Pet deaths scare owners to premium, local food

Postby Marinepits » April 30th, 2007, 9:26 am

By Heidi Dietrich

Updated: 8:00 p.m. ET April 29, 2007

Frightened by a nationwide recall of pet food, customers are snapping up premium food for Fido and Fluffy.

Local pet-food makers report rising sales since the March 16 North American recall of contaminated cat and dog foods by Menu Foods Inc., prompted by pet illnesses and deaths after eating contaminated products.

Since then, more than 100 pet foods have been voluntarily recalled, and consumers have been unsure about whether premium and organic food are actually any safer, as some premium brands have issued recalls and some cheaper brands haven't.

"People realize it's not just a nutrition issue, it's a safety issue," said Gary Tashjian, president of Darwin's Natural Pet Products of Seattle.

Mud Bay, an Olympia-based pet-food chain with 14 stores in the Puget Sound area, said sales jumped 10 percent in the month since the recall, compared with the previous month. Wet Noses, an organic pet-food maker in Monroe, said sales rose 3.5 percent. Wet Noses sells most of its food and treats to distributors. Since distributors are slower to respond to consumer demand, it expects the increased sales to continue.

"We've had a crazy amount of interest," owner Jasmine Lybrand said

Wet Noses also supplies supermarket chain Whole Foods, which typically orders once a month. Since mid-March it has placed an order every week, she said.

Sales at the seven All the Best Pet Care stores in Seattle and on the Eastside have gone up by 5 percent in the past month, said owner Susan Moss.

"A lot of our staff are saying they're seeing people coming in they've never seen before," Moss said.

Lybrand of Wet Noses said quality and locale are clearly important. She's been fielding calls and e-mails from people wondering if it makes the food in the U.S. (it does) and whether the food contains gluten (it does not).

Indeed, many local pet-food makers pride themselves on using high-end ingredients. Darwin's said it buys organic vegetables and free-range meat directly from farms. The company said it grinds and mixes the food to ensure quality and safety.

Local chain All the Best Pet Care said its ingredients are approved for human consumption.

Darwin's said it typically attracts about 20 new customers a month. It recently drew 80 new clients willing to pay a premium for Darwin's product.

Customers are choosing premium pet food despite the price. Darwin's, for instance, charges customers about $3 per pound for free-range meat and organic vegetable dog food. Some local pet-food companies are planning advertising campaigns to capitalize on consumer interest. Wet Noses plans to target wholesalers through trade magazine advertisements that emphasize its organic selection. Mud Bay placed newspaper ads last week to tell consumers about its food and knowledgeable staff. Many customers already wanted to buy healthier food, and the recall was enough to make them act, said Pam Ore, Mud Bay vice president of dog and cat nutrition.

"We wanted to put our name in the newspaper as a reminder that we're a resource," Ore said.

Some existing customers have stepped up their support for the healthy pet-food products. Darwin's received a slew of phone calls from clients thanking them for peace of mind. Mud Bay provides copies of weekly recall updates at the front counter of every store.

"Mostly customers are coming to us looking for information," Ore said.

While pet-food stores and suppliers are encouraged that more consumers are seeking out healthy food, they also aren't celebrating the recall.

"I don't take much pleasure in business growing because people are losing their family members," Lybrand said.

© 2007 Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)
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