Plain ‘natural’ pet food does not cut it any more in the US market: today it is all about segmentation. What are the incoming trends?
Segmentation in the ‘natural’ market
As natural pet food has begun to mature and ‘go mass’, pet specialty marketers have segmented natural into various competing positionings, the most important of which has been grain-free/ancestral. As the grain-free claim demonstrates, many such products hinge in part on what they do not contain, in tandem with the ‘clean label’ movement in the larger US food industry.
In Packaged Facts’ Q1 2018 Pet Owner Survey, top ‘free-of’ product claims among dog and cat owners alike include no grains, limited ingredient diets, and gluten-free. Looking ahead, we expect to see additional free-of claims take hold, including carrageenan-free, BHA/BHT/ethoxyquin-free, potato-free and non-GMO.
Grain-free past its peak?
Nonetheless, the grain-free positioning may have peaked in the US market. One threat to the longevity of the grain-free pet food trend has to do with the FDA’s recent warning to pet owners and veterinarians about a potential link between grain-free diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Another potential threat is a reassessment of the prevalence of food allergies in pets: Banfield’s 2018 State of Pet Health Report indicates that food allergies affect just 0.2% of dogs and 0.1% of cats.
Well over a decade ago, following in the footsteps of the boom in organic foods for people, organic pet food appeared poised to take off. Along the way, however, organic pet food has run into stumbling blocks, including ingredient shortfalls stemming in part from competition from human foods, and the related prohibitively high prices at the manufacturing and consumer levels. The biggest hindrance, however, has been the unwillingness of major pet food marketers to embrace organic.
The reason: since 2002, the USDA has issued a number of contradictory statements with regard to organic pet food, creating an uncertain regulatory environment in which marketers must more or less proceed at their own risk. Ultimately, however, organic should play a role in pet food in proportion to its importance to the larger food industry.
Specialised trends to watch out for
Receiving much attention over the next few years, in addition, will be various additional specialised trends:
Pet foods and treats making ethical claims: humanely raised, cage-free, family farms, sustainably or locally sourced. Locally grown or sourced foods are an especially important trend in the US food market overall as more consumers look to support farms in their own communities and to reduce the amount of fuel used and pollution generated by shipping food long distances.
Raw pet food. Logistics are an issue in this product niche, however, since carrying raw/frozen pet food requires retailers to commit space to freezers that can require expensive retrofitting. With the advance of the raw pet food niche, moreover, have come numerous product recalls and some negative publicity.
‘Preserved dry’ pet food. Most of the excitement around raw pet food actually involves freeze-dried and dehydrated forms. Much easier to stock and feed than the raw/frozen pet food fare, freeze-dried and dehydrated products and ingredients have become popular as treats, toppers, or mixed with kibble. Within the industry, they have also come to be viewed as a route toward the ongoing premiumisation of dry kibble.
Product safety and Made in the US. Packaged Facts’ Q1 2018 Pet Owner Survey showed that 57% of dog owners and 55% of cat owners agree that ‘Fear of pet food contamination/product safety is a key consideration in the dog foods/cat foods I buy,’ and 69% of dog owners and 63% of cat owners agree they are concerned about the safety of the pet food, treats, and chews they buy.
Limited ingredient diets. The clean food trend dovetails into another, well-established pet food trend: diets containing a limited number of ingredients, which are often aimed at pets with allergies and pet owners interested in product transparency.
Trendy superfood ingredients. Superfoods – functional ingredients that are natural and even basic – continue to migrate from human foods into pet food and treat formulations. Apple, beet, berries, carrot, chick peas or lentils, egg protein, herbs (mint or parsley, rosemary, thyme), kelp, leafy green vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach), pumpkin or sweet potato, salmon oil for omega 3, and turmeric are prime examples. Also in this vein is prebiotic and probiotic supplementation, with consumers heavily associating probiotics with yoghurt.
Pet food prepared in store or home-delivered in customised formulations, especially homemade-type, small-batch packaged pet foods made with top-quality, all-natural, human-grade ingredients.
With marketers avidly seeking new ways to distinguish brands and ‘premiumise’ pet food and treats, expect to see new products playing these product formulation trump cards.
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