Why food firms have growing appetite for pet sector

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Most people associate Mars with confectionery and, in particular, its eponymous chocolate bars.

Fewer people know it is also the world’s biggest pet food manufacturer and owner of brands including Whiskas, Pedigree, Sheba, Iams and Cesar.

It is also, after a blitz of activity during the last two years, fast-becoming one of the world’s largest provider of veterinary services.

Mars has been expanding into the sector since 1994 and, in January last year, paid $7.7bn for VCA, a US veterinary and dog day-care business.

By the beginning of the year, it was employing 50,000 people in the field, caring for 10 million pets annually.

However, until now, this part of Mars was exclusively in the US and Canada.

It is now moving into Europe for the first time.

Last week, it bought Linnaeus, a British veterinary business, for an undisclosed sum from Sovereign Capital Partners, a private equity firm.

And now it has followed this by paying private equity firm Nordic Capital an estimated €2bn for AniCura, a Swedish veterinary business that employs more than 4,000 people in 200 animal hospitals and clinics across seven countries, including Germany and the Netherlands.

It confirms the growing importance to Mars of pet care, a business now growing more rapidly than its traditional confectionery and food business where, apart from Mars itself, its brands include Uncle Ben’s, Dolmio, Galaxy, Bounty, Twix, Snickers and Milky Way.

Poul Weihrauch, president of Mars Petcare, said: “Europe is the second largest region in the world for pet care and European pet care is expected to grow significantly over the coming years.

“There is a great opportunity to address growing demand by providing high quality, consistent veterinary care across Europe.”

He said that, so far this year, there had been 17 deals involving pet care businesses around the world.

Mars is by no means the only major player in the global food sector looking to build up its presence in pet care.

All of the world’s five largest pet food makers are now owned by global fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) giants.

Nestlé became the second biggest player globally when, in 2001, it bought Purina Healthcare for $10.3bn, bringing it brands including Felix, Winalot and Friskies.

Two months ago, it bought Tails.com, a British digital business specialising in personalised pet nutrition.

The third largest player globally is Big Heart Pet Brands, owner of the Meow Mix and Milk-Bone brands, which was bought three years ago for $3bn by JM Smucker, owner of Crosse & Blackwell, Pillsbury and America’s leading peanut butter brand.

Mars bars. File picture Why food firms have growing appetite for pet sector Why food firms have growing appetite for pet sector 032988c1f227807c7cabc8eef157546e3f82c090a56b910a6a4a23a51b67d60e 3906714
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Mars is best known for making chocolate bars

Close behind is Hill’s, another US business and the only one in the top five not to be owned by a company that also makes food for humans.

It still has a large parent company, though, in the shape of the household goods giant Colgate-Palmolive and also manufactures veterinary products.

In fifth place globally is Blue Buffalo, bought for $8bn in February this year by General Mills, owner of Green Giant, Yoplait, Old El Paso, Nature Valley, Jus-Rol and Haagen-Dazs.

It pulled out of the pet food industry in the 1960s but, beset by slower growth in its mainstream food business, decided to re-enter the market due to its stronger growth prospects.

What is the attraction of this market? Quite simply, its remarkable growth prospects.

As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, most pets were just fed household scraps, while what tinned dog food was available invariably was horse meat.

That began to change in the 1970s as the branded pet food market began to grow and, in the 1980s and 1990s, that accelerated as premium brands emerged.

That trend has continued with the arrival of ‘natural’ pet foods and products that cater for allergies and food intolerances among animals.

The atomisation of wider society has also played a part. With more people living alone, more households are being formed, many of them owning a pet.

Interestingly, that does not appear to be the case in Britain, where the pet population has fallen from 71 million in 2013 to around 51 million today.

However, 45% of Britons still own a pet, with one in four British households having a dog and just under one in five a cat.

And they are spending more per pet: according to the data provider Statista, the total value of the pet market last year was £4.615bn, up from £2.591bn a decade earlier.

As the world gets wealthier, and owning a pet becomes more affordable, Big Food is betting it is a trend set to continue for years to come.



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