Could it be that the grain-based pet foods you've been feeding Fido just aren't cutting it from a biological standpoint?
While the scientific validity of this premise is still very much in dispute, a growing number of producers and proponents of "fresh" pet food - meaning mainly raw meats/bones in frozen or refrigerated form - maintain that the health of dogs, cats and ferrets is best served by raw/fresh-ingredient diets that more closely resemble those that their ancestors consumed in the wild.
Commercially produced fresh pet foods are a very small part of the overall market. However, the category is growing, and it got an added boost from the pet food recalls of Spring 2007, according to a new report from consumer marketing research firm Packaged Facts, "Fresh Pet Food in North America: The Raw/Frozen, Refrigerated and Homemade Wave."
Packaged Facts estimates that North American sales of raw/frozen pet foods -- which often contain fresh vegetable and fruit components and supplements, as well as meat/bones -- experienced a compound annual growth rate of 38% between 2003 and 2007, reaching $169 million last year. (About 90% of sales are in the U.S.) That represented just less than 1% of total NA pet food sales, which PF estimates at $18 billion.
PF expects the fresh category to grow at a more modest CAGR of 23% over the next five years, to reach sales of $473.4 million by 2012. While that's still a relative drop in the water bowl against traditional pet foods' billions, the fresh growth rate significantly exceeds the 5% to 6% annual sales growth of the pet food market as a whole.
The report also cites IRI-tracked U.S. sales of frozen/refrigerated pet food (supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart) that show the category actually declining between 2003 and 2006, but leaping 119% in 2007, to reach $6 million.
Two companies account for nearly the entire fresh category. Bil-Jac Foods, which has been marketing fresh, vacuum-dried dog food lines for more than 60 years, is the leader, although PF reports that Freshpet, which entered the market just last year, is now driving category growth.
Raw/frozen/refrigerated offerings are one segment within the broader category of "alternative" pet foods, which also include natural and organic varieties. Natural is generally defined as food made with whole or unrefined ingredients and natural preservatives, flavors and colors, without artificial components. Most raw diets also meet these criteria, though few thus far have been certified as organic, according to PF.
Organic varieties have actually seen the greatest growth over the past five years (48%), but fresh has benefited by being closely associated with organic and natural in consumers' minds because of their nutritional attributes, PF points out.
Further, in addition to pet owners' concerns about food safety, innovative features being introduced within fresh, such as a small but growing refrigerated sub-segment, are helping drive category demand, the analysts conclude.
In fact, PF based its overall growth projections for fresh in part on the assumption that "the time is ripe for the widespread implementation of refrigerated pet food sections in national supermarket, supercenter and pet superstore chains, and for new forms of fresh pet food enabled by developing technologies."
Still, as detailed in the report, the regulatory scenario surrounding fresh foods is complex, in part because the foods currently fall into a "gray area" between pet foods and medicines.
Many raw/frozen foods don't meet the "complete and balanced" diet guidelines of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the main regulatory agency for animal foods, according to PF. And while neither that agency nor the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine has taken a formal position on raw pet foods, "most veterinarians and veterinarian associations do not recommend these diets," and mainstream vets and traditional commercial pet food marketers "are quick to point out that scientific studies supporting the health benefits of raw pet foods are still lacking," the analysts report.
Nevertheless, a growing number of holistic vets are proponents of commercial fresh products -- most of which are based on the "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" (BARF) pet feeding philosophy developed by Australian doctor Ian Billinghurst. And the fresh industry has now formed associations, signaling intent to take a more assertive, public stance, points out PF.