The black eye that the pet food category suffered from the massive recall in 2007 has yet to fade. Although six years have passed since products from dozens of pet food brands were pulled from retail shelves because of possible melamine contamination, recalls remain a fact of life in the category, and each one sends aftershocks of doubt through the pet-owning public.
Take Dr. Mike Sagman, for example. Shortly after losing a pet due to what he describes as an “unquestioned trust of commercial pet food” in 2007, Sagman, a dentist by trade, launched Dog Food Advisor, a blog devoted to informing other pet owners about pet-food ingredients and recalls. Sagman, who takes a decidedly skeptical slant with his blog, has attracted tens of thousands of followers, a testament to just how fragile consumer trust is today.
“Consumer confidence in pet food is not in its best condition or healthy right now,” Sagman says. “People are very upset about recalls, and they want to know more about what is in dog food. While the federal government requires manufacturers to say where the products are manufactured, [manufacturers] do not have to tell us where ingredients are from, so consumers are very distrustful of that right now because of the recalls.”
By all accounts, pet food is the cornerstone of any thriving pet store, so retailers simply cannot afford to ignore consumer concerns with this segment of the business.
Curt Jacques, who owns West Lebanon, N.H.-based West Lebanon Feed & Supply with his wife Sharon, understands the impact that low consumer confidence can have on his business. “If customers did not trust the food we provide here, they wouldn’t buy pet food from us, and it would affect half of our sales,” he says. “It would be a huge hit for us.”
With so much at stake, it is crucial for both manufacturers and retailers to earn and maintain consumers’ trust that the food they feed their pets’ is safe and nutritionally sound—and trust begins in the bag.
The question is: Are retailers and manufacturers doing what it takes to earn that trust?
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all animal foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be truthfully labeled, there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. Without that stamp of approval, consumers are left to trust that manufacturers are being honest about ingredients and other claims. However, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), while it has no regulatory authority, works to ensure consumer protection.
“AAFCO has created model pet-food regulations that have been adopted by many states,” says Siobhan DeLancey, FDA spokesperson, who notes that the FDA regularly works with AAFCO—a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies that regulate pet foods and animal drug remedies. “These regulations are more specific in nature, covering aspects of labeling such as the product name, the guaranteed analysis, the nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions and calorie statements.”
Going Above and Beyond
However, even with AAFCO setting baseline standards for pet food manufacturers, pet owners are demanding more. Sagman says that media coverage of recent recalls due to questionable pet-food ingredients has increasingly caused pet owners to seek more transparency from manufacturers about where their ingredients are sourced. According to Sagman, Natura Pet Products is a shining example of this type of transparency.
The company’s website, SeeBeyondTheBag.com, provides extensive information about where Natura sourced every ingredient used in each of the company’s six brands, which includes Innova, Evo, California Natural, HealthWise, Mother Nature and Karma. The site also has information about the company’s commitments to safety and quality.
“The website shows every ingredient and every country that it comes from, and it’s updated regularly,” Sagman says. “It’s phenomenal what they’ve done, and that’s what companies should be doing.”
Christine Hackett, owner of Petropics, which makes Tiki Cat and Tiki Dog gourmet food, also believes there is a need for pet food manufacturers to be more honest with pet owners. “What I am hoping to see in the near future is better transparency, a world in which manufacturers put consumers and pets first and build a profitable business from this foundation,” she says.
As a former employee for a big-box pet specialty chain responsible for research and development, Hackett understood consumer concerns long before launching the Petropics brands in 2005. She was aware of the pet food segment’s history of quality-control issues, product recalls and manufacturing practices. This awareness guided Hackett in the founding principles she developed for Petropics’ formulas, which includes a “no-compromise food philosophy,” meaning the company does not sell products that humans could not consume.
The company’s entire line is made with “human grade for human consumption” certified foods, and its “trust but verify” policy utilizes a third-party lab to test during production run to ensure honesty, integrity and quality control standards, according to Hackett.
“Consumers are quickly figuring out that there are real people and companies behind brands, and they invest in brands based on their history of protecting pets from contamination, their back story, their commitment to [consumer] concerns and their integrity.”
Hill’s Pet Nutrition USA is another food manufacturer that understands how much pet owners value a commitment to safety and quality. Chris Rector, Hill’s marketing director, says the company aims to out-perform industry standards to ensure the integrity of its products. Hill’s products are manufactured in its own facilities and are scrutinized through the company’s “positive release policy” before hitting store shelves.
“We have feeding trials, and we analyze all of our ingredients before they come into the factory, to be sure they are within our specification,” Rector says. “We scrutinize our products for any contaminants prior to it being released to our customers. So unless it passes the test, it doesn’t get released.”
Natural Balance Pet Foods also boasts of a stringently preventative approach in ensuring the safety of its products. Its food products undergo rigorous testing, according to strict quality-control standards before distribution, says Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and marketing at Natural Balance. And in the name of transparency, the company delivers the results of those tests to the end consumer.
“Every production run of Natural Balance Pet Food is tested for nine known contaminants before distribution, so customers can buy with confidence and know that their pet food is safe,” Govea says. Through the company’s Buy With Confidence program, Natural Balance customers can visit the company’s website and enter the product date code on the bag to find actual laboratory results posted in real time.
Meanwhile, safety is not the only game-changing concern that pet owners have today. Pet food manufacturers are equally focused on meeting a growing demand for quality nutrition and all-natural diets.
In a market more focused on natural pet foods, Hill’s—long known for its Science Diet brand—recently launched its Ideal Balance line, which Rector says addresses these consumer concerns. To meet pet-owner demand for wholesome, healthy nutrition for their four-legged friends, Ideal Balance combines natural ingredients like chicken, salmon, fruits and vegetables, and the line does not contain corn, wheat or soy.
“Consumers are looking for ingredients that are easily recognizable on ingredients panels,” Rector says. “We’ve applied our quality and nutritional standard to Ideal Balance to make sure the pet is getting exactly the nutrition they need for their best health. We’re taking the heritage of Hill’s and marrying that to the natural space to give consumers what they are asking for.”
With manufacturers’ reputations shaping the way consumers shop for pet food, pet specialty retailers that align themselves with the right brands are positioned for continued success in the category.
Paul Cooke, vice president of industry relations at Nestlé Purina PetCare Company, says retailers across the board—in mass, grocery and specialty—are doing just that. “Retailers that have embraced pet foods specifically focused on health and wellness, as well as proper nutrition and quality-of-life improvements, have been successful,” he says.
Still, health-focused retailers are not relying solely on manufacturers’ claims to determine their food assortments. They are establishing their own guidelines in choosing foods to stock on their stores’ shelves. For example, Pet Food Express, an Oakland, Calif.-based chain with about 40 stores, has focused on healthy, holistic foods for over 10 years and has established its own quality-food standards. “We truly try to do what is right as opposed to what is just good for sales, and this dictates our food decisions,” says Michael Levy, founder and president of the chain.
According to its food standards, the chain will not stock foods with suspect ingredients, which includes unspecified animal by-products or animal by-product meals, animal fat, meat and bone meal, BHA, BHT and propylene glycol, and artificial colors or flavors. “We won’t sell anything that we wouldn’t feed to our own pets,” Levy says.
Further, Pet Food Express has backed up its product assortment by putting strict recall and return policies in place to ensure its customers are buying the safest, most nutritious food from its stores. Customers are updated about recalls with signage throughout the store and on the Pet Food Express website, and the entire line of recalled products are pulled from its shelves. For example, Levy says, if a manufacturer recalls one can of cat food, Pet Food Express would not only pull that can, it would pull every single item off that manufacturer off the shelves.
“We also offer 100-percent satisfaction guarantee,” Levy says. “Our policy is to take back any food—or for that matter anything in our stores—for any reason. We have a very liberal return policy because it goes back to trust.”
Established return policies are particularly effective in the event of a recall, says Jeffrey Manley, co-owner of Savannah, Ga.-based TailsSpin. “We know not every dog or cat is going to like the food, but having that policy in place, when something like a recall comes in, our customers know they can bring it back with no issues,” he says. “That in itself creates a piece of mind for the consumer.”
Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of TailsSpin, notes that even with established policies, a well-educated staff, in addition to product diversity, is key in ensuring that customers can trust the food on the shelf. “We keep in touch with our customers all the time,” Bernhard says. “We know their names, we know their pets, and we know what each dog needs. We keep increasing our staff in order to maintain that relationship with our customers because we believe it’s important.”
Developing a strong customer connection is what drives TailsSpin’s owners to learn as much as possible about pet nutrition. For customers that walk in the door, discouraged because their dog will not eat, TailsSpin’s staff suggests foods that may not have been on that customer’s radar. “Some people come in and their idea of feeding their pet is so regimented,” Manley says. “We want to be partners with customers and try to help them come up with a diet that is going to work.”
With so much invested in the food aisle at West Lebanon Feed & Supply—the store has seen a 16-percent growth in food sales over last year—Jacques also understands that building lasting relationships with customers is crucial to his store’s success. “Education has helped spur a huge growth in our company because people are more confident,” Jacques says. “If they have an issue, they ask us what to do, because they trust us.”
Jacques says knowledge plays an important role in establishing that trust. West Lebanon carries 35 different manufacturers’ food brands and relies on developing strong partnerships with pet food suppliers to educate consumers. Jacques believes that retailers working with manufacturers and helping them be more innovative in their approach to creating new products is another way the pet food category will be successful for both manufacturers and retailers in the future.
“We need to work together as a team,” he says. “For our industry to survive, we need to make sure we can do the best we can in educating consumers and bringing in good products. We need to be proactive on nutrition and educated on the latest and greatest—but it’s about responsible nutrition and responsible knowledge.”