Pets and People

Grocery Store vs. Specialty Foods

posted: 08/22/12
by: Sarah Grace McCandless
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Many people consider their pets full-fledged family members -- and also treat them as such. So for those who subscribe to the theory, "You are what you eat," what ends up in your pet's food dish can be just as important as what you put on your own plate. As is the case with people food, the choices for pet food are seemingly endless, not just in terms of what type to buy, but which company makes it and what store to buy it from. When comparing labels, you may wonder: Are specialty brands really more beneficial than the more commonly known brands available from regular grocery stores?

First off, it may help to understand who's making the foods your pet eats. Many of the main players in the pet food industry actually oversee numerous labels. For example, Nestl? acquired Purina and formed Nestl? Purina Petcare Company, which includes brands such as Fancy Feast, Alpo, Friskies and Puppy Chow. Del Monte bought Heinz, and with it came a number of brands including MeowMix, 9Lives and Kibbles 'n Bits. Even conglomerates not predominately known for being players in the pet food arena have gotten involved, like Procter and Gamble (or P&G), which took over the Iams Company in 1999.

Some of these companies, however, don't actually create the food sold under the brand name, but rather farm out production to co-packers such as Menu Foods. There are also private labelers who make house brands for stores such as Wal-Mart and Kroger. Specialty pet food manufacturers (such as Nature's Variety or iVet), on the other hand, tend to create products for just one brand, or maybe a few at most -- though some of the major brands create offshoots meant to look and sound like a specialty brand (such as Nature's Recipe, which is made by Del Monte).

Decoding Labels

In terms of availability and costs, supermarkets and warehouse clubs usually carry the mainstream labels, which can also prove to be more affordable in terms of price per unit. Niche or specialty brands are often available only through individually owned pet supply stores or veterinarian's offices. These varieties are frequently promoted for their natural, organic or premium ingredients and can cost more, but many pet owners seem to have no problem paying a higher price. In fact, according to market research firm Packaged Facts, the natural pet food market has more than doubled since 2005 and is expected to continue to grow over the next few years.

But does a paying more mean you're getting anything better content-wise? Maybe -- it all depends on what the product is called and what's in it. While the pet food industry does not face the same stringent regulations as the people food industry, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does set standards for labeling requirements -- including definitions of specific terms and rules for when they can and can't be used. (Their guidelines are available on the AAFCO website.)

Even so, the use of by-products and fillers in pet food is very common -- though it's more prevalent among commercial brands, according to a report released by the Animal Protection Institute (API). There are also many companies who package and market their food to look more appealing to those interested in organic content, regardless of whether that's what's actually used. In fact, AAFCO standards for use of the word "natural" are very broad and can sometimes include artificially processed ingredients. The word "organic" has much stricter legal definitions covered by the USDA National Organic Program, but some companies try to circumvent this by incorporating the word into the actual brand name, so be careful of these distinctions.

Making Your Choice

Both grocery store and specialty food manufacturers make kibble and canned food. However, specialty manufacturers have also branched out into the raw pet foods market, which usually comes frozen and is then defrosted to room temperature before serving. There's yet to be a widespread consensus among professionals as to which type -- grocery store or specialty -- offers more benefits.

So, which type of food should you choose for your pet? While specialty foods often include better quality ingredients, the API acknowledges that there are safe and nutritious commercial brands on the market as well -- especially those that are marked with the AAFCO guarantee and don't use by-products. The best thing to do is get educated about who is really behind the production of the food you're buying, read labels and contents thoroughly, and also make to sure to check the status of any current or recent pet food recalls. Your pet's health could be a factor in your decision, too, if you have an animal that requires a special diet as advised by your vet. Whether you ultimately decide to set down a chunk of change for a seemingly fancy brand, or try to save a buck or two on a more mainstream option, the same shopping rules should apply to help ensure happy and healthy meals for your pet.

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