Written by: Victoria Broehm | January 28, 2021
On Tuesday, more than 200 professionals across the pet food industry gathered virtually for the American Feed Industry Association’s 14th annual Pet Food Conference. Given that over the past year we have all faced challenges navigating the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic, it was uplifting to hear from several experts who said the pet food industry remains a bright spot for U.S. businesses and pet owners.
Jared Koerten of Euromonitor International said that even before the pandemic, sales in the pet food industry were forecast to grow due to the increased humanization of pets as family members, leading more consumers toward purchasing premium foods. Even amid the pandemic, Euromonitor has found that pet care and pet food have shown minimal income elasticities, meaning pet owners did not drastically cut back on spending in these areas.
“The pet food industry passed the recession resistance test” due to historic pet adoption, stocking up on pet food and treats and more, Koerten said.
Over time, he expects the trend to e-commerce to “be very sticky,” with people valuing the conveniences of touch-free automation and auto-shipments of replenishment orders, whereas they may go to brick-and-mortar stores, when it is safe to do so, for loyalty programs and socialization with other pet owners. He also expects pet ownership and fostering to continue to increase, as workplaces trend toward remote or flex hours, allowing people to care for their pets.
To harness this positive energy, many companies are turning toward data and artificial intelligence to drive decisions on how to market their products, but keynote speaker Jonathon Karelse of Northfind Management cautioned that no matter how smart the technology becomes, there is still a need for human input.
“As A.I. gets more popular and accessible, the pandemic has shown that there will always be a need for humans in the process” to interpret the rich sets of data. Companies will need to “understand humans have frailty,” meaning companies need to correct for biases in their corporate planning processes to improve the performance of their teams and more accurately forecast their futures.
The change in presidential administrations opens many questions on the regulatory and trade environment for the industry. Former chief agricultural negotiator Ambassador Gregg Doud spoke very candidly on the international state of affairs.
China has said it wants to ban the feeding of swill to its hogs and make a structural change toward more Western-style pork production, which is an “extraordinary development” for the feed industry and may be “one of the biggest changes in agriculture” in his lifetime, Doud said. “It’s going to be an interesting time for us.” He said that ag exports to China are up 77% and there is a chance that last year’s exports may hit an all-time high.
Potential watch-outs include Mexico’s latest regulations that would bar biotech traits in feed, in particular biotech corn and the use of glyphosate-based traits. “I’m really concerned where Mexico is headed with the use of technology in agriculture,” calling its decision “really misguided” and he urged the industry to get involved to help show the highest levels of Mexico’s government how this will negatively impact its own producers.
He also expressed disappointment in the United States’ ability to enter into a trade agreement that includes agriculture with the United Kingdom and cautioned that the European Union’s “Farm to ‘Empty’ Fork Initiative” is a step “backward.” Moreover, the bloc’s precautionary principle, which is infiltrating trade around the world, is “not conducive to the use of technology” and a “recipe for disaster,” something which the U.S. must continue to fight.
He expressed optimism over trade with Morocco and a potential trade agreement with Kenya, but said that even though the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is “the gold-standard agreement,” the U.S. must be careful that some countries may not have the capacity to “do all the bells and whistles” of environmental and label standards on day one and “if Congress expects that, it won’t work.”
Gina Tumbarello, AFIA’s director of international policy and trade, provided a pre-recorded session addressing anticipated changes to trade in the Biden administration. She shared that the U.S. can expect to see a shift to multi-lateral agreements and gravitate toward more predictable negotiations aimed to strengthen relationships with our traditional trading partners. It is expected that new trade agreements will include increased labor and environmental standards?.
On the regulatory side, David Edwards, Ph.D., of the Food and Drug Administration recapped progress on the agency’s hiring of new personnel to assist in the animal food ingredient review process and the finalization of the GFI #262, the Pre-Submission Consultation Process for Animal Food Additive Petitions or Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Notices. He detailed the agency’s response to the pandemic to halt many inspections, but provided an overview of the food safety observations that have been found. He also discussed the compliance program, which the agency will be rolling out in the next few weeks, that will provide the instructions to the field staff on planning, priorities and communications approach to ensure consistent field staff inspections and regulatory processes.
“Communications is the ‘measuring stick’ for which we can have a successful program,” he said.
Edwards expects that GFI #245, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Food for Animals, will be issued by Dec. 31. More information on regulatory updates was provided by Erin Bubb, president of Association of American Feed Control Officials, in a brief pre-recorded session, which summarized the organization’s mid-year meeting and included a synopsis of the pet food label modernization project being undertaken by AAFCO.
Ansen Pond, Ph.D., of Pilgrims/JBS provided a detailed overview of the impact that animal proteins and fats from rendered products have on the sustainability of pet food. He shared a great quote that “sustainability” is about “meeting the needs of the present while preparing for the needs of future generations,” saying the interesting thing to focus on here are meeting “the needs of the here and now” while taking into account the future when developing corporate sustainability messages.
He said the industry needs to do a better job communicating its efforts to reduce food waste and environmental impacts while providing vital nutrition to feed pets.
“We have to stop demonizing these products” and ask ourselves, are we telling a truthful story in our marketing, he asked. “These nutrients are the same we are eating in steak, just different parts.”
Rob Cooper, executive director of the Institute for Feed Education and Research, also provided a pre-recorded session, which summarized the recently completed Pet Food Production and Ingredient Analysis. The report found that U.S. pet food manufacturers use roughly 8.65 million tons of animal- and plant-based ingredients to provide the complete nutrition that pets need, often using leftover ingredients made from the production of human food, such as bakery or brewery items or parts of the animal that humans don’t eat. The report highlighted the pet food industry’s commitment to reducing agriculture’s environmental impact.
An especially interesting session included a discussion with Jennifer Essler, Ph.D., of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, on how dogs are being trained to detect ovarian cancer and COVID-19. With ovarian cancer, she explained, the early symptoms often can be confused with many ailments, but the survival rate is high; whereas, most ovarian cancer cases are found once the woman has already reached an advanced stage and the survival rate is low. “Our goal is not using the dogs just to diagnose patient cases, but to make an ‘electronic nose’ to screen blood,” she said. While the research on detecting COVID-19 is still in early stages, she invited participants to check out the “Help Put COVID-19 to Bed” campaign and support the research.
Once again, the AFIA recognized outstanding graduate students in the pet food sector by providing the opportunity to share their research results with the conference attendees. Hannah Godfrey, University of Guelph, discussed the role of dietary choline in preventing obesity in companion animals. Sydney Banton, in the same program, explained the results of an international study comparing owners purchasing habits related to grain-free diets in Canada, the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Xinyao Wei, a doctoral student at the University of Lincoln, presented the results of his research on challenges for high-pressure processing pasteurization of raw pet foods.
The conference also recognized two Friend of Pet Food Award winners, whom you can learn more about in Lacie Dotterweich’s blog.
We would like to thank all of our generous sponsors who make this education program possible! We look forward to seeing you all in Atlanta for next year’s Pet Food Conference on Jan. 25, 2022!