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Dishing up organic pet foods

Pet owners want the same benefits as the foods they buy for themselves in the foods they buy for beloved dogs and cats, and manufacturers are answering the call with foods made not only with organic ingredients, but also with optimal nutritional profiles.

April 24, 2008

8 Min Read
Dishing up organic pet foods

Diet affects health. That premise leads many humans to choose organic foods, produced without pesticides and chemicals and with safer environmental practices than conventional foods. Now pet owners want the same benefits in the foods they buy for beloved dogs and cats, and manufacturers are answering the call with foods made not only with organic ingredients, but also with optimal nutritional profiles. With 377.8 million pets in the United States, total estimated sales of pet foods came to $14.3 billion in 2004, according to the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. In 2003, organic pet food accounted for only about $14 million of that, according to the Organic Trade Association of Greenfield, Mass., but the brand-new category is growing fast; sales in 2003 increased 64.5 percent over 2002.

OTA forecasts an average annual growth rate of 17 percent from 2004 to 2008 in the organic pet food category. Yet some manufacturers of organic pet foods say they expect sales to double this year—and natural products retailers are likely to benefit from a new focus on these high-quality foods.

Where's the beef?

Though most veterinarians say dogs do well on a diet in which meat is a main ingredient, and cats are obligate (true) carnivores, many commercial pet foods are composed primarily of low-cost grains. "The No. 1, now documented, problem with pet food, especially bagged pet food, is that it's carbohydrate and carbohydrate-by-product-based," says Martin Goldstein, DVM, a veterinarian in South Salem, N.Y., and the author of The Nature of Animal Healing (Random House, 2000). "Dogs and cats are true carnivores. They ate a minimal amount of carbs in nature."

Critics of grain-based pet foods say that they contribute to animal obesity, which can lead to diabetes, general poor health, symptoms of food allergies, and even to rising cancer rates and shorter longevity in pets. But even pet foods made with meat may give you pause. Animals that are dead, dying, diseased or disabled—known as "4-D"—are used in many commercial pet foods, as are "meat-based" ingredients and "meat by-products" that include virtually all parts of the slaughtered animal.

Organic a step up

A number of "natural" and "holistic" pet food products have entered the marketplace, sold primarily at natural products stores and specialty pet shops, for shoppers troubled by both ingredient quality and formulations of commercial pet foods. The "natural" label is unregulated for these products, just as with human foods, leaving consumers to evaluate individual products for themselves.

But the advent of U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards in late 2002 opened the door for pet foods made with organic ingredients, giving pet owners the added comfort of regulated production standards (see sidebar, "Organic pet foods and USDA standards"). Encouraged by the standards, Brian Connolly and his wife, co-founders of Castor & Pollux, based in Portland, Ore., launched their Organix brand of dog and cat foods made with organic ingredients.

"We wanted a product that we felt gave pets the very best of nutrition," Connolly says. "We wanted to go beyond a natural diet, and had been using some organic ingredients for about two years. There are a lot of natural or holistic pet foods, but it means so many different things to different people; but with organic, it means something. Prior [to USDA standards], there were products with just a whiff of organic ingredients, with 'organic' all over the label." Organix Canine Formula uses organic chicken, barley, brown rice, flaxseeds, peas and soybean seeds. "The market we're really targeting is where the pet is the child," he says, and customers are "very concerned about quality, nutrition and know a great deal about how to read a pet food label."

Savvy consumers

Peter Meehan, chief executive officer of Newman's Own Organics, based in Aptos, Calif., has also been struck by how informed his customers are since the company launched Newman's Own Organics Premium Pet Food, made with 70 percent organic ingredients. "They know their facts, and they want to know that we know our facts," Meehan says. "There's a lot to know in being a consumer for your pet. With that in mind, organic food isn't grown with pesticides. We don't use organic chicken in our dry food, but we use a chicken supplier [Bell & Evans] that uses no hormones, no antibiotics, a free-roaming situation and a vegetarian diet." Newman's Own Organics adheres to a "no wheat, no corn, no soy" doctrine to protect against allergies, and organic ingredients include brown rice, barley, milo, flaxseed meal, oats, carrots and potatoes.

As with all Newman's Own products, after-tax profits go to charitable causes, and profits from pet foods go directly to animal-related organizations. "What we love, and what separates us too, is organic food—so if we can create another avenue of demand for organic farmers, and we can raise money for animal causes, from shelters to all sorts of preservation of land for wild animals, we really feel we can do some wonderful things," Meehan says.

Nature's Variety, a natural pet food division of M.I. Industries, makes Prairie Brand Organic Raw Diet for Dogs and Cats, a 95 percent organic, frozen, high-meat-content product, at its certified organic plant in Lincoln, Neb. "With the new USDA rules, we've been able to move in [the organic] direction," says Scott Freeman, executive vice president for new product and new business development. "Ten [percent] to 15 percent of our e-mails are about the quality of our ingredients: Are they organic? How are the animals raised? That's an indication to us that people are looking for these types of diets and that they care about them. We're continuing to source raw ingredients because 10 [percent] to 15 percent of our business could be organic, and grow from there. As organic and natural foods grow, pet foods will too." The biggest challenge, Freeman says, is sourcing enough certified organic meat.

The future for organic pets

Though there are significant price premiums for organic pet foods, demand is growing, fueled by the quality of the products and increasing awareness and education. At Castor & Pollux, Connolly plans new product introductions and retailer training seminars. He says he expects a doubling of the market this year. Similarly, Meehan at Newman's Own Organics sees enormous potential among the 60 percent of natural foods consumers who have one or more pets. "Pets don't make out shopping lists, so to be successful you have to influence the consumer [who isn't eating the food] to make a decision. We are confident that we can win over consumers and their pets when given the opportunity."

Elaine Lipson ([email protected]) is a Boulder, Colo.-based writer and editor.

The raw and the cooked

Should pets be on a raw foods diet? Many experts believe that raw foods are the ideal choice for optimal pet health, and that a combination of cooked and raw foods is the next best thing. "The market for raw food has grown from almost nothing to 8 percent of pet owners, and it's growing exponentially," says Steve Brown, author of See Spot Live Longer (Creekobear Press, 2004). "The reason it's growing is word of mouth, because it works. Allergies go away, diabetes is minimized, [as are] obesity and irritable bowel syndrome and flea problems."

Critics of raw pet food diets cite the risk of foodborne illnesses, but proponents say that pets' digestive tracts are designed to withstand bacteria in raw foods. Martin Goldstein, DVM, a veterinarian in practice in South Salem, N.Y., and the author of The Nature of Animal Healing (Random House, 2000), says he has not seen problems from foodborne bacteria in his practice. "A raw diet is what nature intended them to eat. Some animals won't acclimate to it, but if they can, it's what they should be eating," he says.

Manufacturers are formulating raw frozen foods that can make up all or part of a pet's diet, including organic options, such as Nature's Variety. "Some homemade diets do not contain all the micronutrients, such as selenium, that are required," Brown cautions. "It's very important that we combine modern nutritional science with the natural diet of the dogs and cats and combine the best of both worlds."


Organic pet foods and USDA standards

The USDA National Organic Program has not yet written a separate set of standards specific to pet food, according to James A. Riddle, endowed chair in agricultural systems at the University of Minnesota and a member of the National Organic Standards Board. In "Organic Pet Foods," Riddle's white paper on the proceedings of Pet Food Forum of March 2004 (available at, he writes:
"The NOP has not engaged in rulemaking to establish specific pet food standards . . . Because of this, certification of pet food is optional. However, if the word organic is used anywhere on a pet food label, the organic ingredient(s) must have been produced by certified operations, following all of the applicable requirements [of USDA standards for organic products]. If your company wants to seek certification, then the product composition and labeling provisions [of USDA standards] for the labeling categories of processed products apply to pet foods. For instance, if your product contains over 95 percent organic ingredients and approved nonagricultural substances on the National List, then you could receive certification and display the USDA Organic logo on your product's front panel."

The Organic Trade Association has recommended, as a guiding principle, that "organic pet foods should meet human food standards, with the exception that synthetic forms of nutrients required for various species should be allowed." See for more information.


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 80, 84

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