A continuing upswing in connectivity and a range of social networking options has given rise to a wealth of information. Over the last two decades, this has included information about health and wellness. As a result, many consumers are self-educating on healthy foods for themselves, their families and, also, their pets. This makes consumer education a key driver of trends in the pet food and treats industry, according to Scott Morris, co-founder and chief operating officer of Freshpet, Secaucus, NJ.

“Consumers are paying closer attention to where food is grown, how it’s sourced and where it’s made,” Morris said. “This includes more awareness of the benefits of foods that contain simple ingredients that are less processed and fresh. Those who are paying more attention to these details in turn expect more out of brands.”

Pet parents who see their pet as part of the family seek an elevated mealtime experience and apply the same attributes that are important in their personal nutrition to their pets’ plates. This includes fresh, recognizable ingredients, nutritious proteins and the importance of variety.

Renaldo Webb, founder and chief product officer of PetPlate, New York, shared that early on in pet parenthood, most owners are likely to choose products that directly reflect their lifestyles. For instance, a vegan may try to offer their dog a vegan/vegetable-heavy diet or something that reflects their own food preferences.

“I think many people do start to consult their vet when they notice something is off with their dog’s health and they’re not sure what,” he continued. “Over 60% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese, so when there are weight issues and/or digestive issues, that’s normally when pet parents start to pay more attention to diet as well.”

While veterinarians remain the leading pet health experts, their recommendations are predominately kibble, according to Danielle Bernal, DVM, global veterinarian at Wellness Pet Co., Tewksbury, Mass.

Many are instead choosing a self-directed journey to find the healthiest food for themselves and their pets. This includes feeding a pet something that resembles what a pet owner would eat or like to eat, leading to an increased focus and demand for fresh pet food options.

A fresh evolution

There are many influences responsible for interest in the fresh category. Webb cited greater awareness coming from more pet parents interested in learning about the benefits of gently cooked foods and more brands looking to improve their products and services to better appeal to pet parents and their habits.

A few years ago, when fresh-cooked food was relatively new to the market, many brands claimed to be “fresh.” Today, there’s an increasing amount of research within the category regarding food safety and associated claims. Toward the end of 2022, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) released new standards for the fresh pet food industry. AAFCO establishes nutritional standards for complete-and-balanced dog and cat foods. It is the responsibility of pet food processors to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.

PetPlate strives to make its fresh-cooked food as “human like” as possible — slow cooking at low temperatures to preserve the bioavailability of the ingredients and lock in nutrients and using refrigeration to preserve the food. Its products include 100% farm-raised chicken, beef, fish or eggs, and all-natural fruits and vegetables.

Bernal cited dual factors supporting the evolution of the fresh category, the first being a mirroring of consumer health and wellness values. Pet parents typically apply their own unique food values when selecting fresh food for their pet. This includes a human desire for a visually appealing product with a tasty formulation for the animal. This duality then boosts innovation within the category to deliver better-quality recipes.

Bernal said she also sees continuing expansion of the fresh category supported by Millennial and Gen Z pet parents who seek fresh food as a premium way of feeding their pets. Fresh denotes a “home cooking” experience that still provides pet parents a scoop-and-serve approach, she noted. This includes kibble topped with fresh to deliver a complete-and-balanced recipe.

Brands are also highlighting new formulations as pet parents learn about different ingredients and nutrients. Recent examples include discussion of the pros and cons of eating seed oils and the benefits of grain-free options in fresh dog food, according to Webb.

Market challenges

Ongoing supply chain disruptions have created the need for many brands to change the way they produce and distribute their products. Despite some ease in those disruptions, manufacturers and consumers are still dealing with economic instability, and affordability continues to impact the fresh category. Webb predicts it won’t be a surprise to see companies look for more ways to package and ship products and even develop new ones that might be easier to store and ship.

Rising costs are also causing consumers to look for ways to establish balance between their finances and their pet’s health. Wellness Pet is witnessing a trend of pet parents using fresh foods as a topper or mixer, rather than using fresh food for a whole meal. The compromise offers variety while acknowledging that serving 100% fresh foods may not be financially feasible, especially for those with a larger breed of dog. A survey conducted by the company found 78% of pet parents agreed that using fresh food on top of a kibble is their preferred feeding format.

“For most fresh brands, and especially those that only produce fresh nutrition, their equity remains rooted in pet parents feeding their recipes as the entire basis of a pet’s nutrition,” Bernal said. “With the majority of pet parents being Millennial or Gen Z, the price and affordability of this requirement becomes challenging.”

PetPlate’s Lean & Mean Venison meals are kettle-cooked to lock in the nutrients of proteins, fruits and vegetables used in the recipe.PetPlate’s Lean & Mean Venison meals are kettle-cooked to lock in the nutrients of proteins, fruits and vegetables used in the recipe. (Source: PetPlate)

Logistical challenges

Challenges also exist around maximizing freshness and shelf life with fresh products requiring timely transfer to customer distribution channels. Standard logistics must be adjusted for cold chain distribution to ensure pet parents receive the finest quality fresh recipes for their animal. Products need to stay frozen throughout the delivery process to ensure a safe arrival at customers’ doors. PetPlate works with a number of different fulfillment centers across the country to ensure food arrives in a safe and timely manner.

Wellness Pet entered the fresh/frozen category in June 2022 with its Wellness Bowl Boosters Freshly line. The line includes three recipes — Chicken and Butternut Squash, Beef and Carrots, and Turkey and Sweet Potatoes — formulated with high-quality fresh proteins, rice and vegetables. Loaded with vitamins and minerals, the foods can serve as a meal topper, treat or complete-and-balanced meal.

Wellness Bowl Boosters strive to offer the freshest experience by freezing its recipes once cooked. The process locks in nutrients at the peak of freshness and supports the optimal feeding experience for pet parents. Once frozen, Wellness Bowl Boosters can be stored and shipped using a cold chain distribution network to avoid thawing or spoiling.

The challenge of making fresh, healthy food and distributing it across the entire United States and Canada has become a core advantage and differentiator for Freshpet. At the time Freshpet first started distributing its product, a model for this didn’t exist, so Freshpet worked with its retail partners to create a unique offering. The footprint now includes more than 30,000 Freshpet fridges in 25,000 stores. Supplier partners in both areas ensure stable returns and safeguard sufficient supply chain capacity to fulfill customer expectations.

With life busier than ever, consumers naturally demand convenience. This is boosted by the proliferation of omnichannel shopping and delivery options that help consumers avoid a trip to the store. It’s a process made easier with options to shop online, physical brick-and-mortar and wholesale.

To further meet the demand with convenient solutions beyond Instacart and online ordering, Freshpet partnered with Petco to introduce Freshpet Custom Meals, a personalized subscription meal plan. The plan was created by veterinary nutritionists and is based on the pet’s attributes, sensitivities and health goals with the convenience of direct-to-door delivery.

Boosting the category

With pets being an important part of the family, longevity and health are ongoing concerns. But many pet owners don’t actively search for healthy formulations until they notice something is off with their pet’s health, Webb said. This is when pet parents typically look for special foods and formulations designed to increase the animal’s lifespan. Fresh foods also become an important option for pet parents of older dogs who turn to fresh food later in the pet’s life when digestion and mobility issues become a challenge.

Freshpet VITAL Benefits for Digestive Health and Freshpet VITAL Benefits for Joint Health & Mobility target specific concerns such as arthritis and stomach issues. PetPlate offers supplement cookie treats made with organic oats, fruits and superfoods and fortified with a full dose of supplements to support digestion and mobility.

Those looking to achieve optimal health and lifespan for their pets may also include more than one formula or category. Bernal said she sees many seeking a combination of elements such as kibble enriched with health benefits, added mixers and toppers, and additional health support aids such as supplements, functional treats, and even toys and activities for daily enrichment and mental engagement. This holistic approach offers pet parents greater confidence their pet is receiving all the nutritional and lifestyle enhancements needed to live a life of total wellbeing.

Just as the human concepts of health and wellness continue to evolve, so will the concept of health and wellness through the fresh pet food and treats category. This will likely be marked by a surge in new brands coming to market, giving consumers more options than ever, as the adoption within this category continues to grow. Manufacturers of fresh must look for the right mix — one that combines high-quality, fresh ingredients, ease of feeding and convenient delivery of products.