Natural petfood a powerful, growing market

If natural petfood sales continue to grow, does that mean no legal or regulatory definitions are necessary?

For US pet retailers, natural products accounted for a double-digit percentage of every pet product category they sold in 2013, reports Pet Product News International’s 2014 State of the Industry Study, which included nearly 200 independent, chain and franchise pet stores, boutique and gift shops and grooming services that sell pet supplies. Cat products topped the list with a 40% natural share, followed by dog products at 38%.

Specific to petfood, sales of natural products in US pet retail reached US$4.5 billion in 2013, according to GfK. That figure represents an 11.7% increase from the year before and a 26% rise since the end of 2011. Contrary to the Pet Product News International study, GfK’s database, comprised of about 12,000 US pet stores, shows that natural products account for 68% of dog food sales and 42% of cat food sales. (Note that the GfK data is for petfood, not all products sold for dogs or cats.)

Besides helping drive US petfood sales growth overall, natural petfood products, at least premium ones, are also driving up the price of petfoods, GfK says. The average price per pound of premium, natural petfoods has risen 24% since 2011, up to US$2.43—though GfK also points out that prices for non-natural premium petfoods have also increased by 17% (up to US$1.77).

Natural petfood sales are also growing in other retail channels. In independent natural food stores in the US, sales of dog food rose 8.4% in the 52 weeks ending February 23, 2014, Packaged Facts reports (Figure 1). Cat food sales increased 6.9%, and pet treats and snacks were up 10.5%. The growth for natural treats seems to be driving overall treat sales increases, especially for cats.

The only downside of this continued growth is that pet owners may not really know what they’re buying, since there is no regulatory or legal definition for these products. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does include a limited definition in its Official Publication, the market reality is that petfood manufacturers and marketers can pretty much put a “natural” label claim on any of their packaging or promotions, and it’s up to the consumer to determine if that product fits his or her criteria for purchasing or feeding a natural petfood.

So, is that such a bad thing: letting the consumer and marketplace determine which products deserve the sales, no matter how they're labeled? If natural petfood sales continue to grow, does that mean no legal or regulatory definitions are necessary?

Perhaps no one can answer that question now. As the US Food and Drug Administration starts to assess how petfood ingredients and labeling claims are approved—along with reviewing its longstanding memorandum of understanding with AAFCO over petfood ingredient definitions—this could all be addressed. Let’s just hope the review process gives the powerful marketplace its due.

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