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Recapping AFIA's Pet Food Conference: What to Expect for the Future of Pet Food

Written by: Taylor Lekin   |   February 27, 2024

Pet Food Conference, Pet Food

This year’s American Feed Industry Association Pet Food Conference came packed with an agenda on a wide variety of topics about the future of the pet food industry, in an era when pets are increasingly regarded as cherished members of the family. Drawing nearly 500 industry professionals, a record number of attendees, the event served as a testament to the pet food industry’s commitment to innovation, sustainability and meeting consumers’ needs.  

To set the stage for the daylong conference, Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, explored trends and consumer preferences that are driving the industry. One significant shift she highlighted is the rise of personalized pet diets, tailored to match a pet's DNA, providing a new level of individualized care. In addition, she noted that there's a growing preference for pet foods made from natural ingredients, without any additives or preservatives. These preferences are mirroring consumers’ preferences for their own food choices.  Moreover, sustainability has emerged as a key concern, with consumers pushing for more eco-friendly packaging.  

“Looking at the big picture, product and formulation personalization, products that are natural and easy for the consumer to understand and, of course, sustainability are all trends that are important for the pet food industry,” explained Dornblaser. “Pet owners want to know what’s in a product, why it’s in it and how it got there.” 

In alignment with emerging trends within the pet food industry, the conference covered sustainability in two sessions. Charles Starkey, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the North American Renderers Association, talked about how the use of rendered products, such as proteins and fats, can be a viable option for pet food and other products. Rafael Auras, Ph.D., professor at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, spoke about the ongoing pursuit of sustainable pet food packaging. Auras emphasized the importance of the industry working in a collaborative effort with packaging suppliers on developing products and packaging systems geared toward minimizing their environmental impact, but still protecting the integrity and quality of the pet food inside. 

Next came a panel discussion with Ambassador Doug McKalip, chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Alexis Taylor, under secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The panelists emphasized the role that U.S. pet food exports play in the nation's overall export landscape, explaining that in recent years, there has been significant growth in U.S. pet food exports worldwide, with 2022 alone witnessing exports exceeding $2 billion. Notably, Canada, China, and Mexico emerge as the top three markets for U.S. pet food exports, highlighting the need to look at the potential for further expansion.  

McKalip and Taylor stressed the importance of nurturing existing relationships while exploring new avenues for growth, with a focus on regions like Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, characterized by a growing middle class increasingly invested in their pets’ care. They said that collaboration between the USDA and USTR stands out as vital in facilitating trade and ensuring competitive pricing to sustain export momentum. In addition, initiatives, like trade missions, serve as crucial platforms for establishing connections and fostering growth. In a world where countries embrace different approaches, and trade and innovation are rapidly evolving, these missions facilitate cross-cultural understanding and can help pet food exporters seize emerging opportunities. 

“You can never spend too much time with a trading partner, helping to really tell the story,”said McKalip, speaking on agriculture and production in the United States. “Every trading partner can benefit from additional understanding of the stewardship and care that our suppliers put in.”  

To wrap up the conference with a very forward-leaning topic, Kelly Swanson, from the Department of Animal Sciences and Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, presented on the buzz around biotics. Swanson talked about the complexities of studying biotics' effects on the gut microbiome and the promising findings from research on probiotic interventions, emphasizing the need for personalized approaches in pet nutrition and healthcare. 

This year’s AFIA Pet Food Conference highlighted some key themes that we can expect to see shape the future of the pet food industry, including a more personalized approach to pet food diets and demands for more natural and sustainable products and packaging. As pet food continues to evolve, driven by shifting consumer preferences and technological advancements, the industry is well-prepared for a future defined by innovation, sustainability and enhanced pet well-being. 

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