Pet Food Manufacturers Pursue Advances in Nutrition, Sustainability

The past 12 months have been a roller-coaster ride for the pet food industry. The…

The past 12 months have been a roller-coaster ride for the pet food industry. The COVID pandemic was in full swing last summer, having a massive impact on pet food ingredients, production and transportation. A COVID-related change in safety worker protocols, as well as missing workers due to illness or quarantining, challenged manufacturers to meet the growing demand from consumers, many of whom were adding a new pet to their family during the pandemic.

Then, in September 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an update on its canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) investigation, stating that the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) examined approximately 150 dogs diagnosed with DCM to identify potential causative and recovery factors. The results showed that DCM is a multifactorial issue and that diet changes were not necessarily responsible for dogs that experienced partial or full recovery.

If the past 12 months have taught the pet food industry anything, it is to respect pet parents, who hold their companion animals to the highest regard after benefiting from the companionship, emotional support and sense of security that their pets brought them during the pandemic. Dogs and cats, especially, are often considered full-fledged members of the family. This has caused an evolution in what pet parents feed their companion animals.

“As a family-owned company, we don’t produce anything we wouldn’t feed our own pets, and we hold everything we produce to this standard,” said John Kampeter, vice president of sales and marketing at Diamond Pet Food. “In our partnership with the Pet Food Institute, we have come together with other pet food makers to help further our understanding of this complex issue. We continue to monitor this issue closely and support ongoing research efforts. In addition to supporting research efforts, we are committed to product safety and quality, which is why we adhere to stringent and scientifically advanced food safety protocols. We test and monitor every critical aspect of the manufacturing process: pre-production, production and post-production.”

“In all food industries – human, dog, etc. – consumers are looking more than ever for wholesome, natural products that are sustainably made,” added Katie McCarron, founder of Portland Pet Food Company. “In the pet food sector, this looks like two things: First, consumers are increasingly becoming more involved in preparing their pet’s meal or treats at home. Pet owners are either making these completely from scratch or are incorporating a mixture of wholesome toppers and fresh ingredients into their routine. This experience gives owners the enjoyment of feeling as though they are giving their pet the best.

“Secondly, pet owners are looking for brands that are transparent, sustainable, and stick with ingredients that are recognizable to the average consumer. Pet owners are becoming more and more knowledgeable about what is in their pet’s food, driving manufacturers to analyze the quality of their products and how to cater to today’s healthier dog.”

To achieve that consumer trust, Portland Pet Food Company works with the Oregon Food Innovation Program to develop its sustainable, local, AAFCO-regulated line of products. In addition, the brand partners with Pacific Northwest companies to ensure the 100 percent of its dog food is sourced and made in the United States.

“Consumer buying habits and trends in the pet food industry are constantly changing, and it is important to remain adaptable,” said John Kampeter, vice president of sales and marketing at Diamond Pet Food. “Regardless of what is currently trending in the pet food industry, pets continue to be part of the family and pet parents want nutrition that is as unique as their pet. What that means for us is continuing to provide a variety of types of food, including ancient grain and grain-free options, unique protein sources, limited ingredient formulas, performance formulas and specialized nutrition designed to help manage pets with unique needs like weight management or urinary support. We know that every pet is different with varying tastes and nutritional needs, and we strive to meet the needs of pets and the diverse feeding preferences of pet owners.”

One recent trend is pet food that is high in meat protein. Consumers view higher-protein foods as being healthier for pets, as they associate protein with maintaining muscle tone and a lean body condition. High protein means food that provides protein levels in excess of what dogs or cats need for normal maintenance. However, many industry analysts recommend pet parents should consult with a veterinarian about putting their companion animal on a high protein diet in case the dog or cat has special health issue or condition that could be impacted by the high levels of protein.

As many owners return to their pre-pandemic routines, the industry has discovered another rising trend is concern for their pets’ emotional wellness. ADM Pet Nutrition recently conducted a study of U.S. dog owners and found that 49 percent of owners are concerned that being away from home may exacerbate their dogs’ behavioral problems, such as crying, whining and barking, followed by health issues (41 percent) and separation anxiety (41 percent).

According to Amy McCarthy, VP of Pet Nutrition at ADM, those results mean pet parents may seek such ingredients as lavender, chamomile, probiotics and postbiotics to help ease their pets’ anxiety.

“In terms of food formats, texture plays a key role in supporting product appeal,” McCarthy noted. “For example, some cats want wet foods served loaf-style, while others prefer more of a stew with chunks and gravy. Many dogs thrive on dry kibble, which is a convenient, safe and nutritious choice for busy pet parents. New food formats popping up in the marketplace include fresh cooked, frozen, dehydrated and freeze-dried.”

The owner-friendly and easy to store and feed dry pet food has long been a major segment in the U.S. pet foods market. The ability for dry pet food to be left out for long hours without any spoilage is a convenience it offers for pet parents with a busy lifestyle.

However, not everyone is leaning their success on kibble-based pet foods. In his Five Questions profile with Pet Age in August 2020, Whitebridge CEO Olivier Amice discussed the different forms of dog and cat food.

“For [Whitebridge Pet Brands (WPB)], better nutrition means five things: Formulating recipes to the pet’s physiology, using natural and wholesome ingredients, producing highly palatable products, using manufacturing processes that are similar to how we prepare our meals at home and the fun and peace of mind for the pet parents who want to do the very best they can for their pets,” Amice explained. “The bulk of the dog and cat food market is dry and most of that is extruded kibble. For WPB, dry kibble is a tiny percentage of what we do. While kibble is convenient and less pricey for the consumer, we believe other food formats are better for pets. ‘Hydration through Food, Variety and Limited Processing’ provides better nutrition for humans and pets too. This is the reason our focus is on wet, including raw foods …”

Amice went on to relate the growth of wet pet food to the humanization of pets. This consumer demand is clearly on the Whitebridge CEO’s radar.

“We do not feed our kids the same meal everyday made of dry food,” Amice noted. “Why should we feed our pets exclusively dry kibbles? Wet food is more palatable that dry food, it provides more hydration which is especially important for cats and smaller dogs. Pets also enjoy variety in their meals. So wet is great, whether as a meal out of a can or a pouch, as a topper or even in a raw diet. Wet is good for the pet; it is satisfying for the pet parent to feed and it is good for the retailer, since wet food drives revenue. All the stars are aligned with wet. At WPB, we are bullish on the wet segment, and we want to continue to bring new news to the category.”

The wet food category has shown noticeable growth of late in the cat food sector on the strength of product development and advances in packaging technology. Whitebridge-owned Tiki Pet produces Tiki Cat, which features wet cat foods with a twist.

“Tiki Cat After Dark Pate capitalized on wet category growth, the popular pate format, with the knowledge that cats need meat and the demand for exotic proteins like rabbit,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing at Whitebridge. “Retailers are really excited about the future and the demand for new products is high… Brands continue to move into the grocery and FDM channels so specialty retailers have new space in store to support channel-exclusive brands.”

Tiki Pet is not the only pet food brand that is committed to supporting independent retailers. SquarePet Nutrition was founded in January 2018 by Peter Atkins. A former co-founder and co-owner of Natura Pet Products, Atkins explained his appreciation of the independent channel in Pet Age’s Five Questions profile on the SquarePet CEO in October 2019.

“Independent retailers are the lifeblood of the industry and are critical in bringing innovative new products to market,” he explained. “Creating SquarePet has given me the opportunity to do business with these great people again.”

SquarePet is unique in that it has built its brand around the notion of solution-based nutrition. The brand recently introduced a new line of premium solution-based nutritional diet options called VFS (Veterinarian Formulated Solutions). Designed and created by SquarePet’s team of veterinary professionals, including a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and PhD animal nutritionists, VFS provides a portfolio of premium and all-natural solutions-based diet options to help support a dog’s individual needs. VFS offers diet options that support the needs of individual dogs, including:

  • VFS Active Joints: A diet designed to support joint health that includes natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate from turkey necks, New Zealand green lipped mussel and eggshell membrane collagen.
  • VFS Skin & Digestive Support: This is a unique, limited-ingredient, hydrolyzed protein diet that can be beneficial for dogs that may be sensitive to common pet food ingredients.
  • VFS Ideal Digestion: This gentle diet contains a proprietary GI health blend of prebiotics, probiotics and dietary fiber sources to support digestive health and help maintain stool quality.
  • VFS Low Phosphorus Formula: This diet is designed to support dogs who may benefit from an all-natural low protein, low phosphorus and low sodium diet.
  • VFS Low Fat Formula: This diet is made with naturally lean MSC Certified sustainable, wild caught Pacific cod and ocean whitefish meal to create a highly palatable and easily digestible low-fat diet.

“As we all know pet parents are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and nutritionally savvy when it comes to their pets’ nutrition,” said Dr. Travis Atkins, chief science officer at SquarePet. “Instead of settling for a diet that may fit a few of the nutritional parameters they are seeking, our VFS diets are directed straight at the most common needs a pet owner may be looking to support.”

NutriSource is another brand committed to independent pet stores, and the Minnesota-based manufacturer looks for retailers where the focus is on health and nutrition. Launched earlier this year, NutriSource’s Element Series offers an advanced diet for canine companions created with nutrition in mind. Element is available in four animal protein-packed recipes, each containing at least 83 percent animal protein in response to consumers’ desire for a high quality, high animal protein option, while still maintaining the company’s focus on gut health with Good 4 Life Plus.

The company’s Good 4 Life mineral, prebiotic and probiotic supplement system focuses on the gut with the goal of improved digestion, nutrition utilization, cognitive and brain function, and skin and coat health.

“Good 4 Life supports proper absorption of the nutrients that matter to assure the pet’s body is adequately prepared to defend itself against infection and disease. Gut health and proper immune function are inextricably linked,” said Darren Fujii, CGO/National Sales Manager of NutriSource Pet Foods. “Disease begins in the gut. Conversely, so does good health. Good 4 Life works from the inside out to provide perfect results.”

Fujii says the Element Series offers an advanced diet for canine companions, adding that it allows the brand to “bring together the best elements of nature’s intention with cutting-edge nutritional concepts. It’s all part of our mission to provide your pet with unsurpassed gut health and support whole-body health.”

To further support digestion and nutrient utilization in this new line, Element is introducing Good 4 Life Plus, developed specifically for high animal protein diets. Good 4 Life Plus features Alltech Animal Nutrition’s NVGEN, a proprietary blend which includes prebiotics specifically formulated to feed the gut microbiome. It combines mannan rich fractions, yucca schidigera and yeast extracts designed to optimize the microbiome necessary for full utilization of a high animal protein diet.

“These bio-active compounds derived from specific fractions of yeast cells contribute to a more diverse and healthy microbial population, positively affecting the pet’s physiology,” noted Alltech’s global pet director Dr. Juan Gomez. With these nutrients positively influencing the gut microbiome, Element Series can be a cornerstone for a dog’s overall health.

Fromm is another brand that offers its products exclusively to neighborhood pet stores. The fifth-generation family business, which produces its recipes in the company’s family-owned manufacturing facility in Wisconsin, earlier this year launched its newest introduction to its Fromm Gold collection in Adult Gold with Ancient Grains, a new option for those feeding a grain-inclusive diet.

The recipe, formulated for adult dogs, features a blend of high-quality protein sources with a selection of wholesome ancient grains, including sorghum, buckwheat, spelt, millet, quinoa, whole barley and whole oats. The recipe is slightly lower in calories than the traditional Fromm Adult Gold and brings nutritional diversity to diets. And the formulation may also yield a better digestive match to dogs that might suffer from dietary intolerances to traditionally used grain ingredients.

“Whole grain diets have proven to be an important option to deliver complete nutrition to pets,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods. “With the use of ancient grain ingredients in Adults Gold with Ancient Grains, we’re providing yet another mealtime choice to deliver variety to the dinner bowl.”

In addition to the growing popularity of ancient grains, insect-based and vegan pet foods also are finding interest among an increasing number of pet parents who seek dog and cat food that contains less animal meat, obviously mirroring the trend in human food consumption. Look for this trend to continue to grow.

In June, Petco announced its expansion of Jiminy’s, which offers a line of sustainable, insect-based dog foods, to its 800 Petco pet care centers across the country. Jiminy’s products are formulated with insect-based protein powder instead of traditional protein options, such as beef or poultry. In the past year alone, Jiminy’s estimates its products saved 218 million gallons of water and averted 20.5 million grams of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Pet ownership’s carbon pawprint is massive, with more than 89 million dogs in the U.S. consuming more than 32 billion pounds of protein each year,” said Anne Carlson, founder and CEO of Jiminy’s. “Jiminy’s use of insect-based protein powders challenges pet owners to rethink their dogs’ diet and make a healthy choice for pets and the planet. We are excited to now be offering our full product line in stores and online at Petco, allowing more dog owners the opportunity to make the switch to alternative proteins for their pets.”

Offered in a variety of flavor options, Jiminy’s dog food products are made from natural ingredients in the U.S., under sustainable conditions. Good Grub Oven-Baked Kibble and Cricket Crave Oven-Baked Kibble are made of cricket and/or insect protein powder combined with other plant-based ingredients – including oats, sweet potato, quinoa and flaxseed – to create a nutrient-dense, delicious meal for dogs.

Petaluma, which offers a plant-based dog food, is one of the newest brands to enter the pet food arena. Co-founded by Garrett Wymore and Caroline Buck, Petaluma designed its plant-based food to be a “low-effort, high-impact way to live more sustainably.” The company goes on to describe its mission as “combating climate change, conserving water and natural land, and alleviating animal suffering by making more sustainable and humane choices” for an eco-friendly lifestyle.

The brand’s lead formulator is Dr. Blake Hawley, a veterinarian who possesses 25 year of experience developing scientific diets and pharmaceutical delivery products for pets. In addition, Dr. Hawley has developed deep nutritional expertise while designing hundreds of unique and specialized pet diets.

Instead of following the traditional kibble route of pressure cooking its food, the brand’s toasted clusters are mixed into dough, rolled into bites and baked for over 20 minutes in a convection oven. According to Petaluma, each baked bite has visible chunks of carrots, oats, parsley and seeds accompanied by a pleasant roasted peanut butter aroma. In addition, the baking process also protects essential nutrients that are lost in traditional kibble extrusion, including preservation of Omega-3 fats and a lower glycemic index.

Founded in 2002, Instinct has been producing frozen and freeze-dried raw pet food in its company-owned Lincoln, Nebraska facilities since day one. There is a saying at Instinct that “Real Food is Raw,” and the brand considers raw nutrition to be more than a trend that eventually fades away due to it lacking any foundation in science. According to Instinct, the brand is dedicated to raw nutrition because of a philosophy that raw and uncooked foods are more nutritient-dense than processed kibble and cooked, canned foods.

Science is a large part of what guides the brand, as Instinct’s first raw recipes were developed in partnership wtith the University of Nebraska and PhD-level nutritionists. In addition, Instinct reports that its research partnership with Dr. Anna Hielm-Bjorkman and the DogRisk research group has produced evidence that feeding a raw diet to puppies is associated with a lower chance of developing allergies and inflamatory bowel disease (IBD) later in life.

Instinct’s details the benefits of a raw food diet for dogs and cats on the company’s website, which states the following: “We believe that what we feed our pets can enable them to really thrive. In our minds, everything we feed our pets should be real, whole, pure, and as close to its natural state as possible. We really don’t see an alternative to that.”

Supreme Petfoods ranks among the best-sellers of small mammal food and treats. A mainstay in the small animal market, Supreme Petfoods had humble beginnings when it started as a simple farm in Suffolk, England, in 1991. The company’s Selective Naturals line of food has become a steady seller among consumers who keep rabbits and guinea pigs. Last year, the brand launched Science Selective House Rabbit as an extension to its award-winning Selective food range.

Supreme works with a network of experts in veterinary medicine and nutritionists, which enables the brand to be up to date on the latest scientific findings regarding an optimal diet for small herbivores and omnivores. This contributes to the formulation of recipes, which use only the finest natural ingredients.

“The science is important to us and a real driver for our product development,” said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods. “What we don’t put in, such as ensuring sugar is not added in the form of syrups or molasses and ensuring no meat can ever contaminate a herbivore diet, is as important as what we do put in. We select only the best quality ingredients, use fixed formulas and ensure total traceability. It’s about working to a high standard.

“Our biggest watchword is trust,” she continued. “We understand that pet parents need to trust us to work with integrity and to put the needs of their pets first. That also means being aware of our obligations to the planet and the local communities we work alongside.”

That dedication includes Supreme not using palm oil in its pet food products. Today, almost all palm oil is produced in, and exported from, Indonesia and Malaysia, where rain forests are being destroyed to make oil palm plantations, resulting in a variety of animals, including orangutans, being killed in the deforestation process.

It’s another example of the factors that manufacturers take into account when deciding on the lines of food offerings to produce for today’s ever-demanding consumer.