The humanisation of pet food: from kibble to gourmet

– and the potential challenges and opportunities for pet food manufacturers


Conventional round, brown kibble is out. And organic, freeze-dried and gourmet are in. Modern pet owners are looking for food for their cats and dogs that looks and smells like an appetising meal fit for humans, and the pet food industry is in a time of transition according to experts in the US pet food industry.

FOSS talked to Barbara Howe Ph.D., Strategic Account Director in Kemin, which provides solutions for pet food manufacturers, renderers and ingredient suppliers. And she is seeing a major shift in the market right now.
Pet owners today view their pets as part of their families and refer to them as their “fur babies”. This development has also moved into the pet food industry where experts are seeing a shift away from the standard brown kibble to food that looks like something that would be fit to serve to humans. And this shift has more to do with perception, marketing and the owners’ feelings than ever before. The new generation of pet owners generally look for products for their pets that make them feel good about what they are buying.


What are the challenges for pet food manufacturers …?

Perhaps this is the reason that, now more than ever, the focus in the pet food industry is on innovation of new specialised meals for pets.
The conundrum is that pet food manufacturers are really good at manufacturing high-quality kibble with a long shelf life. "High-protein, high-fat, rendered meals provide fantastic protein and mineral balances as well, but pet owners today prefer a more human-type food - they want their pets to eat what they eat," explains Barbara Howe.

Many manufacturing sites have been built for kibble, and manufacturers may have to install new equipment if they want to keep up with current demand. Some of them are therefore looking into the possibilities of moving their production to sites designed for human food manufacturing, simply because that is where they can get access to equipment necessary to produce these new forms of pet food. 
But the next challenge is then that the ingredients are not human grade and therefore not allowed in facilities designed for production of human food. This means that pet food manufacturers will have to start using entirely new ingredients, potentially with a higher price point.


Barbara Howe elaborates: “Pet parents are demanding new ways to feed their pets, and many ingredient suppliers are very forward thinking and are pulling ideas from the human ingredients markets and finding ways to implement them in pet food production. But this is not entirely straightforward as these ingredients have to be evaluated and approved by the authorities. Furthermore, as an industry, we are also discovering and partnering in the best ways to handle, treat, and store these new materials to continue ensuring the right nutritional benefits as well as freshness.”

And manufacturing equipment and regulatory approval are not the only challenges with these new forms of pet food and pet food ingredients. Because while there may be a perceived belief among many pet owners right now that fresh food is better and healthier for their pets, manufacturers do not necessarily have the same insight and experience with producing these fresh and frozen pet foods. In other words, if the pet food manufacturers do not have professional nutritionists to advise on the composition of the new food types, they could end up selling products that are potentially less healthy than the standard kibble. 


Kombucha for dogs?

Furthermore, the risks have gone up for manufacturers due to more complex formulas with more expensive ingredients. New dog food ingredients on the market include kombucha and goat milk just to name a few. The regulatory path to get pet food ingredients approved is very long and complex, which makes the process even more risky and potentially costly for the manufacturers. In fact, it can sometimes be faster to get new ingredients approved for human consumption. 


… and the opportunities?

But there is an upside to all of this. 

These new trends also offer opportunities for players on the market to seize market shares if they make the right strategic and tactical decisions. For example, Barbara Howe explains that Kemin collaborates with experts within human food production to draw on their experience to overcome some of the challenges with fresh and freeze-dried pet food. 

And this is not the only opportunity for pet food manufacturers: Now more than ever, pet food owners want to make sure that they are giving the best possible food to their pets, and this could mean significant upselling in terms of price points.

Pet food manufacturers would therefore do well to do the work to find out what is happening from a nutritional perspective with these new food forms and to establish relationships with human ingredient suppliers. 

The pet food industry could furthermore learn from the grocery industry in terms of distribution models for fresh food that requires refrigeration. Pet food distributors are currently trying to figure out how to deliver fresh products to the stores. It is not unlikely that we will begin to see refrigerators take up much more space in pet food stores, with retailers investing in refrigeration. This means that there could be market shares to be seized here by pet food manufacturers. 

Another opportunity on today’s pet food market is traceability. Consumers everywhere in the Western world are demanding transparency in the product ingredients – and the more details the better. Barbara Howe is seeing an increasing focus on food safety as pet owners want to know that the pet food they bring into their homes is safe. She elaborates: “The clean label movement in human food products, much like natural and sustainability, has also moved into the pet food industry. Consumers are demanding transparency and traceability – they want full information about why each ingredient is there and what it does. It is becoming increasingly important that pet food manufacturers can provide assurance that the food is both nutritionally sound and safe. This introduces opportunities, as this expectation of traceability from pet parents spans across the value chain.” However, not all manufacturers have supply chains designed to provide this level of traceability. But in today’s market, you could strengthen your brand value if you can back up claims about the quality of your ingredients with traceability all the way back to the farm.

However, the potential fly in the ointment for all of this is pricing. Increasing inflation, energy and raw material prices combined with a shortage of labour could result in a perfect storm in terms of pricing, and this could perhaps dampen the customer appetite for these new and more expensive forms of pet food. On the other hand, the pet food industry has so far proven to be quite recession proof.

Nevertheless, pet food manufacturers would be wise to optimise their use of costly new ingredients and use pet food testing solutions to gain insight into the complex composition of these new and popular forms of pet food.