Feeding Frenzy: The changing landscape of the pet food industry

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Many pet lovers have special memories of furry friends and the time they spent together in their youth. One of my fondest memories centers on spending the summer with my Grandma’s retriever, Red. He had such a loving personality and a coat tinged with auburn of Auburn. My favorite time of the day was just after dinner. That is when Grandma would help me scrape together the leftover chicken and vegetables for Red’s meal.

Of course we’ve come along way since then. If Red were still with us, he would not only benefit from our greater understanding of pet nutrition, but the ever growing options of premium pet food as well.

Today’s pet parents are focused on what their pets eat and the quality of the ingredients. Holistic pet care has become an ingrained part of the lives of pet lovers and ensuring that pets get the best in holistic nutrition is an important part of that equation. The pet food industry has changed a great deal since Grandma and I spent our evenings chopping up leftovers for Red. And it should be no surprise that the innovation came from the little guys.

Who Owns your Pet Food?

Tuffy’s Pet Food (maker of NutriSource and Natural Planet) is one of the family-owned businesses that have become a trusted source of high-quality pet food by supplying premium products to independent shop owners for almost 40 years. But in recent years, big name companies began to see the potential in the once ignored segment of holistic pet food—which is why you may be surprised to learn, for example, that Proctor & Gamble purchased Natura Pet Products, the makers of Innova, California Natural, Karma and other brands.

In a press release in 2010, Proctor & Gamble stated, “This move enables P&G to expand into the attractive ‘holistic and naturals’ segment of the pet food category, complementing P&G's current Iams and Eukanuba brands and helping the Company advance its overall growth strategy of ‘reaching more consumers in more parts of the world more completely.’”

But big corporate acquisitions often leave pet guardians and local pet retailers reeling in confusion and concern. Many who rely on the quality and consistency of small, organically focused pet food brands worry that the new parent companies will compromise on ingredient quality and suppliers. And, in fact, some of those fears have been realized with the industry facing a number of recalls that have directly affected local pet stores.

For example, Merrick Pet Care recently purchased Castor & Pollux, makers of ORGANIX Pet Food. However, Merrick dealt with a recall of a popular dog treat just last year. Even though Diamond Pet Foods is still a family-owned business, they’ve long been considered a big boy in the pet food industry and they’ve become a manufacturer of many popular brands including Canidae and Taste of the Wild. Both brands have been involved in recent Diamond Food recalls, the latest of which came this year in May, with a recall due to apparent Salmonella bacteria.

Happy ReTales Pet Supply in Brentwood is just one of the many local businesses affected by the latest pet food recalls. General manager Kimberly Thompson is taking a proactive approach in hopes of avoiding future product outages for her customers and their pets due to recalls of this nature. Her philosophy moving forward is simple: “Unless you make your own food, we will not carry your product,” she says.

Happy ReTales is a great example of local businesses that are placing a priority on pets over profit. Like the rest of us, Thompson cares greatly for animals and she first entered the pet industry when her own dog fell ill. That’s when she realized that you must “learn to be proactive with your health and the health of your pets.” She immersed herself in research on pet nutrition and animal health before volunteer opportunities led her to a passion of helping people provide holistic care for their pets.

Defining Holistic Nutrition + Determining What’s Right for your Pet

Of course, we’ve all heard the terms ‘holistic pet care’ and ‘holistic pet foods.’ I’ve been guilty of wearing the terms as a badge of honor to show just how dedicated I am to my pet’s health and well-being. But I’ve found that when speaking about pet food, the word ‘holistic’ can mean many things to many people. That’s why consumers should be wary of the term when determining what foods to feed their furry friends. Companies are quick to capitalize on ambiguous phrases to market their brands to a trusting public.

So how we can ensure that our pups and kittens are munching on the very best? According to Lynn Higgins, owner of Dizzy’s Dog Wash, “It’s up to the retailer to be choosy about what products we sell. I’m very particular. In fact, everything in the store is sampled by my own pets.” Of course, it’s also our responsibility as pet guardians to invest the time in doing our homework.

Most of us realize the value in reading labels because the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Many of us choose whole meats over by-products. However, you can take it a step further: when checking the ingredient list, keep in mind that the highest quality products won’t use a generic term such as “fish meal”; rather, they will specify a specific fish source, such as “salmon”. Also, keep in mind that the first ten ingredients usually comprise 80% or more of a dry pet food's entire formula—so make sure they are quality ingredients (such as whole meats, brown rice, sweet potatoes and veggies or fruits) rather than junk fillers such as ground yellow corn and by-product meal.

It’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require pet food manufacturers to obtain any sort of pre-market approval prior to introducing a pet food into the market. The FDA does, however, review all pet food ingredients to ensure they are safe for pets and that the ingredients serve an appropriate purpose in the food.

Fortunately, Nashville has a dedicated community of pet professionals who pride themselves on recommending the best in holistic pet foods. Nashville Holistic Pet highlights Orijen as one of the top brands for pet parents in search of premium provisions. They also offer raw foods if you wish to treat your dog to a carnivore’s dream diet. Meanwhile, Thompson promotes NutriSource as an alternative to many of the recalled brands, and even went as far to offer free sample bags to customers making the switch. “We find comfort in the long-standing relationship we have had with the NutriSource because the company is very transparent regarding the source of the pet food ingredients and assures us that all ingredients are domestically produced,” she says. She adds that the brand has never had to issue a recall.

Given the current wave of recalls, many pet guardians have turned to homemade diets—which, of course, require a great deal of time, research and attention to detail. For those able to go the extra mile, however, it can be a very viable option, offering you complete control over your pet’s nutrition.

Regardless of what you decide to feed your pet, it is always a great idea to involve your veterinarian in decisions about nutrition. This is especially true if you decide to purchase a food other than a trusted premium brand or if you decide to develop a homemade or raw foods diet for your pet.

Holistic veterinarian Dr. Jane Bicks is recognized as a leader in holistic pet care and author of the book "Dr. Jane's Natural Care for a Healthier, Happier Dog". She believes that “holistic health boils down to balance.” So, when considering the best holistic food, it is necessary to take into account the pet’s complete living situation.

That’s why Higgins will not recommend a pet food until she has a chance to ask you a few questions about your pet. Age, sex, activity level and medical history are just a few of the things she prefers to know before recommending the right food for your pet.

One thing is clear: with pet food packaging becoming more clever and convincing all the time, choosing the right holistic pet food is clearly more than just picking the prettiest packaging that claims to be “natural”. Higgins puts it this way: “When you adopt a holistic lifestyle for your pet, it should just be an extension of his overall lifestyle. When you focus on the whole picture, your pet’s overall quality of life will be much improved.”

If you are concerned that your pet’s food may have been affected by a recall, visit the company website or check out the FDA’s website for a complete list of recent recalls. Additionally, pet food product complaints and concerns can be directed to the FDA’s Tennessee Consumer Complaint Coordinator at 866-289-3399.

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