The opportunity for UK food manufacturers in pet food is vast.
Data from Statista showed that as of 2023, as many as 57% of UK households own a pet. This makes the United Kingdom the second largest market for pet food in the world, behind only the US.
The UK dog food market alone is valued at almost £1.6bn, with cat food not far behind at £1.27bn.
As more and more people welcome new puppies and kittens into their homes, there is an increasing notion that a pet is more than just a furry acquaintance. This has, in turn, created new consumer demands on the pet food sector, requiring investment into raising standards, NPD, traceability and sustainability.
Pet owners demand human-grade food
Consumer research from global ingredients producer, BENEO, found that the vast majority of pet owners (8 in 10) claim to treat their pets with the same care as they would a child.
Furthermore, more than 80% also said that they now expect the same standards to be applied to the food they buy for their pets as to those applied to human food.
“Whether it’s sustainable, natural, plant-based or grain-free, consumers have come to expect the same high-quality credentials from their pet food products as they do their own,” explained Dr Maygane Ronsmans, product manager for animal nutrition at BENEO.
Ashley Burdock, head of sales at pet food industry supplier SARVAL, echoed this sentiment: “One of the fastest-growing trends among pet owners is the humanisation of animals.“
Today, pet owners want to know more about the food that they are feeding to their pets, and actively seek out pet food products that feature nutritional benefits.
“Consumers are directing more attention to the ingredients list on product labels and it is no wonder, therefore, that demand for all natural, recognisable ingredients is high,” added Dr Ronsmans.
“Historically, pet food attracted a reputation for poor quality ingredients and unhealthy meal choices,” Burdock commented. “Today, this is far from the case.”
It is therefore important that ‘pet parents’ are offered consistent information that is clear, accurate and helps them make informed choices.
As such we’ve seen a number of investments from pet food brands, including SARVAL which recently invested £8m into its Nottingham site, introducing state-of-the-art sieving and clarification equipment to its facility.
Burdock elaborated: “Investment and development into modern processing plants such as this helps to improve the standard of the industry as a whole. It also bolsters the capacity of high-standard supply, which is needed to reach growing consumer demand for healthy products in a world where pets are increasingly seen as members of the family.”
Mars Petcare has also responded with investment, focusing on the evolution of its international standards. Global vice president of research and development at Mars Pet Nutrition, Elise Malandain, said that this has been carried out through the incorporation of technological advancements that allow the brand to be “more proactive vs reactive and to use advanced tools like whole genome sequencing and metagenomics” to enhance its supply chain.
Supporting improved health in pets
Much like the wider food and drink industry, a focus on health and wellbeing has become prevalent among the world of pet food. Owners are now looking to find options that will support the long-term health of their pets.
“Supporting digestive health with prebiotics is a rising area of focus across both human and animal nutrition,” explained Dr Ronsmans.
“BENEO’s chicory root fibres, Orafti Inulin and Oligofructose, have been studied extensively for over two decades both in human and animal nutrition, and the scientific foundation for their prebiotic effect is strong. For instance, as part of their prebiotic effect and effect on digestive health, chicory root fibres support calcium and mineral absorption in dogs.”
Burdock said that SARVAL has also placed focus on the specific nutritional requirements of different pets, adding that developing a better understanding of how different ingredients impact the health of animals remain a key focus for the industry.
“Manufacturers should see this as an opportunity for innovation and new product development,” he explained
“By starting with the right ingredients, pet food manufacturers can develop innovative products that not only offer excellent palatability and digestibility, but that naturally support the health of pets. Indeed, offering products with tighter and repeatable specifications allow formulators to better control pet diets.”
According to Malandain, these varying nutritional requirements depend on different activity levels, life stages, size, breed-specific requirements and prescribed dietary requirements. Mars Petcare is currently working on research at its Waltham Petcare Science Institute, which utilises the support of veterinary teams and data scientists from across the business, with the goal of better understanding the needs of pets through science.
When developing a new product, Malandain said the first and “most important step” is to identify that an ingredient is safe and nutritious.
“We undergo a rigorous process to ensure it meets our quality and safety standards,” she noted. “Then we determine how it performs – looking at palatability and digestibility –in a formulation. The next stage is to determine if we can scale the ingredients, seeding the solutions we need, where we need them and by when.”
Dr Ronsmans also highlighted weight control as an area of pet health that more owners are considering while choosing which products they buy.
“In the context of obesity, the choice of nutrients in pet food can make a difference, and including functional ingredients in a pet’s diet – such as BENEO’s slow-release carbohydrate isomaltulose and prebiotic chicory root fibres - can help with weight and blood glucose management.”
Mars Petcare has also conducted research to better understand the factors that contribute to healthy weight maintenance in pets. The data collected by the company has been used to reformulate existing products and to update the feeding guidelines included on the packaging.
“We are also focusing on the human aspect, specifically pet parent education, helping them understand the appropriate serving size, format and type of product to feed their pet,” added Malandain.
Demand for alternative proteins
As with health demands transcending from human food to pet, sustainability has also made its way into the animal kingdom.
Research from Mars Petcare found that 57% of owners are willing to change the pet food that they buy in order to reduce their environmental impact.
With this in mind, the brand has reduced 23 tonnes of plastic and 60 tonnes of paper from the packaging of its Pedigree Schmackos, as well 10% of the plastic used in the production of DREAMIES cat treats.
“Our highest priority is to eliminate unnecessary packaging materials helping prevent any of our waste products from contaminating the recycling stream or causing environmental harm,” said Malandain.
There is also an on-going association between plant-based and health, as we have seen in human food. According to BENEO, one in three shoppers believe that the use of plant-based ingredients makes pet food healthier.
This has prompted manufacturers to experiment with alternative sources of protein that could bring both environmental and health benefits. BENEO, for example, has developed what it describes as an “expanded toolbox” of plant-based proteins that manufacturers can tap into. These solutions include rice protein, vital wheat gluten and faba bean protein concentrate “offering specific nutritional and technical benefits”.
Dr Ronsmans explained: “These vegetal proteins represent concentrated and non-GMO sources of high-quality which enable the development of plant-based or hybrid pet foods and provide excellent amino acid profiles.”
Mars Petcare has also looked to “experiment with” alternative protein sources over concerns around the security and accessibility, sustainability, and changing consumer behaviour.
“Materials we’ve used in the past might not always be available in the future, so we must continue to innovate with ingredients that are safe and nutritious for cats and dogs and that will still be there tomorrow,” Malandain said.
“We want to ensure we are being disruptive in the materials we look at and consider the economic allocation of our carbon – this includes using different materials, like insects. Finally, we need to respond to the attitudes of pet parents towards health and sustainability. It’s our role to help them make sustainable choices while taking ambitious steps to reduce our own carbon footprint in the process.”
Alongside plant-based options, the market has also witnessed a few starts-up emerging in the cultivated meat sector as another alternative protein choice.
Meatly, which was known as Good Dog Food until it rebranded last month (October 2023), is focused on the production of lab grown pet food. And according to the company, it’s a ripe sector, with 50% of ‘pet parents’ considering feeding their pets cultivated meat, compared to just 32% that would contemplate eating it themselves.
The brand is currently working with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs to secure regulatory approval for its products.
“Our pets love meat, but old-fashioned meat, produced through factory farming requires a huge amount of land, water and antibiotics and is a key cause of environmental degradation,” said chief executive Owen Ensor.
“We need cultivated meat now more than ever. Pet food is the natural starting point, given consumers' excitement. We're thrilled to be at the heart of the future of meat production in the UK.”
Balancing quality with cost
While owners are becoming more aware of how the food they buy can impact the health of their pets, the cost of living crisis and food inflation have left people with less money to spend. As a result, many consumers have become pickier when shopping for pet food.
According to Dr Ronsmans, this means that manufacturers must find a balance between quality and nutritious food and cost efficient formulations.
“BENEO’s ingredient portfolio is quite diverse and offers different solutions, from less refined and more economical, to fully refined premium solutions that will enable manufacturers to answer various specifications and customer requirements,” she added.
Burdock agreed, describing the challenge of balancing cost and quality as an “eternal struggle” facing food and drink manufacturers specialising in a range of products.
“We can produce healthy food alternatives for our pets, but we must ensure it makes sense economically,” he continued.
“The high price tag associated with healthier, more nutritional foods can be off-putting to consumers, therefore keeping demand low and discouraging manufacturers from investing in healthier ingredients and processes.”
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), food and drink inflation fell to 12.2% during September 2023, the sixth consecutive month where the food and non-alcoholic beverage annual inflation rate has declined. However, this equates to a 0.1% reduction in prices between August and September, illustrating the continued impact of inflation on consumers and manufacturers.
Whether the inflation rate continues to fall or not, price competitiveness will surely remain a focus for manufacturers in all industries, pet food included. Nonetheless, it is clear that the pet food market is undergoing something of a sea change right now and opportunity exists for firms at the cutting edge.