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Food Week

A Guide To Navigating The Alternative Pet Food Aisle

New pet food brands may be better for your pooch, but confusing regulations and labeling can make it tough to choose.

A Guide To Navigating The Alternative Pet Food Aisle
[Photo: Jaromir Chalabala via Shutterstock]

Choosing pet food is like religion.

"You can get into a discussion with somebody about the best food to feed a dog [or cat], and if there were 10 people there, you would have 10 different opinions—some of which would be so firmly held that no amount of scientific presentation could change their mind," T.J. Dunn, a veterinarian based in Florida and Wisconsin who's practiced since 1970, recently told Fast Company.

And if the pursuit of a better pet food is a religion, the humanization of American pets is the dogma that fuels it. "Pets used to really be for the kids. Now pets are becoming the kids in a whole new way. Therefore, their place in the household is sort of unprecedented," says Gabby Slome, author and editor of the New York City dog blog Ollie.

Seventy percent of American households have at least one pet, and nearly half of those pet owners consider the animal's taste when buying food, according to the market research firm Mintel. Owners are also taking their pets' nutrition more seriously: 55% of American pet owners are concerned about filler ingredients in pet food, such as grains and meat by-products. Millennials are the most avid within that faction; they're 40% more likely as a group to prepare their pet food from scratch.

That heightened concern with pets' well-being has led to fast growth in the "alternative" pet food category: those brands that claim to be all-natural, premium, or otherwise superior to the old can-and-kibble routine. Big box pet care chains Petco and PetSmart both told Fast Company that the high-end alternative pet food sector was the fastest-growing category in their respective food businesses. A 2015 report found that 42% of U.S. pet parents bought premium pet food, versus 30% who bought regular pet food. In the U.S., pet specialty retail of freeze-dried dog and cat food has jumped 64% since 2014. Last year, 1,500 new grain-free products were introduced.

Aside from price concerns (Mintel reports most households can't afford an all-premium diet for their pets), these new pet food brands must also overcome deep-seated trust issues from consumers. Traditionally, pet food has been a heavily processed sector, with monopolistic holdings by a few companies and an overabundance of brands producing similar products with confusing labeling. And even the latest darling of the alternative pet food space, the Connecticut-based Blue Buffalo brand, just settled a $32 million class-action lawsuit with consumers after a study found its products contained by-products its labeling expressly denied.

Meanwhile, FDA regulations are still catching up to the pet food industry's growth, and labeling regulations are still further behind. Here are some issues that conscientious pet parents should have on their radar when considering upgrading your pet's diet:

The Honest Kitchen founder and CEO Lucy Postins and her team have 14 office dogs in their San Diego office.

Safety First

Trust issues in the pet food industry came to a head in spring 2007, when a massive pet food contamination killed more than 13,000 dogs and cats, and another 9,000 fell seriously ill with renal issues. A Chinese manufacturer—a source of grain for a total of 90 dog and cat food brands in the U.S. and Canada—had been adding a crystallized, nitrogen-heavy chemical called melamine to wheat gluten to boost the appearance of protein. Prolonged exposure caused pets' kidneys to fail; the incident became a watershed moment for the pet food industry.

"People started to get wise to the fact that you can't really trust these companies," says Alex Klein, a vet who runs a practice in Brooklyn.

While the 2007 recall led to corrective legislation such as the FDA Amendments Act of 2009 and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the regulatory effects didn't keep pace with the newly realized zeal American owners had for pet nutrition.

"There was a time when premium, natural foods were the domain of specialty stores. What happened is natural got so popular over the last 10 years that you can now find natural foods being marketed in all channels," says John Sturm, VP of food and treats at Petco, the San Diego-based pet care store with more than 1,500 U.S. locations.

Pet-Specific Nutrition

Even if you wanted to go the hard-core route and create fresh, raw food for your dog, it's not as simple as it sounds.

You may be starting out with better raw ingredients, but you're also introducing the possibility for many pathogens to reach your dog's or cat's digestive system unfettered. Cooking or dehydrating greatly reduces the potential for listeria, E. coli, and salmonella to infect your pet.

"There's this whole theory out there that dogs are wolves. Cats are way more similar to their ancestry of wild cats than dogs are to wolves, at this point," Klein says. "Because dogs have been companion animals for so long, they have evolved to have a much more adapted digestive system. There's no data that shows that feeding them raw food is healthier than cooked food."

Meanwhile, DIYers should be aware that dogs have certain nutritional needs and feeding them from your table is not necessarily ideal. One cautionary tale: Around 1970, Alpo (now owned by Nestlé Purina) debuted an all-meat canned dog food. "Dogs loved it, and it really sold. The only problem was, that's not a good diet for dogs. It would have been a good supplement, maybe, if people were also feeding something else," Dunn says. "It said 'complete and balanced' on the label. But invariably they'd get sick."

Without added calcium, Alpo had managed to create a formula that had much more phosphorous than calcium, eroding dogs' kidneys and bone structure, Dunn says. "It brought people's attention to the fact that there is a science to the nutrition, and we need to pay attention to the science," he says.

Big Pet Food Vs. The Independents

The pet food industry has long been ripe for disruption. In the 1950s, Purina invented the high-heat extruded food we know as kibble today. Pet food is a nearly $25 billion industry in the U.S., with Nestlé Purina owning a market share in that sector of 48%, according to Statista. France's Mars, which owns 35 pet food brands, is tied with Nestlé for about a quarter of the global pet care industry.

Those conglomerates are part of a landscape of companies that own multiple brands under the same umbrella, which subsequently take up real estate on pet store shelves. But how they differ from each other isn't always clear. And their distribution structure also puts consumers at a greater risk of being affected by widespread contamination-related recalls.

Lucy Postins of the Honest Kitchen sells her dehydrated pet food at independent retailers.

"A lot of these big companies—they might be separate companies—but they all buy from one distributor, like so many things we see, like air bags in cars. I think that people are personally becoming more aware," Klein, the veterinarian, says. "That's naturally translating to our pets because they are emotionally bonded to us."

Klein says he tends to recommend Blue Buffalo to pet owners, despite its recent legal troubles.

"I think that Blue Buffalo is just the latest and greatest. But it used to be Iams. It used to be Science Diet. It used to be Natural Balance. This happens all the time. There's a good brand, they have a good buzz, and then they get gobbled up by a larger corporation, and then they start eroding the food. So I'm sure Blue Buffalo is going to be sold out. But right now they seem to be the one who's doing the best."

Blue Buffalo declined to comment for this story.

Deciphering The Pet Food Aisle

If pet food brands are difficult to distinguish from one another, their package labels are downright hieroglyphics. Things like "all natural," "organic," even "chicken" don't mean the same things across pet food labels. Even the nomenclature for the alternative pet food sector is up for debate: Petco has dubbed it "Innovative Nutrition," while PetSmart calls it "Pinnacle Pet Nutrition."

In a survey commissioned by Purina, more than half of American dog owners said their dogs’ nutrition is more confusing than their own. "Pet food shopping is almost as detailed and in-depth as choosing a new car. People don't just change foods on a whim, and they won't just buy a product like this just because they happen to see it on the shelf," says Lucy Postins, founder of the alternative pet food maker the Honest Kitchen.

Even the reviled "by-product" is widely misunderstood, Dunn points out. According to AAFCO's definition, "by-products" actually contain some of the best stuff for dogs and cats: nutrient-rich organs like the spleen, kidneys, and brain, as well as blood and bone tissue. It doesn't include hair, horns, teeth, and hooves, contrary to modern myth.

A committee has formed inside the trade organization Pet Food Institute (whose members make 98% of the pet products in the U.S.) in conjunction with AAFCO to rewrite the rules of labeling. The working group hopes to introduce these new rules under an iteration of the FDA Amendments Act, according to a statement from PFI released to Fast Company.

"It's the same complaint that's always been in the human world: There's really no governed or enforced definition of the word 'natural,'" Petco's Sturm says. "So once it became popular, unfortunately, it became a marketing handle for some brands—which makes it more difficult to separate the high-quality foods from the ones that are more marketing handles."

Reading the Amazon comments on Postins's dog and cat products is like reading fan mail.

Rules Of Thumb

It's difficult to buy a safe, healthy pet food off the shelf. But it can be dangerous to create your own mix. And unless you abide by standards for pet nutrition, you may not be giving your cat or dog enough protein or trace minerals by creating a diet that mirrors your own. So what do you do?

"Look at the label. That's the only thing you can do," Klein says. If meat is the first ingredient, you're already in a good spot. If a pet food contains skeletal meat, fruits and vegetables, and some added vitamins, that's even better.

If you're ready to do a bit more research online, start by using "vet recommended" before any of your other search terms to find a top-notch brand, Dunn says. And occasionally check out the American College of Veterinary Nutrition for new findings.

Even if you can't feed your pet an all-premium diet, mix in healthy table scraps or bits of a premium treat or food with your traditional food. (Postins, for instance, recently unveiled Proper Toppers—chunkier versions of her dehydrated foods that can be added on top of a pet's regular dry or wet food for a nutritious treat or a hybrid dish.)

There's also the argument of spending a little more on dog food to potentially save money on vet bills down the line.

Eventually pet owners may start leapfrogging pet industry trust issues by creating their own dehydrated or raw pet foods, or they'll go to a vet who creates a diet for them.

Klein started making his own premium treats out of his Brooklyn practice as a way to keep dogs and cats comfortable on the exam room table. But the freeze-dried treats—which are made from cooked chicken hearts for protein, sprayed with fish oil as an anti-inflammatory, and rolled in tiger nuts for fiber—became so adored by his furry patients that he's going to sell them by the tin. Eventually, he plans to develop his own prescriptive diets.

"There's such a thrust to go local—buy local, go local. For our treats, I get the chicken hearts from the pizza guy's brother across the street. His brother is a butcher, and it's a USDA place. He brings them in frozen buckets, and he cooks them. There's accountability all the way through," Klein says. "There's something about that that's just more appealing to consumers. So if we make a food one day, it's going to be from this guy, who knows that guy, who knows that guy. It's not coming from a truck in the Midwest."

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