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Live at Petfood Essentials: Pet Snacks Put Emphasis on Health, Safety

COVID has had a profound and lasting effect on how we view the pets in our lives, and what we expect in the way of functional health, nutrition, safety, and more in their treats.

As pets become an increasingly integral part of the family, consumers change their spending habits, along with their focus on wellness and safety.
As pets become an increasingly integral part of the family, consumers change their spending habits, along with their focus on wellness and safety.

Kicking off the informational sessions and exhibits that will encompass this week’s Petfood Forum, the focus today at Petfood Essentials was on pet snacking. Treats for our pets are no small matter. The global pet treat market reached more than $8 billion in sales in 2023 and, with a CAGR of about 5.3%, is expected to hit $14.5 billion by 2032. It’s a market that is not only growing in size, but in importance as we look at what we expect those snacks to do for our pets.

COVID’s lasting effect on behaviors

Suzy Badarraco, president at Culinary TidesSuzy Badarraco, president at Culinary Tides

COVID has had a lasting effect on consumer behaviors, including the way we buy for our pets, according to Suzy Badarraco, president at Culinary Tides, who kicked off today’s Petfood Essentials sessions. “The behavior has changed dramatically from what you would normally predict to happen to what they are actually doing,” she says. “For instance, sustainability usually drops through the floor when there’s an inflationary period. That’s not actually happening. They’re still spending on sustainability selectively.”

Consumers are not going toward comfort food, Badarraco says, but are instead exploring new flavors. They’re also not dropping their spending on health foods. Vegetarian behaviors are also going up in consumers, which extends to the pet industry. “But I’ll tell you: They’re not saving the planet; they’re saving their wallets,” she says. “It’s cheaper to be vegetarian. Sometimes they impose that upon the pet.”

Some key health trends:

  • 56% would pay more for a product labeled healthy (IFIC).
  • 47% are interested in products to support functional needs (Innova).
  • 80% consider their pet’s health to be as important as their own (Beneo).
  • 78% will pay more for clean label, natural claims (Ingredion).

When it comes to sustainability, there’s a high level of ignorance from consumers about what various claims mean. A quarter of them cannot articulate what makes a product sustainable, 60% don’t know what carbon neutral means, and most don’t know how to identify a sustainable company. “If you’re not talking about it, they have no idea you’re sustainable,” Badarraco says.

Beware the difference between pet treats and supplements

Bill Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement CouncilBill Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement Council

“It’s easier to stay out of trouble than it is to get out of trouble,” says Bill Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement Council, who warned pet treat folks to be very careful about whether their benefit claims put them on the treat side or the supplement side of pet products.

“You can be one or the other, but you can’t be both,” Bookout says, speaking at today’s Petfood Essentials. “First and foremost, it’s the intended use as established by the claims or benefit statements that determine which regulatory pathway that product is going to go down.”

By definition, treats are food. But if you mention pain relief as one of the benefits, that’s a red flag because you might be lapsing into drug territory.

Bookout detailed a number of pitfalls that you need to watch out for as the pet supplement market becomes increasingly enticing. It’s a growing market, particularly since COVID. Not only are people looking more at how dietary supplements can improve their health, but they’re also increasingly seeing their pets as important members of the family that merit the same considerations.

There’s a $2.4 billion pet supplement opportunity, with 14% of pets taking dietary supplements, according to 2021 data. That compares with a $60 billion market for human supplements, with 73% of humans taking dietary supplements. “75% of the people that are taking products now have pets,” Bookout says. “So it seems like it’s naturally extendable that the market would be a positive opportunity for expansion.”

(Side note: During the break, I talked with the president of a nutraceuticals company who is specifically looking at the pet industry for the first time because of the possible opportunities there—as prices on the human side plummet.)

But be careful: “The ingredients have to support the intended use, and the delivery form is also extremely important,” Bookout says. But you also have to be careful about the terms you’re using to describe the product. “You can literally make a one-word mistake that completely changes how a product is regulated or viewed by a regulator.”

“Antioxidants” might be fine, for example, to describe the benefits of your treats, but start going into detail about “free radicals,” associated with the aging process, and you could be in trouble.

What you need to know about pet treat safety

Maria Cattai de Godoy, associate professor of companion animal and comparative nutrition in the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal SciencesMaria Cattai de Godoy, associate professor of companion animal and comparative nutrition in the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Sciences

Last year, people spent $147 billion on their pets in the U.S., with the average pet parent spending $287 a year on their dogs (a little less on their cats). It was within this context that Maria Cattai de Godoy, associate professor of companion animal and comparative nutrition in the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Sciences, spoke today of pet treat safety.

The pet treat safety roadmap is an extremely convoluted and arduous one, Godoy says, considering formulation and ingredients, facility design and processing methods, packaging, storage and distribution, and safe use and handling—all in the face of Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements around hazard analysis, preventive controls, verification procedures, etc.

Although Godoy makes a careful distinction between food safety and quality, there is an important overlap between the two, and that is physical property. Although generally considered a quality attribute, the pet can change the equation by consuming something whole that is not intended to be consumed whole.

Godoy went into some detail on the In Vitro Dry Matter Disappearance (DMD) testing done for clients at the University of Illinois. It’s a rapid method used to analyze treat samples. It doesn’t use animals for testing, but it provides a good correlation with in vivo digestibility. “We’re trying to mimic what happens in the stomach and small intestine of an animal,” Godoy says.

Although clients might argue against it, she always urges them to test the whole treat—in the largest size offered. It might not be the way it’s intended to be eaten, but it doesn’t mean an animal won’t do it anyway. “There will always be that one animal that will try and succeed,” she says. “That one will come and blow your brand.”

Such digestibility testing is so important in the treat industry, noted the attendee sitting next to me afterwards, who’s concerned about the bad rap that rawhides have gotten because of products in the market that don’t break down properly. Those made with coatings that keep them from breaking down quickly are the real culprits in choking hazards, and this sort of DMD testing would go a long way to showing what products are actually safe.

 

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