They're mere morsels in the overall $15 billion pet food category, but minimally processed products are poised to run with the big dogs. Here, ingredient labels are short and simple, and don't include binders like gluten, a contaminated batch of which was blamed for the massive, rolling pet-food recall and more than a dozen pet deaths this spring.
“People are starting to question the whole pet food thing on a broader basis, and it's concerning to us all,” said Scott Morris, vice president of marketing at FreshPet, a Secaucus, N.J.-based manufacturer of fresh refrigerated chubs for dogs. “They're asking, ‘What is going into my pet's food?’ Right now it's got a bad name.”
Consumers who took crash courses in pet nutrition during the recall are continuing to read labels and, like their own human food, are deciding fewer ingredients are better for their four-legged friends.
“The whole vision for us was to make a simpler, more natural, less-processed food,” Morris said.
While much of this subcategory is devoted to pasteurized product like Freshpet's refrigerated foods, there's also a growing number of consumers who have placed their pets on raw diets. Products made from raw meat can sicken both pets and humans if not handled properly. Wild Kitty Cat Food, Arundel, Maine, found itself the subject of a national recall after the Food and Drug Administration detected salmonella in a frozen sample during routine testing. Company tests revealed nothing, though the call-back proceeded. Stephanie Nadeau, company president, points out that not even human food is 100% safe.
“Just because it may have a pathogen doesn't mean it's not fit for human consumption. We all know there are many things in the meat on the shelf, even with all the antibiotics the industry uses,” she said.
Wild Kitty has since purchased a post-packaging, ultra-high pressurizer that “crushes” bacteria; Freshpet pasteurizes its products at low temperatures.
Even with the inherent dangers, companies like these see booming sales ahead as the backlash builds against over-processed pet foods. Freshpet is introducing a container of meatballs made from chicken, peas, carrots, vitamins and minerals; Wild Kitty will roll out a kit containing dehydrated seafood. Unfazed consumers only need to add water and their own raw chicken.