Pet Food Market Trends

Something to Chew On: Consumers no longer a captive, passive audience

["These recalls may indicate that they are preventing illness by catching the problems earlier.", "While the media’s lack of reporting and context makes them an easy punching bag, the industry needs to do its part."]

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has posted an online FAQ about the recent spate of Salmonella-related petfood recalls online FAQ. I for one am glad to see it and especially gratified that the very first entry attributes the rise in recent incidents to increased awareness, renewed vigilance by petfood companies and regulatory authorities and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Reportable Food Registry.

As AVMA explains, the registry “requires and allows immediate reporting of safety problems with food and animal feed (including petfood), instead of relying on inspection to identify problems.” The veterinary organization concludes by stressing that the recent increase does not mean petfoods are unsafe. “Considering that the majority of these recalls have been precautionary and no illnesses have been reported, these recalls may indicate that they are preventing illness by catching the problems earlier.”

Unfortunately, not everyone  is taking such a reasoned, knowledgeable approach to disseminating information on petfood, Salmonella contamination or recalls. Consider these headlines screaming across the Internet in early August:

  • “Fido’s food could be making kids sick”;
  • “Tainted petfood sickened children”; and
  • “Your pet’s food dish could serve up Salmonella.”

Those are just a few examples from mainstream media about an article in the journal Pediatrics based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The report addressed Salmonella-related petfood recalls from 2006-2008 and how in some of those cases—especially a large recall in 2008 by Mars Petcare US—humans, including several children, became ill from the Salmonella.

A nasty bacterium  like Salmonella contaminating petfood and spreading to humans is definitely cause for concern. And the CDC report essentially verifying the link between the tainted petfood and the human cases is newsworthy. But from the headlines posted everywhere on the Web, you would think these were new cases and that children all across the US were falling prey to their pets’ food.

Of course, this type of coverage is symptomatic of the overall media culture these days—the need to fill a 24/7 news cycle with constant headlines while fact, context and relevance take a backseat to speed and volume. Some of you might argue that lack of depth or accuracy has followed the petfood industry since the 2007 melamine-related recalls.

But let’s not overlook  that much of the media coverage has sprung from heightened interest by consumers, which started in part because of those recalls and has not abated in the three years since. Pet owners are reading labels and researching ingredients, asking veterinarians and retailers for specific nutrition and product guidance and—perhaps most importantly—turning to each other for information and advice. Some of the blogs and websites that popped up during and just after the recalls were started by pet owners and are still functioning with considerable consumer input, as are new ones.

This is happening in the human food world, too, so even pet owners who aren’t as aware of or concerned about petfood recalls but who treat their pets as family members (as most do now) are likely to scrutinize ingredient labels of pet products as closely as they do for products for themselves.

While the media’s lack of reporting and context makes them an easy punching bag, the industry needs to do its part in meeting pet owners’ needs for information and communication. As Packaged Facts says, we’re now “dealing with a much better informed consumer market whose days of being a captive audience are indeed a thing of the past.”

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