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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.”