Alas, another one bites the dust! It was announced today that Natural Balance, which has long produced some of the better natural pet foods, is being purchased by Del Monte, maker of Meow Mix, Kibbles ’n Bits, Milk Bones, Nature’s Recipe, and Milo’s Kitchen. The deal will be finalized in June.
According to Joey Herrick, co-founder (with actor Dick Van Patten) of Natural Balance, and the company’s president, “Natural Balance will continue to offer pet parents super-premium, high quality formulas that they have come to know and expect, and we look forward to continuing to nurture our valued relationships with our customers and other partners.”
That’s just what Natura Pet Products said when Procter & Gamble bought them in 2010. This year’s rolling recalls of Natura products show just how sincere they were about it. Expect a similar pattern of decline under Del Monte’s auspices. By emphasizing that the formulas will stay the same, they conveniently avoid discussing the quality and origins of the ingredients that go into those formulas.
Why would Del Monte, the fifth largest pet food manufacturer in the world according to Petfood Industry magazine, buy a company like Natural Balance? One reason and one alone: money.
Consumers today are increasingly turning toward what they perceive as more “natural,” “holistic,” and “organic” pet foods — thus diminishing the market share of everyone else. Del Monte only serves the U.S. market. The Top Four — Mars, Nestlé Purina, Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s) and Procter & Gamble (Iams, Eukanuba, Evo, California Natural) — ship all over the world. Purina built its first manufacturing plant in China many years ago. Del Monte is competing for a rapidly-shrinking U.S. market, and one obvious solution is to commandeer a bigger chunk of the natural pet food market. It worked for Procter & Gamble, why not for them?
Chances are that very few consumers will ever know (or realize the implications) of the ownership change. And Del Monte will no doubt be careful about introducing lesser quality ingredients, so that it won’t be so obvious. However, there is no doubt that the quality will decline.
Steve Brown, a long-time friend and colleague, and author of the brilliant books See Spot Live Longer and Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet, did a great analysis of the cost of dry dog food that showed how pet food companies spend their money. He found that, “If you pay $1.50 per pound for dry dog food, the manufacturer has paid 29 cents per pound for ingredients.” (Actually, I think that’s a little optimistic!)
Nevertheless, that measly amount is the cost that’s most amenable to downsizing. Distributors and retailers will still take the same percentage; and manufacturing and transportation costs are likely to only increase, especially with the rising cost of fuel. Overhead (wages and benefits, facilities, insurance, etc.) certainly aren’t going down. So how’s a company to profit? By reducing the cost of ingredients.
Natural Balance actually tried that once before. It substituted rice protein concentrate for some of the meat proteins in their products. Justice came swiftly, in the form of the massive 2007 pet food recalls — the cheap protein substitute was among those contaminated with melamine. Natural Balance had to recall those products, losing not only profits but all the costs of producing and distributing that food, not to mention the many customers who would never buy their food again.
But, back to the future…like Colgate-Palmolive before them, Del Monte will undoubtedly start bringing in cheaper ingredients from foreign sources. Chicken meal, for example, comes far more cheaply from China (and other countries in Asia, South America, and Africa) than it can be produced in the U.S. The same goes for other ingredients; for example, salmon meal will increasingly come from China because the Pacific salmon industry is shipping its entire catch to China for processing, so the by-products used in pet foods will be created in and sold from China as well. It’s totally worth it to Del Monte to outsource as many of its ingredients as possible to reduce its costs — and thereby increase its profits. Great for them, not so great for pets.
Many people don’t know that U.S. corporations are required by law to make profit their one and only goal. Giving dividends to shareholders is their sole concern. The welfare of your pets isn’t even on the list, except perhaps as a marketing tool to increase profits.
So stock up on Natural Balance now, because next month it will be too late.
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