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Pet Food Trends: Sustainability, Health & Wellness Prevail

Petfood Industry Magazine recently named 10 consumer trends in pet food for 2021. Unsurprisingly, as in every other industry, COVID-19 has also affected the pet food market. The biggest areas of impact for pet food owners are: sustainability, convenience, health, and cost.

The number-one trend is sustainability. “Pet food companies have been moving towards the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits since well before the pandemic,” according to The pandemic actually gave this trend acceleration, with 70% of business professionals telling Euromonitor International that they believe the coronavirus will increase focus on sustainability.


A February 2020 Food Engineering feature also notes that trends in pet foods mirror human food trends. This includes premium ingredients and sustainable practices. In fact, across the food processing industry in general, many facilities have become more aware of the importance of sustainability, and this includes those in the pet food segment.


“Pet food makers have absolutely seen an increased shopper expectation for pet food products on the shelf that mirrors human food options,” Mary Emma Young, senior director of communications for the Pet Food Institute, told Food Processing magazine in 2020.

"Pet food makers have absolutely seen an increased shopper expectation for pet food products on the shelf that mirrors human food options."
Mary Emma Young, Senior Director of Communications

Pet Food Institute

Meat/Protein Content, Premium Ingredients


Many pet food manufacturers are looking to highlight their brands’ differences by touting how their dog or cat food is “different” than the competition—by focusing on protein content and joint support ingredients, such as glucosamine and chondroitin.


Ingredients such as high-quality meat, sweet potatoes and apples are also popping up in pet food brands as a way for companies to show their commitment to using real, whole foods in pet food recipes.


Petsource, a freeze-dried ingredients arm of Scoular, is one such company choosing to pursue high-quality ingredients for its products. The company chose Gray to partner on the construction of their newest plant. This is the first manufacturing facility for the organization; the project includes a warehouse, cold storage rooms for raw meat, freeze dryers, and clean rooms. Upon completion, the facility will produce high-quality, safe  high-protein ingredients for pet food manufacturers.


New Protein Sources


Alternate protein sources are also of interest to pet food formulators and manufacturers. Global Pet Expo showcases more variety and innovation in unique, novel proteins every year. Products such as dog food with insect protein or exotic animals (venison, rabbit, alligator) offer high-protein, low-fat options, but thus far have not grabbed much of the market.


Plant protein, on the other hand, has been red-hot in human foods (think Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger). The desire for plant proteins has predictably transferred to humans’ furry companions. Several major pet food brands have answered consumer demand with offerings of plant-based pet food.


Even eggs, which might not be considered an “alternative” protein, are showing up in pet foods as health enhancements. With essential vitamins and minerals, plus antioxidants, eggs protein also contains all nine essential amino acids. Egg shells can also be used as a source of calcium. And eggs can be used as a binder to hold high-moisture ingredients together.


“There’s the obvious label appeal of putting ‘egg’ or ‘eggs’ on a label—an all-natural, simple, whole food ingredient that doesn’t take much space on an ingredient label,” Elisa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing for the American Egg Board, told Food Processing. “Eggs are a familiar, well understood ingredient. Pet parents eat eggs themselves and/or cook with them, so that gives them a certain comfort feeding them to their pets.”


Side of Fruits and Veggies


Both feline and canine critters, while considered carnivores, can benefit from fruit and vegetable ingredients. For example, dark leafy green vegetables contain calcium, potassium, and magnesium; broccoli and kale are rich in phytonutrients. Sweet potatoes have also been in pet foods for a while, but fruit ingredients are relatively new on the scene.


Embodying the concept of health, fiber, vitamins, etc., processors are finding that such ingredients can be successfully incorporated into pet food. This can help to increase the foods’ nutritional value—as well as flavor and even color—at time when many pet owners consider artificial colorings to be “no-gos” for their pets, either due to allergy concerns or other ethical considerations that have swirled around such ingredients for decades.


Pureed strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries are high-fiber ingredients that have found their way into some pet foods. “When we first attended the annual Global Pet Expo a few years ago, there was very little fruit found in pet products,” a spokesperson for the U.S Highbush Blueberry Council told Food Processing. “In those days, the thought of fruits and vegetables in dog and cat food seemed unusual [but] an intriguing concept to many we talked to.” Consumers equate berries with health and wellbeing, as well as valuing their antioxidant properties—and that carries over to their pets.


Other fruits popping up in pet food formulations, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database, include citrus fiber—which jumped a whopping 437% in the year ending March 2019. Apple and cranberry usage have also seen spikes in use.

Processors are finding ways to incorporate healthy ingredients, such as fruit and vegetables, into pet food.

Into the 21st Century: Robotics & AI


There has been much buzz about AI and robotics in food engineering, manufacturing, and warehousing. Predictably, the pet food market is also making use of such technology.


As part of Food Engineering magazine’s podcast series, editors spoke with Tyler Cundiff, president, Food & Beverage Group, at Gray, Inc.; and Greg Powers, vice president of solution architecture for Gray Solutions, a Gray company. The topic was how the pet food industry is adopting automation, AI, and robotics.


Powers told FE that one of the main changes in how the pet food market is using AI/robotics is in more in the processing side, versus packing and palletizing. One of the changes has to do with quality inspections, because a robot with vision systems can better pick out quality defects. “Any type of grading of a product is very popular,” said Powers, “[so] you have vision systems and the robots that actually take out bad product or at least look at and visualize the product and make better decisions.”


Nestlé Purina PetCare, an American subsidiary of Nestlé, produces pet food, treats, and cat litter and is the largest pet food manufacturer in the U.S., as well as second largest, globally.


When it came time for Purina to select a partner for its first greenfield facility since 1975, the company selected Gray for fully integrated services including strategy, construction, extensive engineering, design, and automation & controls to deliver a state-of-the-art facility. The facility is being built to Purina’s world-class quality and food safety standards; and this will be the company’s most technologically advanced pet food facility, utilizing robotics and innovative digital tools. There will also be an on-site training center dedicated to promoting learning and development.


In reference to the push for sustainability, these new operations will feature a commitment to send zero waste for disposal and production processes designed to recover and reuse heat and water. Purina also is striving to make the facility 100% powered by renewable electricity in the shortest practical timeframe, while supporting the company’s goal for zero environmental impact in company operations by 2030.


Purina also selected Gray for a project in Eden, NC, which includes revitalizing an old brewery into a new pet food facility. The former brewery, located along the Virginia border, is being transformed into an innovative, technically advanced pet food manufacturing facility expected to be operational in 2022. Upon completion, the operation will produce several leading dry dog and cat food brands and will measure nearly 1.4 million s.f. and sit on more than 1,300 acres.

"Any type of grading of a product is very popular. [So] you have vision systems and the robots that actually take out bad product or at least look at and visualize the product and make better decisions."
Greg Powers, Vice President of Solution Architecture

Gray Solutions, a Gray company

What We Value, We Want for Our Pets


There is no denying that U.S. consumers consider pets to be part of their families. As human food trends make their way steadily into the pet food market, the challenge falls upon food formulators, engineers, and pet food manufacturers to respond to the demands of sustainability, traceability, premium quality, and health/wellness—at an affordable price point.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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