Date: 26/10/2022

Ananda Portella Felix has a doctoral degree in Animal Nutrition at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). With an internship under University of Illinois’ postdoctoral program, the professor researches the nutrition of companion animals and co-related areas, focusing on dogs and cats’ intestinal functionalities. Amanda is currently serving as an associate teacher at UFPR’s Animal Husbandry Department and as coordinator of Dog Nutrition Studies Laboratory.

How is the current scenario of the animal nutrition market?

We are talking about a very promising market that has seen growth during pandemic times, while other economic areas and sectors have stagnated. It is possible to end the consumption of some products and services or seek to replace them, but you cannot do the same to your pet's food. You can choose cheaper versions, but there will always be sales when it comes to these products. In addition to that, the population of companion animals keeps increasing due to human isolation tendencies - caused both by the pandemic and by the solitude of living far from relatives and family members. No matter the scenario, animals are a company.

Which challenges are being faced by the market and what are the ways to overcome them?

The biggest challenge was the increase in input costs - enlarged by more than 50% at times, even reaching a shortage of some imported raw materials. This becomes a challenge for the pet market, because if the product label states that the composition has a specific ingredient, its presence is essential. This high cost cannot be passed on 100% to consumers, which is a very big challenge with raw materials.

Allied to this, what makes it very difficult is the high tax burden in Brazil: approximately 51% of pet food prices corresponds to tax. In other countries, the tax amount may correspond to 8% of the price, for example. This family of products is still seen as “superfluous” - therefore, companies play an important role in raising awareness about this erroneous take on pet food, mainly due to the current importance of companion animals.

The challenge of high competitiveness in the sector can also be highlighted. There are many options available on the market: on one hand, this drives manufacturers to always improve the quality of their products and provide more options to consumers; on the other, it gets harder to consolidate and stand out in this segment.

In a very competitive market, what is the importance of innovation?

Innovation is everything, especially in terms of competitiveness.

It is vital to stay in the market and be able to grow within it, perpassing all aspects of the pet food production chain. It all starts with the development of new ingredients and additives.

Both aim to produce more viable food without significant increases in price, but they also seek improvements in quality and in ingredient processing. When it comes to this last aspect, the pet market has contributed a lot to the advance in the production of protein sources of plant and animal origin, as it is a very demanding market, which contributes to the increasing improvement of products.

Which fake news about the pet market can we demystify?

Pet food is one of the areas with the most fake news, since everyone believes they understand at least a little about animal nutrition. When it comes specifically to dogs and cats, we often transfer the beliefs and learnings of human food to pets. There is the myth that transgenics can be carcinogenic, toxic and harmful. There is also the misinterpretation that the use of synthetic preservatives causes cancer. Another myth is the matter that by-products in the feed would simply be leftovers from the slaughter of animals without quality control and of low nutritional value. So, these are myths and there is no knowledge about the process, quality standards and rules that need to be followed for the production of ingredients and animal feed.

In the field of innovation, ingredient substitutions and formula improvements are constant. What are the main conventional and alternative ingredients for animal nutrition?

The main ingredients used are, firstly, extruded dry foods, which are the most produced and marketed in Brazil. Starch sources, mainly corn and broken rice. There is also sorghum, wheat, bran and co-products, not just grains. In the group of protein ingredients, there are mainly by-products of animal origin, poultry viscera meal, bovine meat and bone meal, isolated pork protein, among others. Those of vegetable origin have mainly soybean meal and corn gluten meal. As for the sources of lipids, there are oils, especially fats of animal origin, such as chicken fat and fish oil, as well as some vegetables.

What are the key aspects that must be analyzed to verify the ingredient’s quality?

Safety is always the most important thing. Does this new ingredient have any health risks for the dog or cat? If so, I should assess whether this risk can be controlled, reduced or eliminated by a process that I can control. The key points for analyzing an ingredient are safety, nutritional value, price per key nutrient and availability. In addition to this, another important point is to find out if the ingredient can be considered functional as well. For example, in addition to providing the amino acids that animals need, does it also have extra features that improve the health of dogs and cats?

Recalling innovation, how can biotechnology contribute to a nutritional and functional diet?

Biotechnology is an extremely important tool. In recent years, there has been a more expressive development of biotechnological tools in general, which is important for all areas. For example, the use of enzymatic hydrolysis to improve digestibility and produce alternative protein sources, including, in the future, perhaps the availability of cell cultured meat. With biotechnology, there can be improvement in health and well-being of dogs and cats.

Although the theme of sustainable packaging is widespread, the ingredients are the ones causing the greatest environmental impacts. How to analyze this situation?

We need to innovate in communication. It’s not necessary to reinforce that a pet food is better because it has no by-products and co-products, for example. It’s possible to find packaging with sustainability claims for using kraft paper, but not for using co-products, which is nonsense. According to recent studies, the environmental impact of packaging is lower than that of formulation, and the ingredients used in the production of pet food impact more than 90% on the environment.

Therefore, it is important to use co-products, because fresh meat has a much greater environmental impact. Therefore, while the use of more sustainable packaging also contributes to the environment, the use of co-products and adequate nutritional levels, without great excesses, are more relevant for sustainability.

Co-products and their use are very important for the sector’s future. As long as they’re well produced, they can be super nutritious and this issue is directly linked to another fundamental one: waste. When we talk about sustainability, the first step is waste reduction, creating more optimized nutrition with adequate nutritional levels.

Regarding the future, what are the main trends for this market?

Using less GMO ingredients - or not using them at all - as well as replacing synthetic preservatives with natural ones. Even without scientific evidence that transgenic ingredients and synthetic preservatives, when used properly, are harmful to the health of pets, the appeal to natural options and more sustainable nutrition are growing trends. Sustainability is not just a trend, but a fundamental commitment to the continuity of the pet food sector.

So, we have a conflict: consumers want more natural food, with nobler ingredients, which do not contribute much to sustainability. Therefore, it’s important to reflect on the use of co-products, since the niche of natural ingredients will continue, but it will become more restricted and expensive - therefore, the trend is to invest in rich and sustainable solutions.

Clinical nutrition is making great strides. How does it work in animal health?

Functional nutrition is also a trend for clinical nutrition sectors. The importance of nutrition in disease prevention and of supporting foods to assist treatments of established diseases is observed. This sector has evolved a lot in a short time. In addition to clinical nutrition (supporting foods), there are foods formulated to assist in the prevention of diseases, such as specific foods for breeds with specific nutritional changes to prevent typical diseases of certain breeds of dogs and cats.

What is the disease that affects dogs the most, for example?

Obesity. This is an issue that brings the industry to a halt: most dogs and cats are neutered and this is very good, but at the same time they have a lower energy expenditure and need to eat fewer calories, as they become predisposed to gain weight. With this, we reach the impasse of many foods on the market having high nutritional and caloric density, despite being high quality. Unfortunately, food management at home ends up supplying these foods in excess, which can contribute to obesity.

With that, there is the question of the amount of food. Dogs often need to eat less than the caregivers think. When professionals and manufacturers' recommendations tell the amount that an animal should eat, those responsible for dogs and cats think it's a very small amount and end up providing much more. Perhaps the pet food sector needs to make a greater variety of lower-calorie foods available to serve neutered dogs and cats and, alongside professionals, contribute even more to raising awareness about food management at home.

What is your advice to professionals who want to dedicate themselves to research in this area?

The pet nutrition area really needs multidisciplinary professionals. It is critical to have a comprehensive view that safely addresses animal nutrition, selects ingredients and finds new raw material opportunities. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand processes and quality control.

It is also essential to understand communication, legislation and the market’s demands. The biggest difficulty is creating a pro-animal food while keeping in mind that the owner is the one who buys it. So, both need to be pleased. Finally, professionals need to be dynamic in listening to experts from other areas and working with people with different expertises in order to, at the end of the process, deliver the best possible product.