BY STEVE MILLS, senior vice president of customer brands and co-manufacturing at American Nutrition Inc.
It’s no secret that international pet food ingredient sourcing has had a colorful history. But in recent years, the benefits have begun to far outweigh the risks. Market demand for exotic pet food options, fortified importation standards and more responsible sourcing practices have tipped the scales.
Today, pet food retailers who want to remain competitive are carefully considering the upshot of importing ingredients from outside the U.S. Here’s an overview of the many potential benefits of looking beyond domestic sources for your next pet food product.
There are many reasons why pet owners might be looking for exotic ingredients, but the trend is undeniable. Pet owners who suspect a food allergy often experiment with new foods to eliminate suspect ingredients. And with beef being among the top offenders for cats and dogs alike, novel, often foreign, proteins like bison, rabbit, kangaroo and alligator are filling an important market gap.
Pet food trends generally follow human food trends. America’s current foodie culture embraces whole ingredients and short ingredient lists. No more fillers— today’s pet food owners want to expand their furry friends’ culinary horizons with clean, minimally processed formulations. And if duck from France, lamb from Australia or green-lipped mussels from New Zealand is the headliner, you are sure to capture this demographic’s penchant for the finer things in life.
Thinking back to even a decade ago, it was difficult to find hummus in your grocery aisle or on appetizer menus. Fast forward to 2014, when hummus popularity was soaring, and the U.S. per capita consumption of chickpeas doubled over the course of five years, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
What does this have to do with pet food? With the gap between when trends hit the human food market and the pet food market receding, chickpeas have become a high-demand ingredient in today’s pet food aisle. And pet food manufacturers often struggle to secure high-demand ingredients domestically at a reasonable price. U.S. chickpeas are being bought up so quickly, many pet food manufacturers are looking to Canada’s High Plains and other regions to work around the dwindling supplies and high costs found at home.
On the flip side, ingredients that aren’t on most Americans’ grocery lists but are popular in their pets’ bowls can also be difficult to secure domestically. Rabbit and duck are both popular pet food ingredients that haven’t quite caught on at the American dinner table. For this reason, it is often easier to find duck and rabbit meat processors that meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ standards overseas.
A bag of kibble boasting “New Zealand lamb” no doubt whets consumers’ palettes for finer, exotic flavors, but it’s not the only reason to go down under for meat. As an island nation with strong biosecurity controls, New Zealand’s animals have a minimized risk of developing diseases that are found in other parts of the world. According to its Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, New Zealand is free of bird flu, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, infectious salmon anemia and classical swine fever, among other common animal-borne diseases.
In addition, select overseas countries like New Zealand have made humane and natural raising a mainstream practice, which is attractive to pet food brands and consumers alike. Grass-fed and/or free-range lamb and venison are more readily obtained overseas, so importing these ingredients makes it easier for pet food brands to follow and promote responsible sourcing practices.
The potential advantages of international importation are numerous but must be considered within the context of the product being developed, the sourcing region and the trustworthiness of the supplier. In addition to transportation and product costs, you must factor in how conversion rates, storage fees and vendor verification costs will factor in. In short, do your homework and partner with a manufacturer that has a reputation for quality processes so you’ll be in a position to protect your bottom line while delighting pets and their owners alike.