Functionality is hot

Trend-watchers tell us so. And looking around us – inside and outside of our own industry – we daily see the confirmation. Functionality has probably been hot for quite some time now. So is it a trend or has functionality gradually been embedded in a more general product-offer?

In other words, has it been put into a higher gear and has it gained a much broader acceptance over a period of probably 5 years? Looking at the human food shelves in hyper and supermarkets today would lead to the belief that functionality has become a fact of everyday life.You name it and you can find it; segmented to the extreme, to satisfy the most individual demands.

Is this also true for our industry? Most certainly not; at least not in the majority of markets. Of course we see so-called functional products, such as snacks and treats for dog and cats with an added ingredient to prevent something nasty to happen or to improve general health.

But all the same, our industry is still lagging far behind what has become custom in the human food industry in most regions of the world. Despite the fact that another trend that is much talked about in our industry is humanisation; the pet as part of the family, to be treated as such. Which apparently is still not reflected in the way owners take care of the perceived nutritional requirements of their animals.

What is functionality in relation to food and feeding?

The concise Oxford dictionary is very clear about this: functionality serves a function. Great! But when we, in our industry, talk about functionality we mean something special, something specific that cannot be found in the “normal” composition of a product. It has a special effect. In other words: we add something to a base (formulation of a) product. Because that provides the opportunity to attach an additional and valuable claim to the product

Most of these functions are health and wellbeing oriented and the reasons for their use can mostly be established by the owner himself. A poor skin and coat is after all visible to the naked eye as are some other symptoms. Furthermore, people around the globe (and that includes pet owners) potentially have 24/7 access to mountains of information; censored and uncensored, true and false. This information is absorbed and used at the next buying-occasion; be it brick-and-mortar or online.

The problem with the “amateur-diagnosis” is that pet owners step in the shoes of the veterinarians and can resort to self-medication. Which is contrary to the intentions of functional products that are typically over-the-counter (if not they would be called therapeutic); they serve a preventive purpose rather than a curative one. And that is where manufacturers and suppliers of these so-called functional products walk on a fine line; on the one hand they wish their claims to be as potent as possible whereas on the other they need to stay away from any claim that can be considered to be medicinal. In some regions of the world regulatory bodies have issued comprehensive regulations regarding the do’s and don’ts as far as claims are concerned. The burden of proof is then mostly a heavy one. Other regions take a more liberal stance in this respect.

As with a lot of other subjects, functionality is about sense and nonsense. Luckily most of the products offered today actually do make sense in it that they serve a recognizable purpose and its effects are well-documented. A trend-in-the-trend is that functional ingredients are commonly natural ones; not to interfere with an otherwise natural positioning of what could be called the base-product. This gradually leads to the intensified use of botanicals as functional ingredients, the efficacy of which is however still unclear due to the further processing of the ingredients.

Functionality is a big challenge for our industry; as it is a big opportunity. Hurdles need to be taken; on the regulatory side and on the technology one. The industry already has found some ways to overcome the difficulties; and will find new ways in the future. This will without any doubt be visible at the 2012 Interzoo where functionality as a trend is bound to be one of the hot items in this enormous basket called the global offering of the pet industry.

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