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The concept of pet humanisation is not new, and its effects on pet food aisles in the US have been evident to even the most casual observer. Pet food labelled as “natural” or “grain-free” increasingly command larger portions of shelf space, and buzzwords like “superfoods”, “high protein”, or “freshly made” have migrated into pet food. Sales of premium pet food have significantly outpaced other price tiers and average unit prices have risen alongside consumer demand for higher-quality food for their pets. As consumers are increasingly concerned with eating a healthier diet as part of their own wellness regimen, they are looking to mirror these choices in the food they are choosing for their pets.

While the effects of pet humanisation have been most evident among consumers and the retail side of the market, the longevity of this trend is now making serious ripples across all levels of the pet food supply chain. This was a clear theme that emerged at the Petfood 2.0 conference in Chicago on 23-24 September 2014. A series of insightful speakers explored how various parts of the pet food supply chain are facing important new challenges in the face of pet humanisation and a consumer base that is more educated and discerning than ever before.

Pet health, raw diets and new obstacles

Much like their owners, pets in the US today are suffering from an epidemic of food-related diseases, with obesity and diabetes most prevalent. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 54% of dogs and cats in the US are obese. Owners regularly underestimate the severity of this problem, which causes respiratory distress, skeletal disease, immune deficiencies and a shorter lifespan. Obesity can also cause diabetes, which is especially prevalent among cats. Pet owners have responded to these epidemics through dietary management and an acute focus on the composition of pet foods.

Some pet owners are increasingly drawn to “raw diet” pet foods – both homemade and commercial – as a natural solution to pet nutrition that best fits the evolutionary diet of cats and dogs. Unlike regular pet food, however, commercially-produced raw food must take additional steps to ensure product safety. Raw food must be properly prepared to avoid bacteria or parasites like trichinella or toxoplasma gondii. These raw formulations must also ensure that pets are receiving a balanced diet that is not lacking key nutrients, which is often a problem with homemade raw food. As consumers are drawn to raw diet pet food, therefore, commercial manufacturers face the challenge of increasing production while preserving the safety and efficacy standards of food for pets and their owners.

Supply chain management and regulatory hurdles

At a time when food quality is of utmost importance for pet owners, product contamination and recalls can be devastating for a brand. In this atmosphere, manufacturers must become more diligent in supply chain management. Traceability is central, and manufacturers must be willing to audit, verify and test all levels of their supply chain on a regular basis. Diligence is vital with high-risk suppliers and the end goal should be to create deep, strong linkages across the supply chain. In the event of a recall, manufacturers must establish an effective recall plan to quickly and efficiently remove products from the market in order to protect pets and mitigate the damage done to the brand.

Pet food manufacturers also face increased regulatory scrutiny from federal agencies. Raw food, for instance, has been targeted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which recently issued a warning against raw pet food and recommended that all raw meat be cooked before consumption. Ingredient labelling, which falls under the purview of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), could also face increased scrutiny under the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA). This could have far-reaching impacts for those involved in pet food formulation and packaging. Manufacturers also face new requirements for monitoring their raw material suppliers under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA). These examples show that prior recalls and consumer concerns are clearly driving increased regulatory activity in the pet food market. Pet humanisation, therefore, has created new regulatory hurdles for manufacturers in addition to a more discerning consumer base.

A new way of thinking

Pet humanisation has changed the way that consumers think about pet food, and this has forced players across the supply chain to adapt. A focus on pet health has spurred interest in raw diet pet food, which brings new safety and regulatory challenges to the supply chain. At the same time, traceability and supply chain management have become increasingly essential to ensure product quality and continued trust by consumers. Recalls are devastating, and companies must develop an efficient and effective recall plan to protect their brands. Regulatory agencies are also becoming more involved, and the industry may face more stringent guidelines on labelling, ingredients, packaging and supply chain management under FSMA and FDAAA in coming years. In this way, pet humanisation trends are creating fundamental shifts across the entire supply chain of the US pet food market.

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