Market Snapshot: Pet Food

Find out how 13 top pet food brands rate with respect to water activity, moisture content, and over or underpack. Learn how to control moisture to maximize profit.

We recently analyzed and ranked 13 top pet food brands for moisture content, water activity, and over- and under-pack. The testing results give a market snapshot of the pet food industry and the vital role of moisture in quality and shelf life. Our findings also lend themselves to how precision and accuracy in managing moisture and packing can significantly maximize profits.

Moisture Measurement

Moisture is an essential but often under-utilized measurement in kibble-based pet foods. Experts agree that pets generally prefer kibble-based foods with higher moisture content. However, we also know that more moisture can lead to mold or microbial growth and, in that respect, needs to be managed carefully. 

Across the pet food industry, there is no common standard for measuring moisture and its effect on products. The most accurate and helpful way to monitor moisture is by measuring water activity. Water activity is defined as the energy of water in a system, or how much energy it takes for the water to become vapor. (For more details on water activity, watch our Water Activity 101 seminar here.) Coupled with moisture content information, you can create a moisture sorption isotherm and graph and track the effect of moisture on your product. 

It is a common industry standard to keep moisture content under 10%, but that only tells part of the story. When we add in water activity, we see that when the moisture content is under 10%, that also means that water activity is under .6%, which is an important benchmark for controlling mold and microbial growth, maintaining quality, and predicting shelf life. As we look at the correlation between moisture content and water activity, it is clear that a slight change in moisture content is correlated with a significant difference in water activity, making water activity critical to monitor and control. 

Over- and Under-Pack

Our examination found that most pet food companies have a significant amount of overpack – meaning there is more weight in the bag versus the weight listed on the label. When overpack occurs, consumers receive more of a product than what they paid for. While not as common, there are also some instances of under-pack, where packages contain less product than is listed on the label. Overall, over-pack and under-pack are not well-controlled in the kibble-based pet food industry.

Tips for Moisture Improvement 

The best way to improve moisture control in kibble-based pet foods is to choose a single source of moisture measurement that is accurate and precise. With the proper instrumentation, water activity is the most sensitive, accurate, and quickest way to measure moisture. In addition, by using moisture sorption isotherms, you will see when pet food will become unstable and when shelf life will be shortened by degrative reactions or microbial growth.  

It is also essential to implement post-process processes to detect variables that affect moisture and could rob you of profit. For example, many products are put into bins after the drying process, where moisture exchange continues to happen but is often not monitored. By more intentionally monitoring these steps, you can know when a product will hit a critical moisture limit and need to be moved to the next part of the process. 

Maximizing Profit

The kibble-based pet food business is a $12-15 billion dollar industry in the United States, and there are possibilities for significant growth. The results of our study clearly show that there is room for improvement in moisture management and package weight and that better controlling these processes could result in increased profitability. We estimate that ensuring the water activity level and package weight are precise for each product could increase profitability by $100-200 million – making measuring and monitoring water activity a straightforward and effective way to increase revenue. 

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