The pet food market has enjoyed a positive year, with newsworthy mergers and acquisitions, a fair amount of innovation and steady, if not spectacular, growth, which earlier this year was projected that it will end up at about 3% for the US and a similar rate globally. Intriguingly, what’s growing faster than overall product sales is the use of pet food packaging; a recent report projected that to increase by a compound annual growth rate of 8% globally through 2020.

The continuing introduction of new pet food products is driving the rising use of packaging, said an analyst from TechNavio, publisher of the report. Product labeling also plays a part, as pet owners refer to label information to select the “safest and nutritious” food for their pets. TechNavio believes that rising demand for single-serve and small-sized packs will contribute to future pet food packaging growth, while also citing an increased demand for sustainable, eco-friendly packaging influencing the options offered by vendors to date.

Similarly, yet focused on the US, a new Packaged Facts report covers trends in pet product packaging (mostly pet food), including convenience, portability and ergonomics; product safety and freshness; transparency in product descriptions and clean labels; and sustainability and recycling.

Buried among all these trends and analysis is the key to what many pet owners really care about: what the packaging says. Sure, convenience is important, but most pet food buyers—many of whom own multiple pets and/or larger dogs—accept the fact that getting the best value for their money, especially if they feed their pets premium or superpremium food, means buying large bags. And, value aside, having to go back to the store or order online more often to replenish smaller bags or containers is truly inconvenient. Sustainability and recycling of the packaging are also important to some of us pet owners, but certainly not the over-riding factor—maybe not even a key determining factor—in selecting a pet food.

“Speaking strictly as a consumer and not as a member of the pet industry, I have to admit that my decision has little, if anything, to do with the packaging of my pets’ food,” wrote Ellyce Rothrock, editor-in-chief of Pet Product News (PPN) and owner of two German Shepherds. “Secure closures? My pets’ food goes straight into a large, airtight container at home. If it’s environmentally friendly, that’s a bonus, because the empty bag goes right into the recycle bin. Handles? Great, but the bag is still super heavy, and there’s no getting around that, because having to purchase smaller, lighter bags more frequently just isn’t convenient.

“New designs, fresh labels and innovative closures all strive to impart a message of care, of quality. Of staying on-trend, ahead of the pack. All important things, yes,” she continued. “But the fact is that the vast majority of pet food products carried by independent pet retailers already embody these qualities, upgraded packaging or not.”

Because the readers of PPN are mainly owners and managers of independent pet stores, Rothrock’s point was that pet owners turn to them as a source of information and knowledge on pet foods. That may be true, but I still think the information on the packaging means a lot to a good number of pet parents. Either way, Rothrock and I agree that the other packaging features mean much less to the people actually buying the products.

(Interesting aside: According to another new survey, from Priority Metrics Group, the companies purchasing packaging for their products care more about the service offered by packaging vendors than about product characteristics. The research looked at all types of packaging, not just for pet food.)

Information on the pet food label

Fortunately for pet owners who do care most about what pet food packaging actually says—and, in the long run, this is also positive for the industry—efforts are under way to help make that information easier to find and comprehend. For example, I reported previously on a task force convened in the US by the Pet Food Institute to research, develop and propose improved pet food labels, including a Nutrition Facts box, possibly with blessing from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

For pet owners who care whether their pets’ food contains genetically modified ingredients (often referred to as GMOs), and for pet food and treat manufacturers who want to emphasize a lack of such ingredients in their products, FDA is easing up on its oversight of “GMO-free” label claims, according to David A. Dzanis, DVM, PhD, DACVN. While this applies mainly to human food, Dzanis says state feed control officials have often relied on FDA guidance in their reviews of pet food labels; so now, “it seems there would be a basis for states to tolerate some uses.”

Finally, a new technology under development in human food might have applications for pet food, too. SmartLabel will allow consumers to scan a bar code or easily search online for much more information about the product. “Consumers will be able to search or scan for detailed and consistent information about nutrition, ingredients, allergens, product usage and advisories, and brand information,” the website says. A key feature is that the information will all be displayed in a standardized, consistent format, no matter what the product or product category. More information and usage by brands are expected by the second half of 2016.

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dphillips@wattnet.net