Online discussions and networking sites offer the industry a way to share knowledge. - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

Last year saw a record number of global new petfood product introductions: 2,553 SKUs (stock-keeping units), according to Productscan Online, a datamonitor service. And that figure was only through October 15, 2008, the latest data available for Packaged Facts to include in its report Pet Food in the US , released in January.

The SKUs comprised a total of 669 new product launch reports. Of those, Productscan and Packaged Facts say, the most frequent marketing or packaging claim was "natural," with 183 instances. Also showing up were claims such as high protein (115 mentions), no wheat (67) and no gluten (38).

These claims caught my eye because of the increasing number of new petfoods developed on the concept that the best, most nutritious pet diets are grain-free and "evolution based"- using only ingredients that pets would eat if still living in the wild. (For more on these products, see the March 2009 article, " Petfood Goes Wild ".) Judging by an ongoing discussion thread and blog posts on the new networking site Petfood-Connection , the products are catching the attention of many others in the industry.

Don't shudder!

Say "blog" or "online discussion" to many petfood professionals and they might shudder or become rather agitated. We all know of too many petfood-related blogs and websites that proliferate misinformation or emotion-fueled opinions backed by little to no fact or science, especially since the 2007 US petfood recalls.

But there are well-done, well-informed blogs and sites, too, and blogging as a form of online communication and dissemination has proven its worth in many instances. The same can be said of social networking sites-once the province of teenagers and online junkies but now a valuable tool for many people and groups, including professional ones, to connect and share information and knowledge.

That's why we started Petfood-Connection : to be an online community and communication nexus for petfood professionals around the world. Though it's hosted by Petfood Industry (and our parent company, WATT), our goal is for it to belong to its members. We keep an eye on it for any truly inappropriate or objectionable content, but otherwise we don't edit, filter or delete anything posted.

This can lead to some interesting exchanges of thought and experience-such as the recent discussion on grain-free petfoods.

Much flurry?

Most of the Petfood-Connection members participating in the discussion think the primary reason for this trend is the growing number of pets becoming allergic to more traditional petfood ingredients, including commonly used grains. "I am no expert on this, but I suggest allergies might be polyfactoral in that it may be a combination of genotype or breeding line, component of the diet and maybe even more importantly component of the diet early in the pet's life," posted one member.

Other members mentioned consumer views as a possible driver of the trend. "The perception of pet owners that animals are carnivores is another point," one posted.

Tom Willard, PhD, a nutritionist, threw cold water on all the heat over grain-free on the Petfood-Connection blog . "Like so many topics on the internet, there is much flurry, a lot of emotion and little data or facts presented," he wrote. "I do believe grain-free diets may benefit a few animals, but as a whole it is misleading to say that a grain-free diet is better than one with whole grains or other sources of carbohydrates. Grains supply many beneficial nutritional constituents such as natural antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals that do not exist in non-grain sources such as potatoes. In addition, grains furnish carbohydrates necessary to support cooking or gelatinization. Allergies are almost always associated with the protein fraction, not the carbohydrates."

Join the discussion

Regardless of where you side on the grain-free debateor any other trend or issue affecting the industry-you can join the discussion, too. Just go to Petfood-Connection.com ; it takes minutes to sign up, and membership is free to any professional involved in the global petfood industry.