For today’s pet owners, the idea of just setting out a nondescript bowl of kibble or canned food for their dog or cat or shopping for pet food without much of a look at the package is becoming a rarity. If the human food marketplace is driven by trends like health, nutrition, transparency, convenience and frequent snacking, so, too, is the pet food arena, evident in everything from paleo-centric diets to boldly designed, innovative packaging.

Those in both the pet food processing and packaging businesses say human food and pet food trends are tracking together in a number of ways, in what is increasingly a “consumer’s consumer” marketplace. “Interest in human nutrition and health has a parallel interest in this category, which has spiked,” reports Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, Fairfield, California.

Greg Jacob, general manager at Cincinnati-based Allpax, a product brand of ProMach, agrees. “In general, pet food is moving closer and closer to the same ingredients and value as human food. Freshness is becoming important, and you’re seeing things like vitamins and real chicken breast,” he remarks.

On the packaging side, Jacob sees overlapping human-pet drivers. “Most of the packaging now is geared toward convenience, with smaller serving sizes and bowls becoming more popular, along with easy-to-open containers,” he says.

Lori Gobris, market manager for Bemis Co., Inc., Neenah, Wisconsin, notes that the trust factor is key for relationships between pet brands and pet owners. “All of the same qualities that consumers are looking for in their own food packaging, from product protection to on-shelf appeal, definitely translate into the food they feed their pets,” she notes.

While the millennial generation has proven to set trends in the general market, demand for fresh/raw pet food and for a wider range of pet treats is broader. “The interest in high-quality pet food spans every demographic and every population group. I’d say there is a broad swath of consumers who have been feeding traditional pet food for a long time and are deciding it’s time to make a change,” Koss observes.

Market research underscores the growing diversity of the pet food market. Pet food sales topped the $26 billion mark in 2017, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. In its most recent report on “Pet Food in the U.S.,” the firm highlights other trends, including pet food geared toward preventative health care, functional pet foods, “ancestral” ingredients and pet foods like raw and dehydrated items that can be used in combination with other homemade foods.

Refrigerated pet food sales have topped $92 million, according to GfK, a segment that includes bagged foods, chubs and food rolls. Wet pet food, packaged in sausage-shaped chubs and rolls on automatic clipping and sealing equipment from companies like Chicago-based, Poly-clip System are gaining in popularity and driving the availability of fresh, frozen, pasteurized and sterilized products on the market. The affordability of automatic clipping and sealing packaging equipment makes it possible for pet food processors of all sizes to bring a new product onto the market. According to market research firm Nielsen, consumers are open to different pet food forms, including fruit and vegetable chews, nutrition powders and soups and stews.

Cool chubs and broth trends
Freshpet Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey, is a category innovator in fresh pet food, with a variety of chilled natural pet foods packaged in various forms, from chubs to resealable bags to lidded containers. As part of its line of refrigerated meals, baked recipes and “Deli Fresh” items sold in retail stores and pet stores around the country, Freshpet has created distinct recipes like slice-and-serve rolls of grain-free salmon and ocean whitefish with spinach, cranberries and blueberries for dogs. Recently, the company introduced Select Cat Cups, with cat meals packaged in resealable containers.

Another brand with a focus on fresh is Farmers Market, a natural pet food line from Australia-based Real Pet Food Co. The Farmers Market brand includes offerings like a roasted chicken and vegetable stew pouch (sold in a stand-up, easy-to-open windowed pouch) and chub packs of fresh meals, such as gourmet chicken with brown rice and vegetables. Following the ready-meal trend in the human marketplace, Farmers Market also has developed fresh meal solutions for pets with eight, conveniently packaged,  4-oz. pouches per carton.

Those companies that provide packaging solutions for fresh pet foods say the segment is one to watch. “This is a small but fast-growing segment of the pet food market that we have participated in with its own unique needs for packaging,” Gobris says. “Flexible lidding for cups with our EZ Peel technology, as well as chub film for fresh pet food serve-and-slice rolls are some of the solutions that we have provided into this segment.”

Beyond fresh, there are other new product types making a mark in the pet food sector, including broth. Nature’s Logic, Lincoln, Nebraska, has added natural bone broth powders in chicken, beef, turkey and pork flavors, available in 6-oz., 12-oz. and 2-lb. containers.

The Primal brand recently unveiled a new bone broth, which fits the mindset of how today’s consumers are thinking about pet foods. “It’s like a stock that rehydrates our freeze-dried food. Rehydration is critical for dogs and cats, because canines and felines don’t get hydration from water – they get it from the meat they consume – their prey. And this is a natural way to do that,” Koss explains. “Again, there is a whole movement in the human world on bone broth and this is a parallel trend we’re running.”

Today’s wet dog foods also fall in line with consumer demand for packaging and products that meet their lifestyles. For example, the Blue Buffalo Co., Wilton, Connecticut, has added a “Trail Trays” line to its BLUE Wilderness line featuring single servings in varieties like Duck Grill, Chicken Grill, Turkey Grill and Beef Grill.

Just rewards
Pet treats also reflect the trends toward natural, transparent and convenient products. Accordingly, packaging formats for treats and snacks have become more visually graphic and convenience-oriented.

“The pet treat segment brings its own set of requirements that can differ from either dry or wet pet food,” points out Gobris, citing some examples. “Treats are typically in smaller stand-up pouches with recloseable features. Clear windows that allow consumers to see the treats are very common. Packaging functionality often needs to include barrier properties and higher puncture resistance as the form of the treat itself, like bones or jerky, can provide more of a challenge to protect package integrity. The premium nature of treats that appeals to pet owners’ desire to indulge their pet is often shown on treat packages through the use of premium inks and coatings to appeal to the eye and the touch.”

Jacob, for his part, points to the variety in treat formats. “It used to be a box of bones, and now, there is a tremendous variety of treats for pets. Popular features for treats include easy opening and overcaps,” he says. The package type for pet treats often depends on the pH level:  if a product falls into a certain range, it needs to be in a retorted package, he adds.

As they work with different products and formats, packaging suppliers are increasingly building flexibility into their materials and machines. At Allpax, Jacob notes the company is building dual mode systems. “A pet food company may be doing cans today, but may move into pouches later,” he says of the flexible equipment that allows for changeover and “future proofing.”

High-speed packaging equipment is also in demand. “Processors are looking for higher speeds and flexibility, because it’s a very dynamic marketplace. Processors are trying to position themselves to react quickly to marketplace demands,” Jacob remarks.

“Raw formulas represent only 2% of the entire pet food category, so if you think of it as bringing people over the line, the pool of potential growth is massive,” points out Koss. Across innovations in product, packaging and manufacturing equipment, it’s no longer business as usual in pet food processing.

Read more about products and brands shaking up the pet food and treat market.