Organic products represent a small but growing segment of the pet care industry, with more manufacturers than ever offering up this type of fare for pet retailers that want to put themselves at the leading edge of the natural movement.
Of course, the human food and beverage sector is brimming with organic products as health- and eco-conscious consumers see and feel the benefits of a more natural diet, so it should come as no surprise that the pet industry is following suit. “Because consumers are looking more closely at their own food ingredients, they have begun looking deeper at their pets’ food, too,” says Heather Govea, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Natural Balance Pet Foods.
With pet parents keeping a closer eye on nutrition, Heidi Nevala, owner of Natura Petz, a manufacturer of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic supplements for cats and dogs, finds that these shoppers are increasingly becoming more educated on what constitutes organic standards.
“More and more pet parents believe there is a link between wellness in their animals, and the use of plant-based therapeutics,” she says. “For those customers, there is an underlying belief that organic products provide greater benefits over their pets’ lifetime, in terms of maintaining [optimal] health, as well as in helping to delay or prevent disease.”
However, although some pet owners are recognizing the benefits of organic products for their pets, it is still a niche market. Organic makes up a small percentage of the food pet owners are feeding their pets. Only six percent of dog owners surveyed for the 2011-2012 American Pet Products Association’s National Pet Owner Survey purchased organic food, with few using it most often—just two percent.
John Gigliotti, president of Whole Life Pet Products, which currently produces two USDA-certified organic treats, says the organic trend in the pet products industry is still about five years behind the human sector. “The majority of pet owners are not yet convinced that the added cost of organic is worth it,” he says. “It’s a small niche of the natural pet products industry, but one that we believe is growing and reflects the future.”
Some consumers’ slow acceptance may be due to the fact that the terms natural and organic can be confusing to those who may not necessarily understand the qualifications for such marketing claims. This often leads shoppers to view products with natural or organic claims with skepticism, says Nevala.
To clarify the terminology and convince consumers to dig deeper into their wallets for organic pet products, manufacturers are investing heavily in the category by working hard to obtain organic certifications and seals of approval to put on their product labels. In fact, certification is required to be marketed as organic. It is often a lengthy and expensive process for a product to be evaluated and accredited as organic, but manufacturers say it is well worth the time and effort.
“From a consumer perspective, I think the USDA organic certification is probably the most identifiable and likely credible label for pet food products,” Nevala says. The USDA-organic seal verifies that a product was made with 95-percent or more certified-organic content. If a product label claims it was made with specified organic ingredients, the company must be sure those specific ingredients are certified organic.
“With certifiers, it indicates that the entire manufacturing process has been stringently evaluated, including protecting our fragile environment through sustainable growth and harvesting procedures.”
Sustainable growth and harvesting procedures for organic products begins with soil, which must be free of prohibited substances, such as petroleum or sewage-based fertilizers, chemical pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, hormones and other synthetics. Additionally, the company has to maintain a detailed written record of all its product processes, and its sales are audited.
Some pet product manufacturers seek certifications from other domestic and international organizations, in addition to the USDA’s certification. Natural Balance’s Dick Van Patten Organic Formulas for dogs—which contain organic chicken, organic brown rice, organic oats and organic barley—has the Organic Crop Improvement Association’s (OCIA) seal prominently displayed on its packaging.
“The OCIA is one of the world’s oldest and most trusted leaders in the organic certification industry,” Govea says. “To become certified organic, we submitted a written application to OCIA. Our application was then reviewed and approved by certifying agents, and our manufacturing facilities were inspected and approved according to USDA-organic regulations.”
The experts agree that customers are increasingly looking for that seal on a product’s packaging. “Labeling is very important in the organic category because clearly printed labels give the consumer immediate information when considering which food to choose for their pet,” Govea says.
In order to meet regulation standards, manufacturers must align themselves with reputable
ingredient suppliers, and many go to great lengths to find those suppliers.
Nevala adds that USDA-certified organic labels help boost consumer confidence in a market that is increasingly saturated with natural product claims. “These accredited agencies assess and monitor quality, so as a consumer, if you believe that organic products better support natural health in your animal, these types of certifications can help you feel more confident that the quality matches the label,” she says.
In order to meet regulation standards, manufacturers must align themselves with reputable ingredient suppliers, and many go to great lengths to find those suppliers. Whole Life Pet Products, for example, has worked hard to develop strong relationships with its organic suppliers: Stahlbush Island Farms, an Oregon-based farm that supplies the organic sweet potatoes used the company’s Organics Sweet Potato treats, and Petaluma Poultry, a California-based farm that supplies Whole Life with organic chicken, which is used in the company’s Organics cat and dog treats.
“It’s all about relationships,” says Gigliotti. “You have to have a standard that you adhere to and find suppliers with the same vision and the same integrity.”
That same philosophy applies to pet specialty retailers who may be looking to add more organic products to its store’s shelves. “Often, [stocking organic products] matches [a retailer’s] business philosophy because they’re committed to providing truly healthful pet products,” Nevala says. “I applaud independent retailers, because they work so hard to research supplements and food ingredients, and they are savvy, frontline educators for their customer base.”
Retailers can become better educated on the organic certification process by talking to their suppliers, which are ready and willing to arm retailers with the knowledge needed to better explain to customers why spending a little more for a product with certified-organic seals of approval is worthwhile. With the industry facing so many product recalls, especially in the treats and food categories, retailers that understand and carry reputable, certified-organic products are poised for success in the steadily growing category.
“It’s another way to differentiate yourself and add credibility to your story,” says Gigliotti. “Small independent retailers are where educated pet owners go to find the latest and best products, so having an organic offering makes perfect sense.”