Raw petfood warnings define growing market too broadly, poorly

Warnings about raw petfood tend to lump all raw pet diets under one very vague, uninformed definition

Advisories on raw petfood like the one recently issued by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are guaranteed to generate outraged comments from consumers who believe strongly in this way to feed pets – not to mention some outrageous comments. (Implications that FDA is trying to protect “Big Pet Food” – whatever that is – by warning against raw pet diets are rather bemusing; I imagine most people in the petfood industry would argue that protection is probably the least likely thing they receive or expect from the agency.)

Yet, while I may not be outraged as these consumers are, I do have an issue with raw petfood warnings such as FDA’s, along with one last month from the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and previous statements from the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Animal Hospital Association. The problem is that these warnings and these organizations tend to lump all raw petfood under one very vague, uninformed definition.

“Raw petfood consists primarily of meat, bones and organs that haven’t been cooked, and therefore are more likely than cooked food to contain organisms that can make a dog or cat sick,” says the FDA statement, attributing this definition to William J. Burkholder, DVM, PhD, veterinary medical officer in the Division of Animal Feeds.

This definition is not uncommon for such advisories. It seems to target home-prepared raw pet diets, and probably rightly so; studies have shown that most home-prepared diets, raw or cooked, tend to be deficient in necessary nutrients for dogs and cats. That’s in addition to the viable contamination concern pointed out by FDA, Colorado State and other entities.

But what about commercially prepared and marketed raw petfoods? In the US alone, sales of frozen/refrigerated dog food (which usually includes raw products) grew more than 25% in 2013, according to Packaged Facts. In the US pet specialty retail channel (pet stores and shops, veterinary clinics and farm/feed stores), sales of freeze-dried petfood products increased by nearly 51% in 2013, while the number of petfood items in this category grew a total of 74% from the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2012, GfK says. Similarly, sales of refrigerated/frozen products rose 16.6%. Again, both categories typically incorporate raw petfood. More recent figures from GfK show freeze-dried petfood sales growing nearly 50% in the 12 months ending May 2014.

Though these market segments are small compared to other petfood categories – for example, the Packaged Facts data puts frozen/refrigerated dog food sales at just US$89 million last year – that’s impressive growth. And it’s testament to not only rising consumer demand for these products but also the development and growth of an increasing number of companies offering them. While data on global sales of these products is not readily available, new petfood products on display at Interzoo 2014 in Germany strongly indicated a resurgence in BARF (biologically appropriate raw foods), particularly among German petfood companies.

A potent new product development pipeline and strong sales are not the only positive aspects of this petfood market segment; these companies are also often leading the way in terms of product safety, using cutting edge technologies such as high pressure processing and often employing thorough testing of finished products before distribution. Yes, raw petfood companies have issued recalls in the past few years, but at no higher numbers or frequency than companies marketing petfoods in more traditional categories. (Some might argue that raw petfood has a much lower instance of recalls proportionate to the segment’s size.)

Perhaps part of the issue – why warnings about raw petfood are not more discriminate or targeted – is because the commercial raw petfood category is so amorphous and ill-defined itself. Note my usage in this blog post of terms like frozen/refrigerated, freeze-dried and BARF, some of which refer to raw petfoods and some that don’t. As the sales growth likely continues, let’s hope that changes or that petfood companies in this category make a concerted effort to better define their dynamic segment.




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