Adventures in Pet Food

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things pet food, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.
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Sustainability for pet food poses benefits and challenges

The percentage of U.S. consumers who say sustainability is important or a core value has increased 13 points in only three years, according to a survey conducted by LEK Consulting. That means 66% of consumers now believe in the importance of sustainability, up from 53%.

These data, among others, were shared by Lauren DeVestern, a managing director for LEK leading its pet and animal practice, during the Petsure Imaginarium seminar presented by Balchem and the Poultry Science Department of Auburn University November 14-16, 2022. The LEK survey also showed that about 50% of U.S. consumers report sometimes switching away from brands or products due to sustainability concerns. (The survey was global; DeVestern provided only U.S. results but said the findings are consistent among consumers from other countries.)

Specific to pet owners, 20% of U.S. respondents say they would be willing to pay more for sustainable pet products. While DeVestern conceded that’s aspirational, rather than actual, behavior, it still indicates the growing interest in sustainability. Further, the survey data showed this increasing interest shifting to all age groups, not just younger consumers who have been most likely to seek sustainable products.

Bottom line: We know consumers want sustainability, and that certainly extends to pet owners seeking it in their pets’ food. So, that’s half the battle in making and marketing more sustainable pet food and treats, right? Well, it’s still not a slam dunk, according to seminar participants who touched on several challenges during lively discussions on the topic of sustainability.

Challenge 1: ‘Consumers aren’t rational’

That was DeVestern’s response to a comment from a participant about how pet owners’ ongoing demand for premiumization in pet food conflicts with sustainability. To many owners, premiumization translates to a preference for human-grade ingredients (especially with meat proteins) and an aversion to meat co-products (often called byproducts). Yet, in terms of sustainability, meat co-products are much more sustainable than human-grade meat cuts; the former ensure nearly every part of the animal is used while not cutting into the supply of protein for an ever-growing human population.

Thus, consumers may say sustainability is important and even try to make purchasing decisions accordingly, but what they believe is best for their pets may not align. A later discussion returned to this point and the need for consumer education. Unfortunately, no one then—or to date in all the years the industry has been trying to combat consumer misperceptions about co-products or other concepts related to pet nutrition—has figured out the best way to educate consumers.

Others commented that online dog food rating sites, many of which have sown and perpetuated doubts about the quality and safety of co-products, may not have the same level of influence over pet owners they once had. In addition, some younger consumers do seem to understand the environmental benefits of ingredients like co-products.

Despite this progress, I don’t think anyone believes the majority of consumers understand what is and isn’t sustainable when it comes to pet food ingredients. So yes, there’s still a lot of education needed. One key first step: renaming “byproducts” as “co-products” to help get past stigmatization of the former word.

Challenge 2: Supply and labor chains don’t align

In addition, education and conversation within the pet food and related industries are necessary to pursue and advance sustainability. No doubt, these industries have certainly become more sustainable in nearly every aspect, from ingredients to processing to packaging. Yet so many other opportunities remain, and to take advantage of them, changes must happen that depend on increased communication and collaboration in many areas.

The focus of the Petsure Imaginarium seminar offers a perfect example. Charles Starkey, Ph.D., a professor in Auburn’s Poultry Science Department, has been using ingredients from Balchem and Tilley Distribution to guide his graduate students in research on developing and creating pet treats using livestock parts that otherwise would go to rendering or be wasted. (Think chicken wing tips, broiler carcass frames, woody breasts and organs, in addition to organs and other parts from beef and swine.)

Starkey developed this research program because he strongly believes upcycling livestock parts in this way can provide added value to both the poultry (or beef or swine) and pet food industries, offering a sustainable path to a better financial model than rendering—as valuable and necessary as it is in many cases—can provide. But he acknowledged potential barriers to the research being applied for commercial success.

During the seminar discussion, a participant commented that using these animal parts for treats would require separating them out from all other parts going to rendering at a livestock processing plant. That has significant labor implications, because most poultry or other processors don’t have enough employees, or see the business case, for doing that separation. Starkey agreed and said that’s why all these related industries need to talk and work together on potential solutions. (It’s also why one of his Ph.D. students, Joshua Flees, has completed research on the return on investment of constructing and operating a standalone plant for processing such co-products into treats.)

This was just one challenge raised in terms of industry embracing a new way of using co-products or other more sustainable paths. I agree with Starkey and other seminar participants: For the long-term sustainability in every way (environmentally, financially and socially) of our industries, the way forward will need to comprise more education, conversation, collaboration and research funding.

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