Petfood is unique in many ways. As an industry, it straddles the consumer packaged goods world as well as the feed industry from which it sprang. From a regulatory perspective, its products and processes do not fall under regulations for human foods but often do not quite fit within feed regulations, due to the fact that humans often directly handle petfood. (Some regulatory bodies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, are finally beginning to understand those distinctions, it seems.)
Perhaps petfood's uniqueness explains why consumers often are confused about how it's made, regulated and marketed. But, I argue that the confusion is partially the industry's fault, for not being more transparent and better explaining exactly how petfood is made and why, along with why specific ingredients are used. This presents a golden opportunity for petfood manufacturers.
Case in point: by-products. Many consumers' only education about the term has likely come from activists and bloggers who portray by-products as things like chicken beaks and feet, rather than secondary products from the human food chain such as organ meats or from ethanol production like DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles). These ingredients often offer more nutritional benefits for pets because of cats' and dogs' unique needs (yes, they differ from those of humans!) and because they are better suited to petfood processing methods, helping assure more of the nutrients remain intact and are delivered to pets.
Another positive of by-products is that they are highly sustainable ingredients. Our industry typically does not need to compete with the human food system for them, as it does with so many other ingredients going into petfood formulations today. Again, this presents a significant opportunity for petfood companies that can figure out how best to educate consumers, who often want to support eco-friendly products and practices (important caveat: if the price is right) and the companies and brands employing them. This is especially true for emerging segments of pet-owning consumers, such as Gen Y (those born between 1982 and 2000) and Gen Z (those born since 2000).
Now some hard data is available for you to make the argument for certain petfood ingredients being more sustainable -- and, thus, in the long run more available and affordable -- than others. Kelly Swanson, PhD, associate professor, Department of Animal Sciences and Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois, recently co-authored a paper, "Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Foods," that looks at the environmental impact of petfoods and data showing that dogs and cats require specific nutrients, not specific ingredients, making it possible to meet nutrient requirements with a variety of nutrient sources. “If you just change the diet a little, the financial and environmental costs associated with it are quite different,” he explained.
The paper also points out that the petfood industry is quite unique -- there's that word again -- because it is so tightly linked with both livestock production and the human food system; yet, at the same time, because many people consider their pets part of the family, the food has to be culturally acceptable to the owner as well as healthy for the pet.
"Often based on consumer demand rather than nutritional requirements, many commercial petfoods are formulated to provide nutrients in excess of current minimum recommendations, use ingredients that compete directly with the human food system or are overconsumed by pets, resulting in food wastage and obesity," the researchers concluded. "Petfood professionals have the opportunity to address these challenges and influence the sustainability of pet ownership through product design, manufacturing processes, public education and policy change. A coordinated effort across the industry that includes ingredient buyers, formulators and nutritionists may result in a more sustainable petfood system."