Tucked at the end of a hall on the fourth floor of Nestlé Purina’s research center in St. Louis is the most unlikely of places.
It’s a fully equipped kitchen that looks like it belongs on the set of a reality cooking show. And it’s where Chef Amanda Hassner has spent the past five years, employing her cooking skills in the development of new pet foods.
At first glance, it’s the sort of thing that seems rather unnecessary. Anyone who has spent time around dogs and cats knows they don’t tend to be the pickiest of eaters.
But there’s a movement in the world of pet food — one that’s been accelerated by millennials — where we are feeding our beloved animals the same type of things we might like to eat.
How else do you explain flavors in the Purina stable that include “Rotisserie Chicken,” “Filet Mignon” or “Tuscan Style Medley?”
“We want to have products that appeal to the owner,” Hassner said. “It can’t look or smell horrible to the person.”
It’s why you don’t see pet foods with flavors like “Rotten Fish” or “Garbage Can Medley.”
The $23 billion U.S. pet food market has become increasingly competitive, with companies churning out thousands of recipes, catering to a wide range of animals and their owners.
Sales volumes have been waning in recent years, with aging baby boomers moving away from pet ownership. But millennials are starting to show more interest in pets, according to a report this summer by Euromonitor International, which tracks pet food data.
“This group tends to humanize their pets more than other generations and are willing to spend on higher-quality pet food,” the report said.
Hassner is involved in various facets of the Purina’s research and development pipeline, helping to formulate flavors, identify ingredients and develop marketing plans.
It’s a considerable departure for someone who spent the early part of her career moving from restaurant to restaurant before going to school at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.
During the late 1990s, she was working in the kitchen of the Cleveland Renaissance Hotel when her head chef got a call from a friend looking for someone to join him at Kraft’s ingredients division in Memphis, Tenn. She spent seven years there before joining Nestlé Purina — starting in frozen foods, before making the jump to pet food.
Now, she spends her days translating a knowledge of human appetites and trends to the world of dogs and cats. And while there are similarities, there are also substantial differences. We chew and savor our food, for example, while our pets are only concerned with consuming what’s in front of them — assuming they’re interested in it.
“They don’t eat like us,” she said. “They aren’t going to eat something just to save your feelings.”
It’s that second part that creates so much work for the development team, whose goals include more than just churning out appetizing recipes.
Many of today’s pet foods are designed to provide specific health benefits. You can find food for your overweight dog, a cat with digestive issues, pets that need help keeping their teeth clean or their aging minds sharp.
That’s done through a variety of ingredients and additives that — by themselves — might not be all that appealing to pets.
“Then we think about how to deliver it,” said Janet Jackson, vice president of PetCare Nutrition Research. “If they don’t want to eat it, then they won’t get the benefits of the nutrition.”
Still, there are those who don’t put a lot of stock in this trend toward the humanization of food. Or, at least, they don’t see much benefit for the animals.
Mike Sagman is the owner and editor of Dog Food Advisor, a website that reviews thousands of food offerings by more than 100 brands.
“They spend an awful lot of time trying to make food seem appealing to the person pushing the basket down the aisle,” Sagman said.
The dogs, he said, don’t really care if their kibble is pink or green or brown.
And he’s not convinced the flavors listed on the labels are actually what’s found inside the bag.
“You don’t really think there’s a filet mignon in that dog food, do you?”
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