Pet Food Panic Brings Confusion, Opportunity for Small Retailers
BY Ryan Derousseau
More than 100 brands have been recalled, sending customers in search of all-natural alternatives.
The ongoing recalls from major pet-food distributors have forced small retailers to create ways to calm the hysteria and still provide safe food for frisky felines or canines in their communities.
"There is so much uncertainty right now," said Steve Maciontek, general manager of Animal Kingdom in Chicago. "Customers are hesitant to buy foods."
Animal Kingdom, which has operated for more than 60 years, has had to discuss the recall with many customers as they call in complaining of animals' involuntary actions.
An owner of five dogs himself, Maciontek said understands customers concerns over the recent deaths and has been trying to help with their paranoia. He assisted a panic-stricken customer who thought her dog was doomed after noticing an unusual bowl movement. Maciontek discussed the type of food she fed her dog, and they came to the realization the canine had eaten dry food, whereas the recalls center around wet food.
"Unfortunately, the press has misled a lot of customers, but it doesn't affect most dry food," Maciontek said.
In response to the recalls, Maciontek has posted signs in his store to quell customer concerns and answer questions. Also, for the first time, the store now offers an all-natural product, which has sold well in its first week on the shelves.
The increased tension among pet owners comes after the Food and Drug Administration confirmed 15 deaths of dogs and cats that were the result of wheat gluten found in wet food that contained melamine, a substance commonly used in kitchen utensils and fertilizers.
More than 100 brands have had to recall the food because all the companies used the same ingredient distributor. The FDA has identified a Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology, as a potential source of the contamination, while the Chinese government has denied the accusations. But due to the same supplier, large brands including Iams, Del Monte, and Menu Foods have had to recall many of their wet foods -- opening a door for small businesses that specialize in all-natural foods.
"As food gets pulled off the shelf, there is a hole there," said John Marsman, director of marketing and nutritional services for Eagle Pack Pet Foods, based in Mishawaka, Ind. "We have filled that hole."
According to Marsman, Eagle Packs' wet food sales have increased 25 percent since the outbreak occurred.
Organics and all-natural pet foods have gained the most from the recent panic because people are looking for a safe alternative to their usual food choice, and all-natural products do not use wheat gluten.
"It has been good for me," said Marc Desatnick, owner of Northcoastpets.com, an online store based in Solon, Ohio. "We only sell natural foods, and business is up 20 percent."
Desatnick, who started his website 10 years ago, said he believes that people's fears have led them to his company, and the customers will continue to stay with him after the panic dwindles.
For his part, Marsman said Eagle Pack hopes to "retain 80 to 90 percent of shelf space."
However, not all natural food companies are expecting business to keep booming after recall fears subside. Jennifer Boniface, owner of Aunt Jeni's Home Made in Temple Hills, Md., has seen increased interest in her line of pet food, but remains realistic about the impact the recall hype is having. "I hope for some lasting effect," she said. "Hopefully, for some people, it will push them for something healthier, but for most people it won't."