granted. Clearly, in an environment like this, the stakes have been raised for retailers to be certain of the pet food products on their shelves.
“Retailers have as much responsibility as anyone else in the supply chain,” says Joel Sher, vice president of Wheeling, Ill.-based Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Company. “They have liability, for one thing; they have their reputation to think about; and they have a responsibility to the pets and their owners.”
The Right Products
The first step a retailer must take to ensure that the products on its shelves are safe for their customers’ pets is evaluating the reliability of those products and their manufacturers. Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and marketing for Pacoima, Calif.-based Natural Balance, offers up this definition of what “safe” means when it comes to pet food products.
“A safe dog food should meet AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] standards for manufacturing and labeling, have a valid expiration date and contain quality ingredients with good sources of protein,” she says. “Another important characteristic of safe dog food is that it’s tested according to rigorous quality-control standards before distribution.”
Kirk Young, executive vice president for Nacogdoches, Tex.-based Precise Pet Products, agrees that quality control is an essential element that retailers should look for in any pet food manufacturer under consideration. “It is imperative that retailers have a working knowledge of where the product is made and the safety record that company has with the making of pet food,” he says.
For Natural Balance, says Govea, the process of quality control involves a marriage of both human and technological oversight.
“Technological advances continue to reinforce testing accuracy, but there’s still always the human element that must be considered –which is why our Quality Control team is the most committed and innovative in the industry,” she says.
Govea goes on to note that her company takes the testing process a step further by making the results accessible to retailers and consumers alike. “Simply enter the product date code on our website at www.naturalbalanceinc.com to find actual test results posted online,” she says. “This helps both retailers and consumers build trust and loyalty in both each other and in Natural Balance.”
Another factor that retailers should consider when evaluating pet food manufacturers is the way the company sources its ingredients. However, says Sher, it is important to avoid making assumptions about ingredient sourcing before hearing a manufacturer out.
“Once retailers get so involved in where the raw materials come from, they start to determine whether a manufacturer is good or bad based on that,” he says. “But just because something comes from China (and my company doesn’t really get anything from China), doesn’t automatically make it no good. It depends on who you’re dealing with. Manufacturers need to know their suppliers–what kind of track record they have, what kind of general good manufacturing practices they have, what certificates of analysis they have, etc.”
Sher goes on to point out that often a manufacturer’s options may be limited when it comes to ingredient sourcing. “There are some raw materials that are only produced in certain regions of the world,” he says.
While manufacturer recalls may get the most exposure–the 2007 recall received weeks of coverage in the national media, and rightfully so–when it comes to pet food safety, the most common threats actually lie somewhere between the manufacturer’s loading dock and Fido’s bowl. In fact, the biggest threat to pet food safety is not necessarily Chinese ingredient suppliers using dangerous additives like melamine to boost protein levels, but rather lapses in inventory management. This means that whether it’s a matter of improper storage conditions, pest infestation or spoilage, most threats to food safety can be prevented before ever reaching the end consumer by instituting some simple inventory-control practices at the retail level.
For pet retailers, a good in-store food safety program begins at the back door. Careful screening of pet food packaging should be part of every pet store’s receiving process. Be sure that any store associate involved in this process knows to look for dented or bloated cans, torn pouches and ripped or otherwise compromised dry food packaging.
“Retailers should only stock product that is completely intact–no rips, tears, broken seals or any other damage that can expose the food to outside contamination,” says Govea.
Of course, any issues that are uncovered should be addressed immediately with the supplier. Luckily, says Young, more often than not, retailers will be impressed with the way that most of today’s pet industry distributors cooperate in the food safety process. “Our industry distributors have evolved into top-notch suppliers,” he says. “Most distributors today have very solid return policies and will ensure the product is shipped properly to pet stores.”
Once the food products are in the hands of the retailer, the next issue is storage. If the products will not immediately be brought to the sales floor, it is imperative that they be parked in the appropriate environment–usually a cool, dry location away from direct sunlight and any potential adulterants or pests--no matter how temporary the situation.
It is important to note that improper storage of pet foods is an offense that the FDA does not take lightly. For example, just a few years ago, the agency seized a variety of food products from a distribution center of one of the big pet superstore chains because of infestation.
“We simply will not allow a company to store foods under filthy and unsanitary conditions that occur as a direct result of the company’s failure to adequately control and prevent pests in its facility,” says Margaret O’K. Glavin, FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at the time. “Consumers expect that such safeguards will be in place not only for human food, but for pet food as well.”
Stocking the sales floor with pet food products should be a key element in a pet store’s food safety program on a number of levels. First, the stocking process is a great opportunity to once again inspect the food packaging. “A retailer needs to monitor its incoming stock, but they should also be monitoring the products on its shelves,” says Sher. Doing so will ensure that no potential issues were missed in the receiving process and that the product was not compromised since arriving at the store.
Another role that shelf stocking should play in food safety is in helping to keep expired products off the shelf. “It is critically important to look at the date codes and keep fresh product on shelf,” says Young.
Rotating inventory so that products with the earliest expiration dates leave the store first are essential in this regard. Retailers should pay particular attention to slow-moving items and seriously consider removing those items completely.
The Power of Information
When it comes to ensuring that pet food safety, the best weapon at a retailer’s disposal is information. Responding to manufacturer recalls, disseminating information about specific products and teaching customers about safe handling practices all require a vigilant approach to education on the part of retailers.
“As a retailer, you should familiarize yourself with quality ingredients and make sure your staff is educated and armed with the knowledge to answer customer questions regarding the products you stock,” says Govea. “Providing in-store literature and having customer service contact info for manufacturers on hand for quick access can also help.”
To position themselves effectively to respond to product recalls, retailers must consistently monitor manufacturer websites, as well as the FDA product-recall web page (www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls). Of course, all products subject to recall should be removed from the shelf immediately and the vendor should be contacted for further instructions.
In addition, retailers should convey any and all information about the recall, and the store’s rapid response, to customers. A customer-loyalty program that tracks customer purchases through a POS system can be particularly useful in making sure that recall informat ion reaches affected customers quickly.
Retailers also must be prepared to teach and remind customers the proper way to handle pet food products in the home to ensure the safety of pets and owners alike.
According to Stacy Lapoint, owner of Fresh Is Best, a raw food and treat manufacturer based in Milwaukee, Wis., this is a subject in which many people could evidently use a crash course.
“In general, people need to wash their hands after handling anything their pet would consume,” she says. “There are videos all over YouTube of toddlers reaching into a bag of dog food and feeding it to a dog with their hands. And then what do they do, they crawl away and start touching their own faces and their own food. It is wrong for parents to think that pet food is that safe; it’s not human food, and it shouldn’t be treated like it is.
“People shouldn’t assume that pet food is bacteria-free. Even cooked diets have had recalls because of food-borne pathogens.”