Editorial November 2011 Issue

Pet Food Peeve

Industry insiders talk a lot about the “humanization” of pet food. That’s not why we recommend the foods we do.

A recent headline for an article on petfoodindustry.com read, “Thank goodness for the humanization of pets.” The article discussed how industry sales data and recent surveys of pet owners suggest that pet foods that are made to appeal to human appetites are responsible for most of the growth in the industry. 

Nancy Kerns

This isn’t the first time the phrase “humanization” has appeared in the pet food trade press. It’s used a lot – by industry analysts and pet food companies themselves. It’s just that the phrase isn’t often used in front of the shills – sorry, consumers – themselves. Pet food companies don’t make shelf displays that proclaim, “Now designed to appeal to your appetite, you silly dog owner!” even if that’s exactly what they are doing. Instead, they use the phrase only when they are talking among themselves.

For example, during Colgate-Palmolive’s second quarter earnings conference call for shareholders (held on July 28, 2011), the Senior Vice President of Investor Relations said, “Natural pet food is the fastest growing segment within the category as pet humanization and the inclusion or exclusion of specific ingredients are increasingly driving consumer behavior.”

Another example: Next month, there is a two-day conference presented by The Packaging Group, Inc. (“the world’s largest organization of targeted packaging conferences”), which “targets the emerging field of pet food packaging.” One of the two courses on the first day of the conference is devoted to “humanization of the pet food package.”

One could be insulted by the presumption that dog owners will buy a certain pet food just because its ingredient list sounds delicious, or because its package makes the food look perfectly scrumptious. But the truth is, it’s proving to be simple to manipulate many consumers by doing just that.

That’s why it’s so critical to inform yourself about your dog’s food. You have to go deeper than the pictures or words on the front label to determine whether a product is actually steak or just the “sizzle.” We try to teach dog owners about the ingredients panel and the guaranteed analysis – the only places on the label where one might gain meaningful information about the food. (Not that the ingredients panel is completely BS-free; there are plenty of tricks used there, too, to maximize the appeal of some perfectly ordinary ingredients.)

In the best possible world, ingredients that sound like real food items would appeal to educated dog owners because those ingredients are real food items – fresh, wholesome, and unprocessed. And that shouldn’t be a marketing strategy; it should be a basic pet care precept.

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