After years of developing concoctions from toothpaste to skin cream to broaden the cranberry's appeal, Massachusetts growers are poised to profit in a new and fast-growing market: pet food.
A study released today by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth finds that one-third of US pet food makers already use cranberries in their products, and are likely to buy more as pet-food spending rises 15 percent to a projected $17 billion by 2008.
''It couldn't be any better," said Nora Ganim Barnes, director of UMass-Dartmouth's Center for Business Research, which conducted the study. ''This is the nonhuman market, which Massachusetts growers have never been in before, and it's poised for growth."
Cranberries are becoming a popular ingredient in pet food because health-conscious owners seeking natural ingredients for their own diets are increasingly insisting on the same for their pets. Cranberries have been found to have benefits for human health, such as lowering the risk of urinary infections, and many pet-food makers are promoting products that contain cranberries as having similar benefits for dogs and cats, according to the study, which surveyed the nation's 91 pet food manufacturers. About 10 to 15 percent of cats suffer from urinary tract infections.
Industry specialists say such promotions are part of a marketing strategy to piggy-back pet products onto broader consumer trends. In this case, pet-food companies are hoping to catch the wave of rising health consciousness that has caused organic food and beverage sales to grow at annual rates of 20 percent to become a $12 billion industry.
Sales of natural and organic pet foods are still only a tiny part of the nearly $15 billion pet food market, but are growing fast. Sales of organic pet food, for example, grew 65 percent last year, to about $14 million, according to the Organic Trade Association, an national industry group in Greenfield.
The cranberry is naturally a bitter fruit, but growers and processors have come up with an array of sweetened and mixed juices and other products for human consumption that bring out its tart flavor. Massachusetts ranks second in the nation in cranberry production, behind Wisconsin.
Pet food makers are among the latest to find new uses for cranberries. They add the fruit in various forms to their products, with some using cranberry powder, some juice, and some whole cranberries. Nutro Products Inc. says that the cranberry powder in its Natural Choice Dental Care dog food ''helps fight bacteria that can cause bad breath." Doctors Foster & Smith Inc. of Wisconsin sells Cranberry Treats for cats to promote urinary tract health. Old Mother Hubbard, a Chelmsford pet-food maker, mixes whole cranberries into its Wellness brand of all-natural dog and cat foods.
Sales of Wellness products have been growing at double-digit rates since the line was introduced eight years ago, said Jean Lizotte, vice president of marketing. All the brand's cat foods use cranberries, which the company promotes as helping prevent urinary tract infections, to which cats are particularly susceptible.
The privately held company, which declined to disclose its total sales, distributes its products to 4,000 independent pet stores in North America.
Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor at Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine, cautioned consumers that there is no scientific evidence that cranberries, or other natural ingredients, produce the same effects in pets as they do in humans. She added that pet owners should consult their veterinarian before changing their pets' diets.
''Just because they're including it doesn't mean it's a good thing," she said. ''Much of this is really appealing to people's interest in food, and it's really more marketing than science."
Still, cranberries have pet-food makers' attention. Of the 33 companies that use cranberries, 60 percent said they plan to use more, according to the UMass study. And nearly 90 percent of the companies that don't use the ingredient said they would if the health benefits for pets could be clearly established.
So far, small niche companies, which together account for less than 10 percent of the pet food market, are using cranberries, according to the UMass study. But the biggest players are watching. Kelly Vanasse, a spokeswoman for Iams Co., the nation's second-leading pet food maker, said the company isn't using cranberries in its production, but is aware that cranberries are being touted as helpful in preventing urinary tract infections.
''We are always looking into all sorts of ingredients that might enhance pets' well being," she said.
Such talk is encouraging to cranberry growers, who in recent years have struggled with overproduction and low prices, said Jeff LaFleur, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association. Although prices have climbed to about $35 a barrel in 2004 from low of less than $13 in 1999, they are still just slightly more than half the peak prices of $65 a barrel earlier in the 1990s, he said.
LaFleur said selling cranberries for pet food is a market worth exploring, particularly ''when you look at the amount of money US consumers invest in their pets."
Some growers already are tapping into this market. Decas Cranberry Products Inc., of Wareham, is making cranberry powder that is being used in pet foods. Doug Klaiber, general manager of the Decas Botanical Synergies, the division of the company developing cranberry-based health and wellness products, said the interest among pet-food makers has grown noticeably over the past six months.
He estimated that pet food uses now account for about 10 percent of his division's sales, which in turn account for less than 10 percent of the company's revenue. He expects both the division and pet food business to grow. He declined to disclose Decas's pet food customers.
Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.