Many of its brands — and commercials — may be iconic, from Meow Mix to Alpo, but the fact is that the pet food industry is a relatively new business. For millennia, cats and dogs were simply fed unwanted table scraps. Go to a timeless fish market like the Besiktas in Istanbul, and the chances are high that visitors will see a fishmonger feeding a feline the day’s scraps. Wander through the timeless Central Market in Athens and observers will watch the same thing, only with tidbits of beef and lamb.
Fast forward to the post-World War II era, however, and it was then that many food companies saw the benefits of marketing formulated pet foods to dog and cat owners. Growing affluence and the demand for convenience together inspired companies including General Foods, Nabisco and Purina (now owned by Nestlé) to enter the pet food sector. The profit margins were huge, as food waste that previously would have been discarded was recycled into what quickly became a lucrative new business.
As a result, dog and cat food products comprise a large part of the massive pet industry. Giant food companies such as Mars and Nestlé see even more opportunity in this market, which in the U.S. alone is undergoing more 10-figure mergers and acquisitions as its estimated worth has surged to over $23 billion annually.
But in recent years, there have been several scares for pet owners, as well as for many pet food companies’ bottom lines. The massive melamine pet food recall of 2007, which resulted from contaminated ingredients imported from China, gave a black eye to the Food and Drug Administration and some of the country’s largest pet food manufacturers. Organizations including the Humane Society are pushing the FDA to adopt more stringent rules than the ones currently on the books.
More recently, accusations that human slavery has become a part of some of the world’s largest pet food manufacturers’ supply chains are serving as a wake up call. Companies are starting to get the message that if they do not clean up their acts and show improvement in how their products are manufactured, their most vocal critics could convince politicians to tighten the regulatory screws. Whether these companies’ moves will mollify their critics, however, is another story.
One of those companies is Nestlé, which owns a large portion of the global pet food market with its $11 billion Nestlé Purina Petcare subsidiary. This week the company announced it had joined Field to Market, a multi-stakeholder organization that claims it is “providing collaborative leadership” to increase food production while incorporating more sustainable and responsible farming methods worldwide.
Like most press releases, the Nestlé-Field to Farm announcement is long on platitudes and short on specifics. That muted tone is in part because of the composition of Field to Farm: While the organization claims a diverse coalition, a closer look reveals that its membership is mostly large companies with a roster including McDonald’s and Monsanto; some of the country’s largest agribusiness trade associations; and two NGOs, the Nature Conservancy and WWF, both of which have been accused by many of their opponents of “selling out” their ideals in return for lucrative donations from the world’s largest multinationals.
One company not on that list is Mars, the pet food portfolio of which includes brands such as Whiskas, Pedigree and Iams. The company has pledged to eliminate fish listed as vulnerable from its products. While Mars has a ways to go in Europe and Asia, its pet food division says 100 percent of its seafood-based pet foods in North America are 100 percent sustainably sourced.
As Americans — and other affluent societies — become more attached to their pets, finding the right menu for that pooch or kitty can get confusing. But the lessons are not that different from feeding ourselves: less processed foods, as products with the least ingredients will prove more healthful for your pet; vetting opinions from a trusted veterinarian and trusted friends and family who have long owned pets; and scouring the Internet for trusted evaluations on that suggested pet food brand, together are the best way to cut through all the noise as the “we are sustainable, too” chorus now applies not just to makers of human food, but pet food as well.
Image credit: Leon Kaye