Ken Park, the president and founder of Artemis Pet Food Co., based in North Hollywood, Calif., had always thought his company's emphasis on quality would make its chow a top choice for pet lovers. Now his commitment to using natural, North American-grown ingredients suitable for humans is attracting lots of notice.
In March, pet food from some of the industry's largest players was found to be tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastic. The melamine was found in Chinese-made wheat gluten used as filler to raise protein levels in pet food. Its presence has been linked to the death of at least 13 cats and one dog, and is potentially the culprit in thousands of other pet deaths. Since the contamination was discovered in rivals' products, sales for Park's $20 million, 35-employee company have jumped by 25% to 50%. "Customers are looking for pet food products that are U.S.-made, with U.S. ingredients," says Park.
Other small, domestic producers of pet food, such as Freshpet and Nature's Variety, are seeing results similar to Artemis'. "A lot of the smaller guys have jumped to the forefront," says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.
Park started Artemis 12 years ago with $400,000 in savings. A former pet store owner, he spotted a need for healthier food. "The products out there were more marketing than quality, and I thought I could step in and fill a niche," he says. He wanted to make pet foods that were as close to human quality as possible, keeping in mind that cats and dogs are more carnivorous than people. "You want to minimize grains, but they also need a certain amount of carbohydrates in their diet," Park says. His pet foods include turkey, lamb, and chicken, as well as cranberries, carrots, peas, and apples. Some 90% of the ingredients come from the U.S., 7% from Canada, and 3%—lamb—from New Zealand. Artemis' super-premium dog food runs about $40 for a 35-lb. bag, compared to $15 for a grocery store brand.
Park says he initially considered outsourcing more ingredients and some production, but he realized he would lose his point of distinction. "We can keep this all under one roof and keep a better eye on things," he says.
That insistence on maintaining close tabs on production facilities has given Artemis an extra dose of credibility as the melamine scandal unfolds. Most small pet-food companies can't afford their own factories, and instead outsource to larger facilities. "It is widespread and a very common practice," says Vetere. Another small all-natural pet food manufacturer, Natural Balance, based in Pacoima, Calif., was forced to recall some of its food after its outsourced production facility, American Nutrition, put tainted rice protein into four of its products even though the formula for those products didn't call for rice protein. "The ingredient was not meant to be there, and it was done without our knowledge," says Daniel Bernstein, a company spokesman. Naomi Keller, a spokeswoman for American Nutrition, said in a statement: "American Nutrition did not engage in any deliberate or intentionally wrongful conduct relative to the inclusion of rice protein in certain products it manufactures."
It's hard to say if the focus on safety will persist after the melamine scandal fades. Randy Klein, co-owner of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care in New York, has sold natural pet food for nearly 20 years, and has recently seen about a 10% jump in sales. Klein says: "More customers are making better choices," buying pricier all-natural products. Park says consumers are now more educated about nutrition and want to know why certain ingredients are in their pets' food. "I think this is a permanent shift, where consumers will be a lot more aware of what they are purchasing," he says. And, more important, what their pets are eating.
By Jeremy Quittner