Organic pet food market positioned for growth

Regulatory efforts and consumer attitudes may mean good news for the growth of the organic pet food market.

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Javier Brosch |
Javier Brosch |

Ten years ago, organic pet foods appeared ready to take the shelves by storm. Organic had embarked on its fast-clipped rise in the mainstream food market, and natural pet foods had entered into mass-market channels.

However, organic pet food has yet to truly hit its stride, for three main reasons:

  1. Supply issues: The growth in popularity of organic foods in human markets means that suppliers are already stretched thin; in addition, many ingredients in pet foods, such as fish and other novel proteins, are not readily available in organic form.
  2. High prices: Higher-quality ingredients necessarily mean higher prices, and pet food companies may be gun-shy about marketing, and consumers about paying the cost for, what amounts to a super-superpremium product.
  3. Organic regulations complicate: With no federal mandate dictating what constitutes organic pet food, pet food marketers using the organic label must adhere to human organic food standards. Alternatively, pet food marketers may find it more tenable to stick with the “natural” label claim.

Challenges in the organic pet food market

As things stand now, organic products make up a very small part of the overall pet food market. GfK data put organic pet food sales in the pet specialty channel at approximately US$20 million, or 0.2 percent, of the market, and market penetration in mass outlets is even smaller. Moreover, Simmons Market Research consumer survey data show the percentage of dog or cat owners who buy organic pet food remaining flat at best from 2012 to 2016 (see Figure 1).


FIGURE 1: Purchasing rates for organic pet food remain low due to several market challenges; however, regulatory standards and consumer attitudes may be paving the way for growth. And there is good news for organic: pet food purchasers are more likely than consumers in general to have their shopping decisions impacted by natural, organic or eco-friendly considerations.

Nonetheless, at least some of the challenges facing organic pet food may soon be remedied. From a regulatory standpoint, a May 2016 press release from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) noted that organic pet food standards are moving through the approval process in the National Organic Program (although there is currently no deadline for the release of these standards).

Consumer attitudes towards organic

Moreover, while traditional motivators — price, taste and convenience — continue to be the most important drivers of consumer food shopping behavior overall, half of Americans (51 percent) also weigh “evolving drivers” — health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience and transparency — in their food purchasing decisions, as reported by “Capitalizing on the Shifting Consumer Food Value Equation,” a study published in January 2015 by Deloitte Consulting, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Significantly, these evolving drivers are important across consumer demographics.

Similarly, the OTA’s latest “US Families’ Beliefs and Attitudes” study, released in April 2016, found that three out of four (74 percent) families make at least some effort to buy organic foods, and that a third (35 percent) regularly “make a great deal of effort” to buy organics. Organic thereby accounts for nearly 5 percent of all the food sold in the US.

The environment is therefore very favorable for natural, organic and eco-friendly pet products, because these overall market attitudes towards natural and organic products carry over into pet product purchasing. In fact, Packaged Facts’ July/August 2016 National Pet Owner Survey finds that pet owners are more likely than consumers in general to have their shopping decisions impacted by natural, organic or eco-friendly considerations.

For example, while 60 percent of all US adults agree with the statement, “I prefer to buy packaged foods with no artificial ingredients,” this percentage rises to 63 percent among pet product purchasers, and to 74 percent among pet owners who purchase natural, organic or eco-friendly products. In the overall market as in the pet food category, this pattern plays out in a range of related attitudes, including belief in the health benefits of eating natural/organic foods and concerns about GMOs (see Figure 1).

Given the consumer attitudes driving market change and innovation, the likelihood that organic will become the “next big thing” in natural pet food increases significantly as the obstacles to organic pet food are even gradually overcome. On the human side, retailers such as Kroger and Costco have taken the extraordinary step of investing in farms to ensure long-term supply of store-brand organic products. In the pet food category, Merrick and its well-established organic brand, Castor & Pollux, are now under the umbrella of Nestlé Purina, the largest food company on the planet. As superpremium pet food marketers seek more definitive ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the natural pack, products with organic claims may soon become a next logical step.


US pet food market information
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