Organic kibble? All-natural chow? Fido and Fluffy don’t know it, but their owners want them to eat better – and they are forking over big bucks to make it happen. Marketed as a healthier, more nutritious alternative, some dog and cat cuisine has gone the Whole Foods or BriarPatch Co-op route.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the new $25 million eastern Pennsylvania factory of upstart pet food maker Freshpet, where thousands of pounds of fresh meat and poultry are pasteurized, mixed with vegetables and then immediately chilled, packaged and sent to branded, refrigerated display cases in more than 10,000 stores across America.
The seven-year-old company, founded by former Purina executives, is trying to establish a new category in an industry long dominated by kibbles and cans: fresh, preservative-free food that requires refrigeration. With sales exceeding $100 million, executives say they’re on their way.
“People are trying to eat healthier, less processed, simpler foods, and I think they are applying that logic when they’re making pet food decisions,” said Scott Morris, Freshpet’s president and co-founder.
Freshpet, though, is walking the talk that Nevada County pet owners and businesses have been walking for well over a decade. The mainstream may just be taking notice, but local businesses like Scraps Dog Bakery and Incredible Pets have been featuring healthy, holistic and all-natural pet foods since their inception.
Owners of both businesses note that offering such healthy alternatives has always been the cornerstone of their businesses.
“We’ve always specialized in mostly holistic foods,” said Jack Love, owner of Incredible Pets, which celebrates its 18th anniversary this year.
“Every year the demand goes up, and in recent years, more and more brands have come on the market. Our selection is twice that of the big chains.”
BriarPatch Co-Op and Scraps, which also offers home-baked cookies and cakes for dogs, have been providing natural kibble and frozen raw food for more than 10 years.
Chris Maher, general manager of BriarPatch, notes that they make their own raw food and have a hard time keeping up with demand.
Major manufacturers like Nestle Purina and Del Monte Foods are just beginning to capitalize on consumers’ willingness to spend more on food they perceive to be better for their furry friends.
Sales of the more expensive brands jumped 68 percent from 2002 to 2012, compared with 19 percent for mid-priced brands and just 8 percent for economy brands, according to Euromonitor International.
Marketing experts say manufacturers are tapping into a number of powerful trends and emotions: Americans’ interest in healthy eating, the rising popularity of organic food and the tendency to humanize pets.
“People think of their pets not as pets, but as members of their family, and they want to treat the members of their family with the same respect as they treat themselves,” said Molly Maier, senior analyst at market research firm Mintel Group Ltd.
Mario Dinucci, a veterinarian at Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital in Grass Valley, stresses that having a good, balanced diet is extremely important, and companies like Freshpet are doing just that.
“We all know what pets need. It’s not a mystery to us,” Dinucci said. “Dog food companies have come a long way.”
Dinucci is also happy to hear that Freshpet’s product is pasteurized, as many veterinarians are wary of the raw diets and potential food-borne illnesses, not just for pets, but for possible exposure to their owners.
Theoretically, it’s hard to argue with the idea that minimally processed and preservative-free food like the kind Freshpet makes would be better for dogs and cats, said Amy Farcas, a veterinary clinical nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania. But she said the research to prove it is lacking.
Farcas routinely advises her clients that as long as their dog is the appropriate weight, healthy and energetic, they probably don’t need a diet change.
Concerned pet owners needn’t break the bank. While natural and holistic products tend to come at a higher price, many dogs who eat old-school kibble can live well into their teens.
“You can spend anywhere from $20 to $80 on a 35-pound bag of dog food,” Dinucci said, pointing out that he’s quite comfortable with something that falls in the $40 range.
“I think you get what you pay for, but the most important thing is to buy from a reputable company with a good track record and good ingredients — and more and more companies are shifting toward quality ingredients.”
Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press contributed to this story. Freelance writer Katrina Paz lives in Grass Valley.