A Natural History
by Pamela Mills-Senn
December 31, 2011
Manufacturers of natural pet foods have emerged from humble, wholesome beginnings to become true contenders for market share in pet specialty.



One thing differentiating many manufacturers of natural dog foods from their conventional counterparts—aside from their products, of course—is their personal connection to what they do. Whether they have been in the business for generations or they are new to the market, these companies have channeled a passion for pets into a booming business that benefits manufacturers, retailers, and pet owners and their pets.

Consider Steve’s Real Food, a Murray, Utah-based manufacturer of frozen and freeze-dried diets for dogs and cats. According to Nicole Lindsley, marketing and sales manager for the 14-year-old company, founder Steve Brown developed the line when he noticed his dogs lacked energy. Concerned, he undertook extensive research on diets.

“He found that wholesome human-grade food was the only thing you should be feeding your pets,” says Lindsley. “This is why we do not put any synthetic pet food ingredients in the product.”  

Christine Hackett, president and formulator for Sequim, Wash.-based Petropics LLC, had a similar awakening. In business since 2005, Petropics manufactures Tiki Dog and Tiki Cat brand canned gourmet whole foods for dogs and cats designed for prevention and treatment.

“Years ago, I began working in the area of pet nutrition for one of America’s largest pet store chains, developing formulations for their private-label program,” Hackett recalls. “As I learned about the traditional pet food ingredients and began to interpret labels and AAFCO definitions, I [compared] it to what I was feeding my household pets. I’ll never forget the sense of guilt and betrayal I felt from a brand I had grown up trusting.”

Other natural pet food manufacturers have a long history of involvement in the pet industry. For example, family-owned and -operated Fromm Family Foods, headquartered in Mequon, Wis., was founded in 1904. The company began marketing pet food for dogs and cats in 1949, says owner Tom Nieman, adding that, in 1939, the company introduced the first canine distemper vaccine to the market. Product lines include Fromm Classics, Fromm Gold Nutritionals and Fromm Four-Star Nutritionals.

Tuffy’s Pet Foods, a division of KLN Enterprises, Inc., was founded in 1964 by Darrell “Tuffy” Nelson and his son, Kenny, says Kirk Dietz, regional sales manager for the Perham, Minn.-based business. The company is now a third-generation, family owned and operated dog and cat food manufacturer. Its brands include Tuffy’s Pet Foods, PureVita, Nutrisource and Natural Planet Organics.

Then there’s Natura Pet Products, Inc. Founded more than 20 years ago, the Fremont Neb.-based company manufactures products for dogs, cats and ferrets, says David Everson, vice president. Brands include Innova, Evo, California Natural, Karma, Mother Nature and Healthwise.

Another thing setting many natural product manufacturers apart from their conventional counterparts is their commitment to supporting small-business owners. Many either sell their entire product lines or certain brands exclusively through independent pet retailers—giving these stores an edge over big-box and mass retail competitors. This arrangement also benefits manufacturers.

“We…appreciate the intimate buying experience that customers have when shopping at independently owned shops,” says Nieman. “Independent store owners and employees are often more knowledgeable about animals, nutrition and well-being, and really strive to partner with their customers to find the best food for their pet.”


Getting Easier
In a real sense, these manufacturers were like the voices crying out in the wilderness when it came to the value of feeding dogs a natural diet. But now people are paying attention, particularly as food sensitivities are on the rise, along with skin and allergy problems, says Everson. Pet owners, he explains, have been noticing sensitivity issues developing around the more common proteins and have been on the hunt for more novel sources of protein.

The pet-food contamination recalls also raised the profile of natural foods, shifting their interest to these items—a switch that’s endured despite the recession. Buzz about these diets on the Internet has continued to fuel demand for natural products, as consumers can instantly access information about pet health and nutrition.

“Consumers are much more informed and plugged into finding the best options to keep their pets healthy and happy,” Nieman says. “They’re also willing to spend a little more to find the best in nutrition. For these reasons, many are gravitating to natural and more premium pet foods.”

Rotational feeding is another trend picking up steam. Everson says a study of consumers who shop independent stores revealed that 49 percent switched their dog’s food regularly or occasionally within a year. This just makes sense, says Dietz. Rotational feeding is more intuitive and diverse, he explains, similar to what their diets would be in the wild. It also provides access to different amino acid profiles.

But it’s not all smooth sailing for natural pet food manufacturers or for retailers selling them. Hackett says shifting consumer preferences have caused some big-name conventional brands to launch their own natural lines, intensifying competition.

“[Consequently] niche brands, like ours, that are finding their message repeated on the packaging of the larger manufacturer’s new brand lines must take inventory and ensure our message, story and mission, and our commitments to our retailers is clearly and effectively communicated,” Hackett says.

As part of this effort, the criteria of what constitutes “natural” will become more exacting, involving things like food format, ingredients, processing, price, benefits, and country of origin, she adds.

Competition has forced companies to find meaningful ways to differentiate themselves, and not just by their products alone. For example, Steve’s has introduced sustainable packaging, further communicating its environmental commitment. The company is also using technology, developing a mobile website and putting QR codes on its packaging. “This allows customers to scan the code and be taken directly to a page that will compare all the raw food brands and then get a coupon that can be redeemed on the smart phone,” Lindsley explains.

The crowded natural pet foods bandwagon, and the fact that the term “natural” is unregulated, also requires that retailers do their homework to ensure the product is what it claims, she adds. “Follow the number-one rule of pet food analysis—look at the ingredients,” Lindsley says. “Are they using muscle and organ meat? Are there any ingredients that you [don’t recognize]? Are they using synthetic vitamins? A truly natural food will not need vitamin packs to achieve the appropriate nutrient levels.”

Store organization depends on what kind of retailer you are, says Lindsley. Retailers selling all kinds of products in addition to natural may consider developing a “natural” section to make these diets easier to find. She advises retailers that carry only natural products, however, to group diets by “good,” “premium” and “super premium.” Retailers can also devise organic, grain-free and raw indicators to provide additional direction. “This can be done through color-coded signage or icons on pricing stickers,” she says. 

Hackett advises retailers to make themselves the “go-to” destination for customers by educating themselves and their staff on the products they carry and their benefits.

“Consumers are looking for retailers that care, that are responsible in their own buying decisions in the products they offer, and who perceive them as family and not just as a dollar sign,” Hackett says. “Consumers…support our success with their purchases, and it’s so important to acknowledge this through great service and a great shopping experience.”