Recently Petfood Industry interviewed Tiffany Bierer, director of health sciences and nutrition for Mars Petcare US, about the company's new WholeMeals line of dog food. Also sitting in was Debra Fair, Mars public relations manager.

Click here , here and here for audio clips of the interview!

Petfood Industry : So Tiffany, are you the main nutrition person behind WholeMeals?

Tiffany Bierer: Yes, I'm the director for the health and nutritional sciences group department. And I'm one of the people who have been involved with WholeMeals kind of since the beginning-since the dawn of time as it would have it. It originally started about 2001. We've been working on it for quite a few years. A whole group of pet experts, including the folks at our Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, have been involved in the whole concept and bringing it together.

Petfood Industry : And what was the impetus?

Bierer: Really what we're trying to do is give something new for a dog. Something that would be more in tune with their natural feeding behaviors. Something that would give them a lot more enjoyment in the product, but would also be much more healthier for them. So you look at a bowl of kibble and a bunch of little pieces of food and we think is that really the way a dog should eat; is that the way they really want to eat? That's kind of where it started and moved from there, into giving them something that's just so different, so revolutionary. You know it really does change the way not just that we're feeding our dogs, but it changes the way they're eating, and makes them much happier and healthier on top of it. That's really what we're going for.

Petfood Industry : So it's considered a whole meal?

Bierer: Yes. WholeMeals is a 100% complete and balanced meal. It completely takes the place of whatever you're feeding your dog now. So instead of feeding that bowl of kibble you can put these WholeMeals pieces in the bowl instead, and that's what they'll eat. It's a very different experience.

We've done a lot of work with behaviorists. At the Center for Nonverbal Studies what they do is they study body movements, facial movements and what they really mean. They helped us do some studies with dogs to compare regular dry kibble to WholeMeals to see what the difference is. They helped us look at the differences between the dogs, and what they saw was a lot more feeding satisfaction and enjoyment cues coming from the dogs when they're eating the WholeMeals product.

For example, when you feed a bowl of dry food you see the dog go over, they stick their head in; normally they don't look up, they'll just lean over a bowl and inhale a big bowl of food and that's it. There's not much interaction with the food, you don't really see any differences between the dogs. With WholeMeals it's so very different. You see the dog walk up, pick up the bone, they can carry it around, they can decide where they eat the food, they can decide how fast they eat. You see dogs, it amazes me every time watching them play with it. They toss it in the air, they play around with it, they show it off to their friends and neighbors, they show it off to their family running around the house wagging their tail.

The funniest part is you try to videotape the dog, and it's real easy when you got a bowl and they sit there and eat, but when you've got WholeMeals they immediately pick it up and they're off trying to find the place they want to be at. It is the most difficult thing to film and it sounds really weird, but it really is funny.

Petfood Industry : Have there been any kind of complaints from consumers about it being a mess around the house?

Bierer: No, not at all. And you know what, we actually did think about that, we wondered if it would be a mess. But it hasn't been a problem at all; people actually enjoy it because they watch their dogs go to what they call their favorite spots. It's actually one of the things that people realize that their dogs really like. It's because they immediately take it to what they call their dog's favorite spot, and that's where they always eat it. And that's where you see the difference, too; they lie down and eat it versus standing up over a bowl. They use their paws and they move it around with their paws to different sides of the mouth, and you can really see the look on their face. Sometimes you can just look in a dogs face and they look up at you with their little half-closed eyes as they're just enjoying it, wagging their tail and it makes you feel really good that you've really given them something that's so enjoyable to them yet so good for them at the same time.

Debra Fair: They actually enjoy it a lot longer, they feed a lot longer, and it's got some wonderful benefits with plaque and tartar reduction.

Bierer: We have done clinical studies on oral health. There are four different sizes of product from the large to the toy. We've based those on some biometric work that we did looking at bite force (how hard dogs can bite down) and how much they can open their mouths. What's really important, especially in those toy breeds like the little Chihuahuas, they can't actually open their mouths very far, so it's not really a good product unless they can actually eat it. So what we've done is we've designed the product to make sure it can fit back in the dogs' mouths, so the toy one is specifically for that toy dog and their small tiny little mouths making sure it can get in there.

We've also done oral care studies and it reduces plaque and tartar build up significantly compared to dry, about 43% on plaque and 83% on tartar which is really just amazing. But for me, being a nutritionist, the big thing is around gum health. And it does have a significant reduction in gingivitis, too. For the long term health of the animal that's so so important.

We do have a nice, natural source of glucosamine and chondroitin in all four sizes. A lot of people think about glucosamine and chondroitin and think about large-breed dogs. Unfortunately those small-breed dogs, although they don't get the same kind of problems as large-breeds do, still have a lot of neck and back problems and knee problems. Glucosamine and chondroitin are important for them, too, so we have it in all four sizes. We added antioxidants for their immune system just to give them an extra boost.

Petfood Industry : Does it come in more than one flavor?

Bierer: Only one flavor right now, just the four different sizes before they get hooked on it.

Petfood Industry : Are you planning to try more flavors?

Bierer: Perhaps in the future. Right now there's the four SKUs: small, medium, large, and the toy. They come in the regular 24 count packs as well as trial entry packs. Vets actually really like them, too. They are lower in fat than a lot of typical foods. So from that aspect for animals looking to reduce their fat intake it can be very helpful for them.

Petfood Industry : Now, if dogs enjoy it so much do you think that might get around the potential problem that an owner wouldn't understand, would try to give it as a treat on top of the regular food?

Bierer: That's why we're encouraging people to understand that it really is a whole meal and not just a treat because, Yes, it can be a lot of calories on it.

What we've tried to do is make sure people understand that this is a meal. On our feeding guideline we've told them exactly what the equivalency is. So this meal equals this much dry food equals this much canned food. We're trying to really get home that point that this is a complete and balanced food and is meant to be fed in place of their normal food. It really is important to try and take control of your pet's calorie intake considering the amount of obesity that's happening. One of the nice things, too, is because it prolongs their eating experience so its slows them down eating, it makes them chew a lot more and can help satisfy them more; versus inhaling a bunch of food and still being hungry.

Petfood Industry : Is Mars worried about this possibly eating into the sale of some of your other dog products? Or would that be a good thing?

Bierer: No. Every product has a different market segment that it's going after. Obviously Pedigree is main. This is a premium type of food here that is going to be targeted at pet specialists. It's a different proposition.

Petfood Industry : That was my next question. So this is only in pet specialty stores now?

Bierer: Yes. I mean, I think eventually if this kind of food format takes off, if people understand how big it is, I can see it eventually going into others. You can see this going into other brands eventually, this type of format because it is so different, but it'll take a little bit for people to gravitate toward it because it is really different. And it's not just different for the people; it's different for the dog, too. Sometimes you get dogs that if you put this in their bowl like their regular food they look at it and they go, "What the heck is that?" Then they taste it and then it's all over.

Petfood Industry : And you're doing it just in the US now?

Bierer: It is just in the US.

Petfood Industry : Any plans to expand outside of North America?

Bierer: Not right now. Right now we're focusing on the US.

Pet food Industry : What about other species like cats?

Bierer: Cats are a very difficult creature. I can see it going some day toward the cats. But cats are a little more difficult. They're not necessarily the chewers, but it's definitely a thought in the mind of a lot of people.

Petfood Industry : What about shelf life?

Bierer: It's one year. They all come in a resealable bag. They're not individually wrapped, they're in the bag, but they all have a nice zip-lock re-sealable bag, even the bigger packages, so it does keep things nice and fresh in there when you're not using it. That's a good benefit.

Petfood Industry : And what would a rough retail price be?

Bierer: It depends on the size and how many are in there. Once you get into the regular bag sizes (they're all in 24 counts) they go from $9.99 for the toy to $24.99 for the large.

Petfood Industry : So how many meals would that be for a large dog?

Bierer: For a large dog on average, it's going to be about 12. You're going to get an average of about two a day when you do total meal replacement. Of course less if you do half or mixing.

Petfood Industry : So that's definitely premium pricing.

Bierer: It is a premium price. It's going to be more than you're average food, but in the test markets we've had it in, that whole dog enjoyment value that you get out of it has really been worth it to people.

Petfood Industry : When you say pet specialty stores, are those just the smaller stores or are you going for the chains, too?

Bierer: Both. It's going to be in PetSmart, Petco, Pet Supermarket and then all your independent pet stores as well.

Petfood Industry : Any boutiques at all?

Bierer: Yes, I think so, Yes. There's been a lot of interest from the smaller stores here, especially those that specialize in the small and toy dogs. Because we have separate products especially for them, it's perfect for those types of stores.

Petfood Industry : Was there anything else you wanted to say about the product?

Bierer: I'm just really excited that it's finally coming out. It's been so long. I think that all of us that worked on the product, there were several of us who worked on it from the start, really believe in it. Just seeing the difference it really makes in a dog's life and how much happier they are. It means the world to me to make something that not only makes a dog healthier, but a lot happier as well; really enhancing the well-being of the dog. So, we're really excited about it. I really hope it takes off and that it's going to be a real revolution in the way people feed.

At the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) we were giving product samples away. We had people coming back the next day going, "You know I really didn't believe in your product and I took it home and I fed it to my dog and I want to get a lot more. You can put me on any website; I will endorse your product."

It's just the best feeling, it really is. People are e-mailing me now: "So and so saw you at a show; we're really interested now, too; this is the most innovative product we've ever seen." It feels so incredibly good. When you're close to it you go,"Maybe it's just me"…

Petfood Industry : There's definitely a buzz. There's definitely a buzz out in the market.

Bierer: It really does feel good.

Fair: That's kind of like at NAVC. We'd have people come up and say, "My friend was talking about it and they told me to come up to your booth." So we get a lot of traffic generated that way, too.

Bierer: Yes, like how we were talking about filming these segments for DVDs, for sales and all that. We had Marty Becker, DVM, from Good Morning America doing it and he was just shocked because we had these dogs in these videos, and these are trained dogs, and they would not give up the product. They'll have tricks, these trainers, to get the product away when they're filming stuff. None of it would work. These dogs would take these WholeMeals and you could see them looking around and they would just take off anywhere they could to get this product. Then they try and eat as fast as possible because they just loved it; they really did love it. He was just floored by it. He said, "I've never seen anything like this." I'm like, "Yes, it really is a phenomenon."