The push for unique, niche-targeted products is a relatively new concept in petfood.

As petfood production remains lucrative and competitive even through a rocky economy, new product releases mirroring human food trends are causing a stir among the more established and premium petfood manufacturers, with their innovative approaches and niche clientele. The key trend of humanizing pets continues to be an important focus for petfood manufacturers, as more and more of these mimic products are released.

According to a February 2009 article in Food Magazine (Australia), as brand development and marketing become ever more important in sustaining growth in the maturing domestic market for petfood, the success of manufacturers offering gourmet flavors shows consumers' ongoing willingness to buy more expensive products.

Your fork first

Unlike other food industries, says Food Magazine , the push for unique, niche-targeted products is a relatively new concept in petfood manufacturing. The article cites the 2007 recalls as a big reason for the recent humanization frenzy. Consumers started to ask a lot of questions about quality, safety and source, which caused a shift in the consciousness for the entire industry.

Clever puns that sound like human foods and expensive molds and dyes that make petfood look like human food are no longer enough for pet owners-they want innovative ingredients, health-conscious recipes and green-thinking marketing. Manufacturers can no longer afford to merely humanize their labels and packaging, rather than changing any of the ingredients or examining formulations. Educated pet owners want the fundamental driver of the product changed, the quality of the food being produced to be recognizable to that of what is on their own plates.

"We have made a decision to not just provide human food' ingredients, but to actually produce food that's manufactured as human food, that's processed as if it was going to be consumed by any person," says Helen McNall, owner of dog food company Wellbeing for Dogs. "The fact that it's going to be consumed by a furry creature doesn't, and shouldn't, really make any difference." Many pet owners agree with McNall's line of thinking when it comes to the importance of their pets' diet, and the petfood market has been quick to respond.

A sign of the times

McNall says the drive for Wellbeing for Dogs has been, "This is the food I want, now how do I manufacture it?" rather than, "This is what I can manufacture, how do I present it as food?" A completely foreign idea in the industry 10 years ago, this processing philosophy is a driver for growth for petfood producers. The appeal to be found for consumers lies in the heightened emotions now associated with pet ownership.

Euromonitor International predicts products that contain human-grade ingredients, particularly those that have been certified by statutory bodies such as the US Department of Agriculture, will become increasingly popular among US pet owners. Producers that can reassure consumers regarding the origin of their raw materials-like Pet Promise, the petfood company founded on that very idea-will also benefit. (To read more about Pet Promise's mission-based petfoods, see their March cover story ) Such niches as organic, fresh and vegetarian petfood are also likely to expand, much like the aisles of cereals, produce and frozen foods at the US retailer Trader Joe's continue to do.

Refrigerated fresh dog food is a growing market that is predicted to increase to US$473 million in annual sales by 2012, according to Packaged Facts. Many producers in this currently very niche market pride themselves on the familiarity of the ingredients in their products-something consumers appreciate. The Freshpet Select brand, for example, is a mixture of brown rice, eggs, peas, carrots and barely cooked meats (chicken, turkey, beef, liver), plus added vitamins and minerals. Packaged Facts attributes the popularity of fresh dog food to convenience, technological advances, better distribution channels and heightened food safety concerns.

Learning curve

A national survey released in October 2008 revealed many pet owners don't know what ingredients their pets' food contains, despite their effort to educate themselves on their own foods. The survey was commissioned by the Wellness brand of natural petfood and treats.

According to the survey, 66% of the pet owners said they feed their pets as if they were members of their families. However, 56% of pet owners said they always or often read the label of their own packaged foods, compared to 38% of dog owners and 38% of cat owners who said they always or often read the labels on their pets' food. Wellness also reported that only 38% of those surveyed said they understand all the ingredients listed on their dog food and cat food labels.

Bottom line: Pet owners want their food-whether it is going into their dog's bowl or on their families' plates-to be recognizable, safe and easily understood.

Why labels are important

Additional findings from the 2008 survey of pet owners conducted by Wellness petfood indicate consumers want the same amount of transparency they expect from their own packaged foods.

  • Over half of the pet owners worry that their cat or dog food contains ingredients they wouldn't want their pets to consume;
  • More than half of dog or cat owners (55%) don't know what federal body is charged with regulating petfood quality;
  • When asked to name the first ingredient listed on the label of their cat's dry food, 48% of cat owners answered they are not sure; and
  • When asked to name the first ingredient listed on the label of their dog's dry food, 44% of dog owners answered they are not sure.