How Fresh Diets Are Reshaping the Pet Food Industry

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • CANWI is a non-profit organization I co-founded with Dr. Donna Raditic; our mission is to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet food company, veterinary school, pet parent and veterinary staff member
  • The focus of this year’s fundraising efforts is our latest endeavor, the SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) program, which will bring unbiased small animal nutrition education to veterinary students and veterinary technicians across North America
  • Today’s guests are fresh dog food company owners Renaldo Webb of Pet Plate, and Alan Hansbury of Meals for Fido, as well as board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Renee Streeter
  • Our guests discuss the reasons behind the fast-growing fresh food segment of the pet food market, and the challenges of getting information on the health benefits of fresh diets into the hands of veterinary staffs and pet parents

Welcome to day 3 of Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute’s (CANWI) annual fundraising week here at Mercola Healthy Pets. This week we’re introducing a new program we’re very excited about called SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition). Dr. Raditic and I created it to fill a tremendous need for unbiased small animal nutrition education in veterinary schools across North America.

In today’s video, my first guest is Renaldo Webb, founder of Pet Plate, a human-grade, fresh dog food company. Following our discussion, CANWI co-founder Dr. Donna Raditic will be talking with Dr. Renee Streeter, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist who does consulting for the pet food industry as well as veterinary patients. Lastly, I’ll be chatting with Alan Hansbury, co-owner and co-founder of Meals for Fido, another fresh dog food company that uses only human-grade ingredients.

Below are some of the highlights of our discussions, which you can view in their entirety in the video above, or by reviewing the downloadable transcripts linked above.

Pet Plate Was Founded as an Alternative to Feed-Grade Processed Dog Food

Renaldo Webb started his fresh dog food company, Pet Plate, in January 2016. He conceived the idea while acting as a consultant for several pet food manufacturers. Being on the factory floor at those companies, seeing the ingredients that make up feed-grade pet food, Renaldo grew concerned that his dog Winston was eating food that wasn’t safe for human consumption.

“I became really passionate about human-grade pet food, which in 2016 was a novel concept,” he says. “I partnered with a veterinary nutritionist to design meals for Winston, and he loved them. Some of my friends with dogs started expressing interest, and soon I realized there were millennials and pet parents of all ages all across the country who also want human-grade food for their dogs.

So, I took a leap of faith and started Pet Plate. We did a local product test in New York City and received great feedback from customers, and I’ve been growing the business ever since.”

To combat the critics who claim there’s no “science” behind fresh human-grade food for pets, Renaldo has his formulas tested at independent labs to confirm they’re complete and balanced per AAFCO standards. Taking this step not only reassures pet parents, it also shuts down debate with processed pet food promoters because Pet Plate’s products are complete and balanced “just like kibble,” but with higher quality ingredients. In addition, a growing number of pet parents are no longer swayed by arguments against fresh diets.

“I think these days, people are just far more educated,” says Renaldo. “They’re moving more toward fresh food in their own diets, which translates to decisions they make about their pet’s food.”

How Pet Plate Proactively Answers the Concerns of Both Pet Parents and Critics of Fresh Diets

In addition to testing to ensure AAFCO guidelines are met, Pet Plate also tests for the presence of pathogens. All their diets are manufactured in USDA-approved facilities suitable for human food production.

“I think the honesty and transparency we provide as a company allows people to feel comfortable about the quality of our pet food, and also provides some of the science behind why we think this is a great alternative for their pets,” Renaldo explains.

Pet Plate has done an excellent job getting ahead of the curve in silencing critics of fresh pet food, while simultaneously providing pet parents with everything they need to feel comfortable switching from a processed feed-grade diet to a fresh human-grade diet.

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Pet Plate and Its Competitors Are Filling an Important Void in the Pet Food Market

I asked Renaldo for his opinion on why fresh diets are one of the fastest growing segments of the pet food industry.

I think it just makes sense to pet parents,” he replied. “When they start doing research into how we all ended up feeding our dogs kibble, they start to scratch their heads and ask more questions. I also think the entire customer experience of custom ordering pet meals online is exciting to people.

But I think the biggest reason, particularly in the U.S., is that people are trying to get healthier themselves. Unfortunately, our pets have followed us in some of the negative health trends we’ve experienced over the past 20 to 25 years. For example, 60% of dogs and cats are obese. They’re getting diseases like cancer. People are starting to ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ The answer much of the time can be found in our nutritional choices, and we suspect the same is true for our pets.

People are starting to put the puzzle pieces together and are no longer so quick to fall for potentially false marketing claims. They’re looking for food that can truly benefit their pets. They’re asking, ‘Is this something I would consider eating myself?’ And if it isn’t, why would they feed it to four-legged family members?”

Renaldo believes Pet Plate and its competitors in the U.S. are doing a great job stepping up to fill the fresh pet food market niche while also providing consumers with the transparency they require to make intelligent purchasing decisions.

“We do a lot to ensure we’re living up to the promises we make to pet parents,” says Renaldo. “We’re trying to set an example here. Hopefully, the growth of our pet food segment will cause kibble and other feed-grade manufacturers to step up their game.”

As it currently stands, wonderful small fresh pet food producers like Pet Plate are virtually unknown in the conventional veterinary community, in large part because neither veterinary students nor veterinary technicians receive nutrition training that even touches on the health benefits of feeding fresh real food to companion animals.

This is exactly the gap we hope to fill with our CANWI SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) programs designed for veterinary and vet tech students.

To Build Trust With Pet Owners, Veterinarians Need To Be Able to Discuss the Pros and Cons of a Wide Range of Diets and Pet Food Ingredients

Dr. Renee Streeter is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. She consults for the pet food industry, designs pet food formulas, reviews formulations, and also does nutrition clinical consults for veterinary patients.

“I’m a foodie,” Dr. Streeter explains. “And I really like feeding things, people and animals, so becoming a veterinary nutritionist seemed like a good fit.”

Dr. Streeter’s perspective on the state of nutrition education in veterinary colleges today is that the amount students are exposed to is quite variable. Some schools require students to take a nutrition class, while at others it’s an elective. Generally speaking, as you’d expect, where classes are required, students get more exposure.

In fact, at the veterinary school Dr. Streeter attended, Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, not only were nutrition courses required, they were intensive and not the easy subjects many students expected them to be.

However, for the most part, regardless of the nutrition training they received, most veterinary students and practicing veterinarians are limited in that they only understand which diets (processed) to prescribe for which health problems (often based on what they’ve been told by the companies that sell those diets).

“What I’d like to see them learning,” says Dr. Streeter, “is more about nutritional goals and the proper nutrition needed to manage particular diseases, and less about ‘If A, B or C is the problem, then reach for X, Y or Z diet.’ This approach narrows the scope of what they can use in their practices, and it also means they may be ignoring a situation where there are multiple issues.

For example, if they have a patient with both kidney disease and pancreatitis, and they prescribe a renal diet to address the kidney disease, they may not realize the renal diet is high in fat and can exacerbate pancreatitis.”

Dr. Streeter also clearly sees the gap between the questions today’s pet parents are asking, and the answers their veterinarians are willing or able to provide.

“The ability to have educated discussions about the pros and cons of ingredients or types of diets can go a long way toward developing trust with pet owners, as well as helping to find the best diets for their pets,” she says.

“Perhaps there are a variety of diets a pet would do well on. To be able to have that discussion with the owner is important. At this point, I think it’s just easier for veterinarians to fall back on non-specific guidance such as, ‘This diet is good. This diet is not good. End of story.’ But that doesn’t get us very far with pet parents anymore.”

Dr. Streeter agrees with Pet Plate founder Renaldo Webb, interviewed earlier, that more people these days want to feed their pets like they feed themselves.

They see their pets as part of the family. They may also have had experiences with animals who’ve significantly benefitted from a “non-traditional” diet, and once they see it work, they start telling everyone they know, so the word spreads and the popularity of those “non-traditional” diets grows.

Dog’s Stubborn Skin Condition Was the Genesis of Meals for Fido

Our final guest today is Alan Hansbury, co-owner and co-founder of Meals for Fido, a company that produces veterinarian-balanced, USDA inspected and approved, human-grade ingredient dog food. Alan spent most of his career as an executive chef working in some of the country’s finest resorts and kitchens, where one of his many responsibilities was to create balanced, healthy, delicious meals for guests.

“Now, I’m fortunate enough to be doing it for dogs,” he says. “Years ago, as a chef, I noticed a social movement in which people were becoming interested in food traceability: where it’s being farmed, how it got to their table and how healthy it was for them. Food is such an important part of our lives. For many reasons, I think we overlooked what was actually going in our dogs’ food.

As an executive chef and a pet parent, I always trusted commercial dog food. Why wouldn’t I? But the brand recommended by our veterinarian to help clear up our dog’s skin issues didn’t help. That’s when I started to do my own research and discovered the truth about what actually goes into dog food, how it’s made, the excessive recalls, chemicals and everything that was involved with it.”

In Alan’s experience, as more pet parents educate themselves about what’s actually going into their dog’s food, they’re making better choices. The ability to see the ingredients in the food and know they’re coming from a trusted source has become a game changer for many pet owners.

Pet Parents Are Turning to Fresh Diets to Build Healthier, Happier Dogs

I asked Alan why he thinks his segment of the pet food market — human-grade, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate fresh food — is becoming so popular. Is it because pet parents no longer trust big pet food companies, or because they want to know where the food is sourced from, or perhaps because they want to see real food in the pet food bowl instead of pellets?

“It’s definitely a combination of all of those reasons,” he replied. “We have many customers who just want a healthier, happier dog. For example, feeding fresh food was a game changer for our two dogs. One specifically, her skin issues cleared up within two months of feeding a fresh, balanced diet.

Another reason is the massive pet food recalls that have been in the news in recent years and the lawsuits that are still making their way through the courts. People are simply becoming more aware. And the information is out there for pet owners who want to do their own research and understand what they’re feeding their dog vs. what they could be feeding.”

One of the challenges for Meals for Fido and other small fresh pet food producers is they spend most of their financial resources ensuring their ingredients and finished products are of the highest quality, nutritionally optimal, and free of pathogens. They don’t have much left over for marketing and advertising, so they depend on word-of-mouth to grow their businesses.

One of the ways our CANWI SPAN program can help is by educating veterinary students and veterinary technicians about fresh pet diets so they can have informative discussions with pet parents and together, we can all spread the word. Dr. Raditic and I invite you to join us in supporting this important work with a donation to CANWI, either online through PayPal or via the mail. We can’t do it without you. Thank you!

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