Up-Market Animal Food

Susanne Freidberg is a professor of geography at Dartmouth and author of the forthcoming book “Fresh: A Perishable History.” She is writing some guest posts here about food; you can find her first one, and a brief Q&A with Freidberg, here.

The International Boston Seafood Show may be one of the few trade shows where lunch really is worth the price of admission. Last weekend, the expo hall of the Boston Convention Center filled with seafood companies from all over the world, many of them offering samples of sashimi, smoked salmon, lobster, and even spoonfuls of caviar. No wonder the show attracts people who have nothing to do with the trade, like the former student I ran into. What business did he have at the show? “To eat,” he said, adding that in the past ten minutes, he’d packed away six months’ worth of shrimp and sushi.

The feeding frenzy on the expo floor did not, alas, reflect recent seafood sales trends. Panelists at the show reported downturns as people dine out less and opt for cheaper protein at home.

Yet one enormous consumer segment remains largely oblivious to the financial crisis: animals. For a few seafood companies, pets and other critters now count among their most reliable customers.

The pet products industry has so far proven “recession proof,” despite the rising number of animals given up for adoption by families who can no longer house or feed them. One study puts Americans’ total pet spending at $43.4 billion for 2008, up more than a quarter from 2004. Premium pet food sales in particular climbed after the 2007 contamination scare. Now many consumers feel “locked in” that market, and would rather skimp on their own dinners than try to switch Mimi or Fido back to cheap kibble.

That spells both bad and good news for Wildcatch, a company selling “certified sustainable” wild salmon from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. While most of its salmon products are for humans, Wildcatch also offers a line of “human quality” pet jerky. Fisherman and co-founder Buck Gibbons pointed out that the pet treat market was not to be sniffed at, given how many owners buy holiday gifts for their four-legged family members.

Pets aren’t the only animals in the market for quality seafood. Over at the Seafreeze booth, Kenneth Loud‘s list of clients for “frozen at sea” products includes the usual retail buyers as well as long-line fishermen, aquariums, and zookeepers. The Rhode Island-based company specializes in on-board plate freezing, a fast and freshness-preserving process long used by the frozen food industry (and which Clarence Birdseye made famous).

You wouldn’t think that these details would matter to buyers of bait, but they do. “People care more about their bait than their own food,” said Loud, noting that “fish like it fresh too.” So do seals, whales, and polar bears. Keepers treat these animals as though they are their own children, he said — children with very specific dietary needs. After all, many of these animals earn their keep by entertaining us. Who wants to watch a lethargic sea lion? “Zoos have found that the animals perform better when there’s a low fish oil content,” Loud said of their preference for his human-grade herring. “That way they’re always just a little bit hungry.”


Interesting. One whole section of the market I suspect a lot of people easily overlook.

mel's ma

I've had cats who love to eat such non-animal foods as
broccoli, cantaloupe and celery leaves(as well as houseplants!)

mel's ma

I've had cats who love to eat such non-animal foods as
broccoli, cantaloupe and celery leaves(as well as houseplants!)
Sorry... forgot to say great post - can't wait to read your next one!


I didn't realize pet food had so much seafood in it. I usually imagine pet food as the cheaper chicken version.


You can't imagine how much seafood ends up in mainly catfood. Aquaculture has been taking a lot of heat for using too much ocean fish to grow salmon, etc. No one thought about the petfood industry until recently, when some scientists published a paper last year.

They estimated that the global cat food industry alone uses almost 2.5 million tonnes (2,200 lbs in a tonne) or an unbelievable 13.5% of the 39 million tonnes of fish caught for purposes other human human food production yearly.

I've copied the summary below, and if you want to read the full research paper, the link is at the bottom.

Towards Understanding the Impacts of the Pet Food Industry on World Fish and Seafood Supplies
Sena S. De Silva Æ Giovanni M. Turchini

The status of wild capture fisheries has induced many fisheries and conservation scientists to express concerns about the concept of using forage fish after reduction to fishmeal and fish oil, as feed for farmed animals, particularly in aquaculture. However, a very large quantity of forage fish is being also used untransformed (fresh or frozen) globally for other purposes, such as the pet food industry. So far, no attempts have been made to estimate this quantum, and have been omitted in previous fishmeal and fish oil exploitation surveys. On the basis of recently released data on the Australian importation of fresh or frozen fish for the canned cat food industry, here we show that the estimated amount of raw fishery products directly utilized by the cat food industry equates to 2.48 million metric tonnes per year. This estimate, plus the previously reported global fishmeal consumption for the production of dry pet food suggest that 13.5% of the total 39.0 million tonnes of wild caught forage fish is used for purposes other than human food production. This study attempts to bring forth information on the direct use of fresh or frozen forage fish in the pet food sector that appears to have received little attention to this date and that needs to be considered in the global debate on the ethical nature of current practices on the use of forage fish, a limited biological resource.

If you've get the interest, the whole report is available at


stan tabbyman

Thanks for the great blog. This is new information for me. I've always marveled at the different "tastes of our cats through the years.