The value of the premium pet food label is built on trust between manufacturers, retailers and the pet owners themselves. But what happens if a growing marketplace and conflicting information start to erode that confidence?
With an ever-expanding group of pet owners seeking out the healthiest and most nutritious feeding options for their dogs and cats, premium and super-premium diets represent a popular and fast-growing product segment. However, the continued success of this category of foods depends on the integrity of the manufacturers and faith on the part of retailers and consumers that these are superior products that are objectively better for their pets.
Unfortunately, premium and super-premium labels face significant scrutiny and skepticism on multiple fronts.
While some industry observers doubt whether the claims on the packaging are actually matched by the quality of its contents, others have stated that they make little to no difference in pets’ health anyway. In addition, high-end pet food labels often come with a matching price tag, so many consumers may be reluctant to make the switch without some convincing about their real value. And as more and more companies look to capitalize on the category’s growth with new product lines, the true meaning of premium is becoming murkier for retailers and pet owners.
The combination of an as-yet undefined label, an influx of new manufacturers in the category and an ongoing need for consumer education has the potential to undermine the success of premium and super-premium foods, just as their popularity is spiking. Without addressing these issues, the pet industry runs the risk of having these labels lose value and skeptical customers lose interest in premium diets. But with the right approach, retailers and manufacturers can make sure that doesn’t happen.
What is Premium?
One of a few risks that premium and super-premium pet foods face is the lack of a reliable and consistent definition. Retailers do not have the ability to look at a standardized checklist issued by a regulatory body, compare it to a formula’s ingredients or nutrient profile or processing standards and draw a line between premium and non-premium—not a line that everyone can agree on at least. As a representative from the Pet Food Committee of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) explains, these terms indicate what a manufacturer thinks they mean or want consumers to think they mean, resulting in considerable variation between products and brands. Ask a group of manufacturers and retailers to outline what qualifies as premium, and each answer will be at least slightly different from the last.
To Michael Landa, CEO of Nulo Pet Foods, for example, premium and super-premium mean going above and beyond natural and grain-free to provide better, more biologically appropriate nutrition.
“Premium means providing a nutritional platform that’s higher in meat and lower in carbs, and foods that better address the biological need for amino acids derived from animal-based proteins, not plants,” he says. “Super-premium means you’re doing all that, while utilizing low-glycemic index ingredients to provide more stable energy over time, and also contributing functional ingredients like pre- and probiotics and other life-stage specific benefits.”
Quality control and responsible sourcing are often just as high on the priority list for designating a premium product. Retailers Josh and Holly Allen, owners of Dee-O-Gee in Bozeman, Mont., note that higher-quality ingredients, an absence of fillers and the company’s sourcing and testing practices are what they look for from premium brands. Similarly, Barbara Cade, purchasing manager at Georgia retailer Red Bandanna, selects foods without added chemicals, dyes or byproducts and avoids products with added sugar or other ingredients that may entice pets to eat but are not healthy.
David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely for Pets, says that whole foods and only real meat, without animal feed proteins like byproduct meal, defines premium for his company. Meanwhile, The Honest Kitchen strives to uphold the premium label through responsible sourcing and a rigorous testing process to make sure its foods are actually beneficial for pets. Lucy Postins, CEO, specifies that the company’s formulas meet AAFCO’s nutritional standards and undergo independent lab testing of their nutritional content.
“Companies and consumers tend to fall on habits of labeling something based on packaging,” Postins says. “But for us, it’s really a focus on the supply chain and the way the product is made, such as gentle processing of ingredients and the level of care and attention to detail.”
Not surprisingly, the number of manufacturers looking to enter the premium and super-premium category is growing noticeably as consumer demands for healthier and more nutritionally valuable diets continue to rise. More companies have started using the label, but not all newcomers to the category have committed to the values and priorities necessary for a truly premium product. Cade said she has seen numerous brands turning out new premium-branded products, though some seem to rely more on marketing than process and substance.
“Some of the TV commercials really are misleading,” Cade says. “They show these beautiful ingredients floating through the air, but when you look at the back of the bag, they’re not there.”
Landa points to advertising as a frequent source of misinformation for pet parents, which retailers have to address when discussing premium foods with customers. However, he is optimistic that with the right education, consumers will be able to hold manufacturers to the high standards implied by the premium and super-premium labels.
“It’s unfortunate, but millions more dollars are spent convincing pet parents that the inferior product they’re putting into their dog or cat’s bowl is actually nutritious,” Landa says. “We welcome a playing field where consumers can objectively quantify exactly what’s in their food and how it compares. The only way to hold brands accountable is for consumers to vote with knowledge and dollars.”
If the industry does succeed in teaching consumers how to tell the genuinely premium diets from those that do not live up to the term, the category’s growth could be more of an opportunity than a risk. Instead of diluting the value of the premium and super-premium labels to consumers, more high-quality pet foods could just lead to healthier pets as the category gains wider appeal and pet owners learn more about the value of these diets.
“Part of The Honest Kitchen’s mission when I first started the company was to raise the bar in our industry as a whole, and elevate customers’ expectations about what good quality pet food even means,” Postins says. “Provided newcomers to the super-premium category uphold decent values and standards for their products and are genuinely good quality, it will be a good thing for our industry and for pets.”
Worth the Price
To the uninitiated, super-premium diets might seem like a luxury item, but retailers can change that perception by highlighting their efficiency. Pets can get better nutrition from a smaller quantity of food, meaning the cost difference between premium and non-premium may be less than it looks like on paper. Some retailers also say that price is actually a minimal factor to many customers in search of better diets for their pets.
“I think the money comes last, because they’re getting a food that’s more appropriate for their dog, that’s using biologically appropriate ingredients and has meat as the number one ingredient,” Holly Allen says. “With premium foods, they’re getting the nutrients they need, and they’re more calorie dense. Price kind of comes last because they’re getting a food that’s going to last longer.”
Cade offered one example that illustrates how premium foods can provide better nutrition without a drastic change in feeding costs for pet parents. She had a Great Dane owner compare both the costs and the recommended feeding amounts of a premium food with the dog’s current food, a non-premium product. While the premium product was more expensive, the recommended feeding amount was less than half the volume of the Great Dane’s current diet—five cups a day compared to 12 cups a day.
Aside from day-to-day efficiency, these products are also designed to provide better health in the long term. “We’re trying to be aware of what we put in our pets’ bodies, so why feed your pet unnatural and potentially harmful chemicals when there’s a healthier alternative?” Cade says. “It can help prolong the life of the pet and avoid expensive vet bills and health issues.”
Additionally, as people increasingly feed and treat their pets as members of the family, retailers can point to the features of premium diets that are valued in human nutrition as well. “Look to the human food aisle to see the importance and growing popularity of whole-food ingredients,” says Yaskulka. “Health professionals on the human side are not divided on this issue.”
Be an Expert
Yaskulka notes that pet specialty retailers are the most important and skilled educators when it comes to guiding their customers to the best diet for their pets. Maintaining that well-informed position is key to ensuring that premium foods remain a valuable category. Retailers can start by carefully examining and testing new diets to see if the contents live up to the packaging before carrying it in their stores.
Many manufacturers and retailers of super-premium foods encourage a thorough investigation before taking on a new brand or product line. Retailers should inquire about the company’s ingredient sourcing and processing, safety standards and manufacturing facilities when deciding if a diet meets their premium standards. Transparency on the manufacturers’ side is crucial for both retailers and consumers looking for pet food brands they can trust.
“We encourage people to ask the tough questions, such as how are the workers treated and what’s the facility like,” Postins says. “What are the animal welfare conditions, are they using non-GMO products? We have a big focus on that.”
Landa advises both a direct examination of the manufacturer’s practices and surveying fellow retailers on their experiences with the company before taking them on.
“There are, of course, the tough nutritional questions to ask. What is a brand’s nutritional philosophy? Where do their ingredients come from? How do they make internal decisions about sourcing and sustainability?” he says. “They can also ask other retailers what the brand has been like to work with. How have they resolved issues? How does their product feed? Do their people conduct themselves with integrity? Premium brands are premium for a reason, and hopefully, it’s reflected in everything they do.”
Once a retailer has decided to place trust in a company’s product, the next step is effectively conveying that confidence to customers. Managers and employees should know what to look for in ingredient lists and be able to help pet owners compare their options, and be familiar enough with the formulas in the store to provide recommendations.
“I still think there’s a lot of education to be done,” says Holly Allen. “We meet every other week to educate our staff, go over ingredient lists and where they’re sourced and the benefits to the pet.
“Have a few house brands that you really stand behind,” she advises. “We have several brands that we back pretty highly, so if a customer comes in with a blank slate of wanting something healthy, we’ll ask some questions about the type and age of the dog, but we’ll typically go to these few foods.”
To Cade, one-on-one interaction is essential for explaining the value of premium foods to customers, especially for those hesitant to switch from their current brand or those whose pets have special dietary needs.
“I train the associates to bring up the ingredient list on the Internet and compare them side by side, and they’re trained on what to look for. We look for natural sources of antioxidants, digestive enzymes, prebiotics, and meat in the beginning of the ingredients list, not a carbohydrate source,” she says. “Especially if you’ve got a dog with allergies, you have to know what’s in there. You don’t want to see the chemicals, the dyes, the byproducts, you don’t want to see unnamed meat or fat sources because then you don’t have any idea what it really is.”
There will likely always be skeptics of the premium and super-premium labels, at least until the terms are more firmly defined and information about the tangible benefits of these types of foods reaches a wider audience. But until then, retailers and manufacturers are tasked with being trustworthy, well-informed educators and providing objectively high-quality products that deliver on the brand’s promises, ensuring the continued viability of the category.
“Fortunately, consumers today are getting smarter about their pet food, just like they’re getting smarter about their own nutrition,” Landa says. “Pet parents are actually looking for the niche brands that resonate with their values and their own nutritional research. Smart retailers are recognizing this and guiding them towards the smaller, nutritionally focused brands that prefer to put their money into better ingredient sourcing, retailer training and consumer education.”