Range of unusual pet foods rapidly expanding, with ears, snouts and pizzles all on the menu

Pet ownership in Australia has surged during the past few years of COVID-19 lockdowns.

It has meant the pet food industry — worth an estimated $2.74 billion annually and growing rapidly — is struggling to keep up.

“Pet ownership has been growing in Australia year on year, but with COVID we saw a considerable uptick,” Emily Dowling of Mars Petcare said.

“About 60 per cent of Australian households had a pet before COVID. Now it’s about 70 per cent.”

The Australian pet food market is estimated to be worth $2.74 billion.(Supplied)

More furry mouths to feed

The Australian arm of the global company produces about 100,000 tonnes of meat products each year and is seeing record demand for protein of every sort.

Australian sales are at an all-time high, and export sales into Asia have also seen substantial growth.

The pet food industry operates hand-in-glove with the human food chain. In essence, humans get the prime cuts, while pets get the bones and body parts.

At present, slaughter numbers for cattle and sheep are well down as producers seek to rebuild following the recent drought.

That means lower volumes of offcuts and offences, and subsequently increased competition among pet food producers.

Photo of pet treats in factory.
Workers at this plant produce pet food around the clock.(Supplied)

Insects used for protein

Dr Stubbe is a vet and pet food manufacturer which, for several reasons is, producing dog biscuits made from insect protein derived from black soldier fly larvae.

Soldier flies are extremely efficient at converting waste into protein—in this instance, domestic waste gathered across Melbourne—and insect proteins provide nutrients often lacking in red meat.

“They’re 12 to 25 times more efficient at converting feed to a kilo of protein versus cattle, so it says a lot, and I’m from a beef farm, so I’m an advocate for the beef industry,” Dr Stubbe said.

Photo of woman with dog.
Stephanie Stubbe makes dog biscuits from nutritious larvae mixed with seaweed.(Tim Lee)

As yet, unusual proteins such as insects are only a small segment of the market but, overall, pet food mirrors trends in human nutrition. Most pet food companies are also introducing vegetarian or non-animal-based pet products to their ranges.

“[The trend is moving] back to natural, minimal ingredients, minimal processing and without the big, long list of ingredients on the ingredients panel on the back of the pack,” said Edward Stoughton, of the Stoughton Group, one of the giants of the Australian pet food industry.

From pigs’ ears to dog biscuits

The company’s pet food manufacturing plant at Howlong, southern New South Wales, employs about 400 people, and it has plans to expand.

The facility processes offcuts and offal collected from about 30 abattoirs across Australia and turns them into about 300 product lines — everything from dehydrated pigs’ ears and chicken feet to dog biscuits and kibble.

Photo of dog biscuits.
These dog biscuits are made from insect protein.(Tim Lee)

Nothing goes to waste. Every skerrick of usable protein is extracted and utilized, many of them animal parts once discarded into landfill.

They include bizarre items such as bull’s pizzles, which are marketed as “bully sticks” and are a bestseller in the United States.

The company’s quest for additional protein sources has seen it begin to process feral animals such as pigs and deer. The harvester and the landholder get paid for each carcase, and the meat is lean and nutritional.

Photo of two men smiling in hi-vis
Simon Stoughton and his son Edward are committed to producing pet food with no waste.(Supplied)

Health-conscious owners

Pet owners are becoming increasingly conscious about their pets’ nutrition. It is a trend pet store owner Diane Ingrey, of Albury, has seen for two decades.

“You’ve got your ‘roo sternums — a wonderful, natural Australian product — things like your fish knots — just knotted and dried, nothing else in there — then there’s your turkey legs and then things like your turkey necks — so beautiful for a dog to chew on,” said Ms Ingrey.

Our perceptions of pets and how we treat them have also changed, especially since COVID-19 lockdowns.

“When we started in 2004, the dogs were in the backyard, and now they’ve progressed to the house and into people’s bedrooms,” Ms Ingrey said.

Image of beef carcasses.
Australians care more about their pets’ diets, which is putting pressure on the food supply chain.(Supplied)

In the offices of Mars Petcare at Wodonga, dogs sit contentedly next to their owners. The company’s pet-friendly approach is gaining popularity in workplaces.

“We generally understand that our productivity, our effectiveness, our engagement levels are actually elevated with the presence of pets in the office,” Shane Byrne, of Mars Petcare, said.

Pets have never had it so good. And we as humans have never loved them so much.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.

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