Freeze-dried/raw pet food continues to grow in popularity among pet parents, in spite of the undeniably higher price tag of the finished products. That price tag would be a significant barrier to entry, but has been made more manageable by pet owners themselves, who are using freeze-dried/raw options not necessarily as complete meals, but as toppers, mix-ins and treats alongside more traditional pet food options. In turn, those dealing in the freeze-dried/raw space are providing options that suit this use in order to play in a segment that isn’t quite as crowded as kibble.
“The challenge with any pet product company is the saturation of the pet products market,” said Kara Haynes, CEO of Montana Dog Food Company, a raw freeze-dried dog food company launching in December 2022. “There is no shortage of products out there and new brands entering the market every year. However, because of the freeze-dried foods market trending up, if a brand positions itself correctly I believe they can be successful in this segment locally, nationally and internationally.”
Making sure pet owners have options in raw/freeze-dried pet food
In July 2022, Canidae, which already has experience in the segment due to the freeze-dried raw coating it uses on a number of its products, launched its Pure 3-in-1 Goodness line, which caters directly to pet owners who want to dip their toes in the space. The freeze-dried raw products come in Beef Liver, Chicken & Brown Rice and Beef, Barley & Quinoa for dogs, and Beef Liver for cats. Rather than creating complete and balanced formulas, Canidae is actively marketing this line for use as a treat, topper or mix-in.
“This is a way to capture that raw diet in a more convenient format,” said Sarah Shah, director of research and development for Canidae. “We really wanted to provide a versatile option that you could use in many different ways, whether you’re looking for a more high-value treat for your pet, whether you’re looking to spice up the flavor and the appeal of what’s in the bowl every day or just something to add a little punch of high-quality nutrition, some nutrient-dense addition to what you’re feeding already.”
“Judging by recent product introductions in this category, freeze-dried raw food and treat providers are adding value to their products by fortifying them with functional ingredients,” said Rachelle Baca-Lobre, founder and global director of sales for Rover’s Wellness, which provides products made with hemp for pets. The company offers a line of Canine Wellness Freeze-dried Bites in beef or chicken.
“This type of treat is perfect for parents who want to reward their fur babies with an incredibly healthy, raw protein-powered, between-meal snack,” said Baca-Lobre. “Thanks to freeze drying, virtually all the vital nutrients, aroma and flavor are preserved. Because such a treat is inherently bite-sized, it’s great for both treating or training.”
Equipment suppliers seeing increased demand from companies looking to expand
An increase in the popularity of freeze-dried raw pet food is good news for equipment suppliers as well, as demand increases from companies willing to make the capital investment as consumer demands affects their capacity needs.
“The most recognizable evolution within the freeze-dried pet food industry is the increase in demand from end users,” said Jerad Ducklow, executive vice president of sales and marketing with Parker Freeze Dry (a division of Proform Fabrication), which sells commercial freeze dryers. “They understand that freeze-dried product gives them a high-quality product that has an extended shelf life. This demand has forced the suppliers to transition to both HPP (high-pressure processing) and freeze-dried solutions. We estimate that the freeze-dried pet food market is approximately 5% to 6% of the overall pet food industry at this time, and we believe that market share will settle in at about three to four times that.”
“We’re not selling machines, we’re selling a need,” said Anthony Zapata, marketing and sales specialist for Hiperbaric, which provides high pressure technologies, including high-pressure processing (HPP) equipment, for the food and pet food spaces. “On the top of the list [for freeze-dried raw pet food manufacturers] is food safety while meeting U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations on providing that pathogen kill step in their process. HPP is able to achieve a 5-log pathogen reduction and provide that kill step, so I think it’s being seen as one of the best methods while still preserving the raw nutritional value of their products.”
Two of the less-expensive options are partnering with co-manufacturers or tollers — companies that offer HPP services to brands who want to outsource the process — but as demand for freeze-dried/raw products grow, companies are looking into bringing the processes a little closer to home.
“I think raw right now is mostly companies working with a co-manufacturer or working with a toller, and once their volumes and sales start growing they are approaching us to talk about bringing the equipment in-house,” said Zapata (see sidebar, “Case study: Hiperbaric and Steve’s Real Food”).
Where is the freeze-dried/raw trend going?
Whatever part of the freeze-dried/raw arena companies are in, they all agree that the space is going to continue to evolve.
“There’s a consistent movement toward high-quality and fewer ingredients, and the beauty of freeze-dried is that you can really preserve even the visual of what the product is,” said Shah. “So that’s just another cue to the consumer of how natural and how close to the original ingredient you’re getting. The reality is if it’s got moisture in it, you can freeze dry it. It’s a way to bring so many different single ingredients into the mix.”
Innovation will play an important role, as pet owners look for affordable ways to include freeze-dried raw products into their pets’ nutrition.
“I predict that there will be a flurry of new, innovative products appearing in this space for several years to come,” said Baca-Lobre. “The biggest challenge for manufacturers and retailers, based on personal experience, is convincing potential customers that these incredibly nourishing, value-added diets and treats are worth the superpremium price.”
Fortunately, pet food companies seem up to the challenge.
“I think the economic piece is very real, but there are ways to get creative, whether it’s providing a smaller bag where you can mix it in with your everyday kibble and you don’t have to make that full transition to a fully freeze-dried or raw product, or there’s way to start to mix these in with kibble as a finished product,” said Shah. “I think freeze-dried/raw has some pretty big legs.”
Case study: Hiperbaric and Steve’s Real Food