Everybody’s doing it: Cheetos went “natural,” Tyson sells organic and now even Friskies and Purina are joining the booming natural market. “It makes good sense for these large companies to jump on [this] bandwagon,” says Carlotta Mast, editor of Nutrition Business Journal, based in Boulder, Colo. According to data from Rockville, Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts, natural pet-food sales rose from $700 million in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2009—from 4 percent to 8 percent of the total pet-food market. That trend is expected to continue, with projected 2014 natural pet-food sales of $2.6 billion.
So how do these mainstream brands measure up, and should naturals stores consider stocking them?
What “quality” means
“You get what you pay for,” says Susan Lauten, PhD, a pet nutritionist in
Knoxville, Tenn., and founder of petnutritionconsulting.com. She sees three distinct tiers of quality in the pet foods market: At the bottom are products frequently carried by mass-market grocery stores, often containing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. The middle tier, often found at specialty retailers like Petco, meets the basic definition of “natural” by avoiding dirty ingredients. The highest-quality products are often found in specialty and natural products stores and include organic ingredients, as well as supplements such as antioxidants, to support a pet’s overall well-being.
So when a mainstream company goes “natural,” chances are you’re looking at a pet food that avoids preservatives and artificial colors and flavors, but doesn’t have hormone- and antibiotic-free proteins or high levels of additional nutrients like enzymes, probiotics or antioxidants, Lauten says.
What this means for the natural retailer
Mast sees lines like Purina Naturals as good fits for mass marketers wanting to appeal to consumers taking their first natural steps. But “if Whole Foods carried Friskies, I’m not sure how well it would go over with the shopper base,” she says. “For the naturals shopper, a company’s authenticity is important.”
By offering customers education on traceability, natural products retailers can take advantage of debacles like the 2007 incident in which melamine was found in pet food imported from China, or mass manufacturers’ use of large amounts of international ingredients. Smaller pet food manufacturers may offer a certified-organic ingredient paper trail that can be shared with the consumer, building trust with the store and the product.
“These [mainstream natural] products are definitely a step up from [conventional] mainstream,” says John York, who owned York’s Pet Supply in East Millinocket, Maine. “But as far as trusting the multinationals, I don’t have a lot of faith.”
Given that many naturals shoppers are as skeptical as York, the best approach for retailers may be to applaud the penetration of natural pet foods—and keep stocking brands the industry has nurtured.