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Pet food producers also pour money into research. The goal, Nestle said, is to make a kibble that’s just gamey enough — that “tastes bad enough” — so that animals love it but it doesn’t smell or look so awful that people won’t buy it.
Companies run sniff tests with pets to find the most palatable kibble, Martin said. They put out a few different formulations of a particular food in a large room and then unleash dozens of dogs (or a handful of cats) to see which foods they prefer. “They really enjoy getting to participate in this process,” Martin said.
Bully sticks, specifically, face additional challenges that impact their price — such as the one rooted in biology. Only bulls have pizzles, and they only have one. Plus, manufacturers can generally only get a couple of sticks per penis, Martin said. The faltering reputation of rawhide chews has also buoyed demand for bully sticks, she said.
Pet food companies also charge a lot because ... they can
Like any good company, pet food producers know their customers well; they know that humans love their animals and will do pretty much anything for them. So another reason why pet food companies charge so much is simply “because they can get away with it,” Nestle said.
Companies also know that people are paying more attention to what’s in pet food, perhaps, because they’re spending more time at home with their animals. Owners are increasingly opting for foods that are similar to what they might buy for themselves — all-natural, non-GMO, vegan, and so on. Usually, pet food trends lag about five years behind our own, yet that gap is shrinking, Martin said. “The pets don’t care about anything that’s on the label, but the owners do,” Nestle said. “They’re not selling to the pets.”
This gets at a much bigger idea: The pet food industry is, to a large extent, built on branding. If you put peanut butter in a tube and call it “Kong Stuff’n,” you can sell it for more than a jar of Jif. “They know we’ll pay for it,” Martin said. The same list of ingredients packaged by different brands of food can also cost wildly different amounts, Nestle said.
Marketing also obscures the fact that there are just a handful of major corporations behind the majority of food brands you see at the pet store. For example, Mars Petcare — a subsidiary of Mars, best known for making M&Ms and Twix bars — owns dozens of brands including Pedigree, Greenies, Iams, Whiskas, and Royal Canin. Nestle Purina, a subsidiary of Nestle, also has several brands to its name including Purina, Friskies, Beneful, Fancy Feast, and many others. A lack of competition within an industry can be bad for the consumer and bad for prices.
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