April 10, 2014

Insights from Petfood Forum 2014

Author: Dick Goodman

Petfood Forum, sponsored by Petfood Industry magazine, has concluded for another year in Schaumburg, Ill. As many of you know, this three-day U.S. gathering of pet food industry thought leaders is where discussions and presentations, both formal and informal, join nearly 200 exhibits to give pet food professionals a chance to mingle, share their wares and learn the latest the industry has to offer.

With a specialty like pet food palatability, the show is a rare opportunity to be with hundreds of people from around the world who are as passionate about this topic as we are. As always, we had much to share in our booth, including pet food palatability insights imparted in person, through our newly redesigned website, AFBInternational.com, and this new blog, PalatantsPlus.com.

We appreciate all those who took our brief survey to share feedback on desired future blog topics. Your input will influence the shape of things to come. One lucky survey respondent even took home an iPad Air for her effort!

And we had some great fun for a good cause, testing booth visitors’ memories using our custom memory cards sporting Palatants Plus blog topics and their authors. While visitors played, pets won. For every correct card match, AFB donated $10 to the Naperville Area Humane Society. We discovered pet people have excellent memories—leading to a total $540 donation for this deserving Chicago-area organization. 

For the AFB staffers who attended, there was much to learn and ponder, too. Personally, I found this year’s breakout sessions—organized around the categories of nutrition, marketing/retail and safety/processing—largely valuable and relevant. But perhaps most thought-provoking for me was pet journalist’s Steve Dale’s incisive, often humorous, musings about his experience with pet owners.

In his opening keynote, Dale related the story of a reader who called him one evening at home to chastise him for recommending microwaving food for a cat dying of cancer to make the food more palatable. In the caller’s passionate view, microwaving food was tantamount to poisoning it. Several minutes into the conversation, the caller asked Dale if he could hold for a moment. As he waited, he distinctly heard the caller picking up fast food at a drive-thru window.

His point: Pet owners today often are far more concerned about their pets’ health and well-being than their own. He also noted consumers’ tendency to accept information found online as truth and for misinformation to be propagated at a dizzying pace—making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Eventually, perception becomes reality for many.

It appears even well-meaning, mostly true information can have a similar effect. In her session on pet food market trends and projections, Maria Lange of research firm GfK Retail and Technology, confirmed natural, grain-free, limited-ingredient and freeze-dried products are driving financial sales growth for pet foods. However, overall poundage of pet food is decreasing slightly.

What’s driving these trends? Though backed by mostly valid claims of benefits, there is a growing belief among consumers that “regular old kibble” is somehow not healthy enough for their pets. As a 25-year veteran of this industry, I know this isn’t the case. But marketing creates perception and perception drives purchasing.

As companies strive to survive and thrive, they must differentiate. It seems this trend toward specializing in more expensive natural, grain-free, etc., products has reached the tipping point and everyone is jumping in. I think the next phase in this trend will be more and more human-grade pet food. So watch for more raw, refrigerated pet food and frozen ice cream treats on the horizon. 

Because of the emotional tie we feel with our pets—and because our pets are so completely dependent on us—we want to do everything in our power to do right by them. Going forward, I believe the primary question in the pet food industry will become: How do we help consumers get clear, accurate information to ensure pets are taken care of properly and affordably, while also managing each pet food company’s desire to “win?”

What do you think? Will this specialization continue? If so, who will be the winners and the losers?

Thanks to all who connected or reconnected with us during the show. We hope you’ll stay in touch through this blog, our regular email updates and AFBInternational.com. Or contact us by phone or email. We’re always glad to hear from you.


Tags: Petfood Forum, PalatantsPlus.com, Palatants Plus, palatable, palatabilitiy, natural, Naperville Area Humane Society, limited-ingredient, human-grade, freeze-dried,