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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gourmet dog food has some pet owners sending kibbles back

Dog ownership surged during the pandemic. So did the options for fresh, human-grade dog food, an expanding market.

By Genevieve Ko

Like so many 2-year-olds, Bear is a picky eater.

When the 120-pound Great Pyrenees seemed bored with the dry food his owner, Margaret Pless, fed him day after day, she gave him canned food from Costco. Bear hated it. Next, she tried pricey refrigerated dog food. When that failed to please Bear’s palate, Pless made his food for a few months. He liked it, but it was an exhausting, time-consuming process, and she was left wondering whether Bear was getting all the nutrients he needed.

So in November 2021, Pless signed up for a subscription to the Farmer’s Dog, which provides customized dog food marketed as made with human-grade ingredients. The recipe list reads like a homemade stew: beef or turkey with vegetables, such as carrots and Brussels sprouts. The food is cooked at low temperatures before being portioned out and shipped to Pless’ home in Dover, Massachusetts.

“The company made claims that dogs would love this food and never get tired of it,” said Pless, a part-time church administrator and dog boarder, who said she was spending up to $13 per day feeding Bear the human-grade food, up from the dry-food cost of around $3 per day.

But Bear was unimpressed.

“At first he was excited,” Pless said. “And then he was like, ‘Oh, it’s this stuff again,’ and he got bored.”

Dog ownership boomed during the pandemic, with Americans buying or adopting millions of pets, including canines. Sales of dog food surged to around $25 billion last year, up nearly 39% from $18 billion in 2019, according to the consumer research firm NIQ.

But as inflation has driven up the prices of even conventional kibble, the options in the dog food aisle have become increasingly bespoke and expensive. There are holistic, plant-based varieties and those with freeze-dried goat and wild boar. Some options are frozen and raw. Last year, “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at the industry with a skit featuring a couple in a grocery store chiding another shopper for not feeding her pet “real food.”

One of the fastest-growing and most competitive categories is human-grade dog food, like the kind Pless bought for Bear from the Farmer’s Dog. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a nongovernmental organization that provides guidance to the industry on animal food, human-grade dog food contains fresh ingredients — like meats or vegetables — that are fit for human consumption, and is manufactured in a plant that is federally regulated and inspected.

Although humans can technically eat human-grade dog food, it may contain nutrients that are not suitable for people, said Austin Therrell, the organization’s executive director.

Companies like the Farmer’s Dog, Ollie and others are marketing their fresh pet food as less processed and more closely resembling human diets. Veterinarians and animal nutritionists say that many of these new brands are targeting wealthier consumers who treat their animals as if they were children — so-called fur babies — and want to match their dogs’ diets to their own eating habits. Some are selling the food directly to consumers through subscription services.

These fresh-food makers are also benefiting from a wave of distrust among certain dog owners over the concentration of large companies dominating the pet food industry. Dry kibble is typically made from surplus meats and byproducts, like livers and kidneys, from the human food industry. Wet and dry ingredients are mixed to form a dough that is heated under pressure and pushed through a die machine that cuts it into the kibble pieces.

“There are definitely a ton of new pet food products on the market, and more coming on every day,” said Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and executive director of the Mark Morris Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides education on pet nutrition to veterinarians. The institute is funded by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which is owned by Colgate-Palmolive.

Heinze said that while many of the newer brands claim to be less processed or to contain “real ingredients,” there is little research showing that they are more nutritious than the dry or canned dog food that millions of Americans have been feeding their pets for decades.

“Many are pushing natural or healthy, and people look at the ingredient list and assume, because they recognize everything, that the diet has to be healthier,” Heinze said. “It’s giving these companies a health halo, even if there is no science behind it, and the other diet has 40 years of research.”

One area of particular concern is dog food marketed as “grain free.” Much of it contains high levels of peas, lentils and other legumes that may be linked to an increased risk of cardiac disease in dogs. The Food and Drug Administration said it did not have “sufficient data” to find a link and encouraged continued research.

“There are many different ways to provide good nutrition for a dog,” said Jonathan Regev, who started the Farmer’s Dog in 2014 with Brett Podolsky, after Podolsky’s dog had stomach issues that his veterinarian believed were caused by the dog’s food. The Farmer’s Dog uses a variety of proteins, vegetables and occasionally legumes in its products.

Joseph Wakshlag, a professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, worked as a consultant on Farmer’s Dog recipes. Wakshlag said in an email that many human-grade and refrigerated dog foods are “nice options, as long as they are complete and balanced.” He added that they are sometimes higher in fat and protein, which is fine for healthy dogs but may not work for dogs with certain medical conditions.

After Patrick and Jennifer Cunningham, both physicians in a Chicago suburb, saw the Farmer’s Dog commercial during this year’s Super Bowl, they gave it to their Shih Tzus, Strudel and Machiavelli.

The dogs are converts.

“They don’t like it; they love it,” Patrick Cunningham said. “Strudel gets so excited. She doesn’t quite howl but yelps with joy when we are mixing it.”

Cunningham estimates that he is spending $100 a month on the human-grade food versus $40 for dry kibble.

For Bear, though, the Farmer’s Dog did not live up to his owner’s high hopes. After spending $9 to $13 per day on it for six months, plus dry kibble, Pless canceled her subscription. She has gone back to regular bags of dry kibble and rotating them when Bear becomes bored.

“Bottom line: I don’t believe that dog foods made with human-grade ingredients are more effective than regular kinds of dog food,” Pless said. “There are many premium dog foods that are not made with human-grade ingredients that work just as well for a lower price.”

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