In marketing and advertising pet foods—or nearly anything, including political candidates—it seems that making claims about what the product does not include (or stand for) has become standard practice. Having “grain free” or “no corn” on a pet food label, for example, accompanied by a stalk of wheat or corn with a red X over it or a line through it, is a quick, easy way to convey the absence of certain ingredients that have been demonized in consumers’ minds. And how did those ingredients come to be demonized? By exactly the same type of marketing, advertising and packaging claims.

Because regulations often restrict the types of claims that can be made for ingredients actually in a product—and explaining the benefits of included ingredients typically requires more space, effort and consumer attention—negative marketing seems to have won out. More than six years ago, David A. Dzanis, CEO of Regulatory Discretion and author of the “Petfood Insights” column, criticized this type of marketing in discussing by-products: “Personally, I do not care for negative claims, and for reasons apart from regulatory issues, I think in the long run they do a disservice to the pet food industry.

“Although currently there is no model regulation, policy or guideline that explicitly addresses this issue, some regulators believe that even when such statements are technically true, claims regarding absence of an ingredient in a product may cause false disparagement of that safe and acceptable feed ingredient,” Dzanis wrote in 2009.

By-products represent a classic example of possible false disparagement that has led to a category of ingredients being demonized. “It is unfortunate that the by-product term creates such a negative perception with the public, as that certainly was not AAFCO’s intent,” Dzanis added. “I have long held that properly processed by-products can be perfectly safe and nutritious ingredients. Ideally, companies would help educate consumers about the merits of such ingredients rather than appear elusive—if not embarrassed—about their inclusion in formulations.”

Yet I imagine that if you asked any pet food company that uses by-products in their formulations why they do not explain the nutritional and sustainable benefits of these ingredients in their marketing or packaging, most would understandably ask in return, “How would I fit that on a package?” Or, a more likely response might be, “Why spend untold money and time fighting a losing battle?”

While some pet food manufacturers still justify their use of grain-based ingredients or explain the nutritional benefits of certain grains (for example, NestléPurina PetCare’s “Why does Purina believe in grain?” section of its website), that opportunity seems long past when it comes to by-products. Hence, Dzanis’ reference to a disservice to our industry—and, long term, to pets and their owners, I believe, because it means that as the world is facing an impending shortage of protein ingredients, we are ignoring a perfect source of such ingredients that are highly nutritious, palatable and digestible for pets.

As trends in pet food often follow those in human food, negative marketing is rampant in that sector, too. In a June webinar, Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova Market Insights, commented that “gluten free has gone mainstream.” That seems analogous to grain free in pet food, though even in North America, food products with gluten-free claims have still reached only about 20% of new product labels. (For pet food sold in US pet specialty outlets, grain-free claims now appear on about 40% of all new products, according to GfK.) Williams also noted that the gluten-free claim often appears on foods that would not naturally contain gluten anyway, proving that for many companies, the “free from” claim is purely a marketing ploy.

Innova’s data on new food and beverage products shows that “no additives/preservatives” is still the most prevalent “clean label” claim globally, showing up on 9% (in Asia) to 37% (in Australia) of new products in 2014. (In North America, it was 16%, 10% in Latin America and 14% in both Western Europe and Africa.) The fastest-growing claim, however, is GMO-free, with more than a 40% rise in new product claims globally from 2010 to 2014.

New research from Mintel supports that finding, with 37% of US consumers surveyed saying they are interested in non-GMO foods. That was the top free-from interest among those consumers, outpacing interest in foods free of soy, eggs, nuts or peanuts. Further, among US consumers whom Mintel identifies as free-from consumers (the method of identification is not clear in the report overview or press release), 58% said GMO-free claims are important to them, and 35% ranked that as among their top three most important claims.

The Mintel report includes other interesting data points:

  • 70% of all US consumers surveyed buy free-from foods for health and nutritional reasons;
  • 84% of free-from US consumers buy foods with these claims because they are looking for more natural or less processed food;
  • 43% of all US consumers surveyed agreed that free-from foods are healthier than foods without such claims;
  • 59% of free-from consumers believe that the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is;
  • Millennials, at 60%, and Gen X-ers, at 55%, are much more likely than Baby Boomers (46%) to agree that they worry about potentially harmful ingredients in the foods they buy;
  • 43% of free-from consumers said cage-free and free-range claims are important to them, with 23% ranking it among their top three most important free-from claims;
  • Yet, despite all that, only 37% of all US consumers surveyed agreed that products with free-from claims are worth paying more for.

When it comes to the most popular free-from type of pet food, grain-free, that last point may not match up. In the US pet specialty retail channel, grain-free pet foods sold at an average of US$2.94 per pound in 2014, compared to US$2.22 per pound for branded pet food products overall, according to data from GfK. With grain-free pet foods now accounting for nearly 30% of pet food sales in that channel, and grain-free sales continuing to grow by more than 20% a year, it seems more and more pet owners are willing to pay a premium for certain free-from claims and products.

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dphillips@wattnet.net