The pet food market: A year in review

Dr Andrew Miller, a pet nutritionist at Premier Nutrition, takes a look back at the ups and downs faced by the pet industry last year, and explores what a new year might bring to the industry 

2020 has been an exceptionally troubling and unsettling year all around the world.  The global coronavirus pandemic has profoundly affected individuals, families and businesses and continues to do so as we move into 2021.  

Many industry and market sectors have been affected as lockdowns were imposed, lifted and reinstated.  As restrictions were placed on social interactions to help control the spread of Covid-19, pet ownership has been seen as a ray of light in dark times with pets bringing companionship and much needed enjoyment into pet parents’ lives.  

Pets have always been an important part of our families but the importance they have as supporting factors in the mental and physical wellbeing of pet parents has been placed in high focus recently.  As important and integral parts of our families, providing for our pets dietary needs is a necessity. In recognition of this, pet food was identified as an essential industry by the UK government which has allowed us to continue to feed pets and avoid welfare issues should pet food supply have become severely constrained.  

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We did, however, see UK consumers panic buying pet foods during March and April and the sudden high consumer demand for pet foods resulted in some shortages on supermarket shelves whilst the entire supply chain refocused to the new needs.  Our industry was not unique in this challenge, as notably the supply of toilet paper, pasta, dried and tinned goods were all affected by panic buying in the UK.  Many EU consumers appear to have been more restrained than we were in the UK and avoided similar undue pressures being placed on supply of goods in their countries.  

Anecdotally, many businesses throughout the whole animal feed supply chain saw an upturn in demand during this period.  Movement of feed additives and feed materials around the world has been difficult at times due to port closures and limitations on transport and shipping from China and other countries in the far east predominantly.  Whilst the entire supply chain was severely challenged at a local and global level, as an industry we rose to the challenge admirably ensuring pet foods returned to supermarket shelves quickly.  

It is testament to the people working in businesses like ours that robust supply chains had been developed over many years which ensured minimal short term disruption to the consumer.  Following this period of peak demand there was then a well predicted downturn in consumer demand as garages and cupboards filled with pet food stocks and no further purchases were needed.  Demand has then slowly returned to somewhat normal levels but with more nationwide lockdowns coming into force then we may see a return to panic buying of pet foods in the UK.  

Anecdotally supermarket shelves across England in particular were emptied of toilet paper once again as consumers prepared for an England wide lockdown in early November. The ripples will be felt across the whole pet food supply chain well into this year I fear, as society continues to manage the coronavirus pandemic. 

Alongside high consumer demand, we saw a rapid shift in consumer behaviour with pet parents taking to the internet to fulfil their pet food needs. Internet and remote pet food sales had been growing steadily over recent years but the Covid-19 pandemic significantly accelerated this trend. For many pet owners, pet food is a repeat purchase which lends itself well to online retail.  For others though the ability to browse different products and to benefit from promotions will draw them back to store.  Should owners continue to stay away from the pet food aisles, impulse purchase of snacks and treats could be affected.  

A coincidental effect of consumers moving to purchasing pet foods on line was a switch to larger volumes purchased on each occasion and, for dry foods in particular, larger pack sizes.  This in itself has challenged the pet food manufacturers as pack type demands changed vs forecast.  

The UK saw similar challenges in wheat flour supply, albeit the other way round, with millers and suppliers having to switch supply to smaller home baker friendly pack sizes and away from larger packs provided into the food services market.  

Constraints in capacity for smaller pack sizes alongside the popularity of home baking in lockdown saw widespread flour shortages to the home baker.  Additionally, changes to pet food formulations and consumer education around safe storage of pet foods might be recommended should consumers continue to maintain significant stocks of dry pet foods in the home. 

At last year’s ESVCN congress, which was held virtually, there was a paper presented by Morelli et al., (2020) describing how storage time and conditions affected lipid oxidation in pet foods.  The authors concluded that it is preferable to use fish based (high omega-3) dry pet foods more quickly than meat based dry pet foods and to store them in their original package rather than plastic bins.  

The question remains to be seen as to how many of these trends will remain a feature of the pet food industry in the year ahead, once the threat of the current pandemic subsides and the world begins to return to normal. 

By Dr Andrew Miller, Premier Nutrition pet nutritionist

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