The pet industry in Japan is big business, estimated to be worth about 1.54 trillion yen in fiscal 2018, according to statista.com. Along with pet cosmetics and stylish clothing, pet food makes up one third of the market, with diet food and health conscious “premium food” selling well.
K9 Natural Japan KK, an all natural premium New Zealand dog and cat food maker, is at the high end of the market. Its raw pet food is 100% natural, balanced, freeze dried for convenience & preservative, grain, cereal, soy and gluten free. The freeze dried raw dog food is based on the diet of the North American Gray Wolf which DNA has proven to be 99.8% related to the domesticated dog.
K9 Natural Japan was founded by Steve Collins and his wife Miyuki in May 2010. Japan Today hears more about the pet food business.
What would you say are some of the biggest differences in the pet food business since you launched K9 Natural Japan in 2010?
There has been a continued shift toward considering pets to be family members and treated as such with a focus on human standard goods and services. There are also now more registered cats than dogs as many urban dwellers believe they are easier to care for and the number of dogs has steadily declined. Still many more pets than children under the age of 15, though. Also, there are more senior animals and therefor more products and services aimed at them.
The pet market has been estimated at about 1.54 trillion yen, with pet food making up one third of the market. Is it growing?
Not very much. Japan has one of the lowest growth rates among mature pet markets. But as pet owners continue to transition into pet parents the spending has shifted toward healthier or more pampered choices, which generally cost more.
When I was growing up, I remember seeing many people giving their dogs scraps off their plates after dinner. Do you think that still happens?
Yes, but probably less here than in other countries. Japanese generally tend to be less wasteful with food than many other countries, so there are fewer scraps to share.
I have heard that lifestyle diseases are increasing among dogs. Do you think this is because they are fed foods containing items which dogs are not designed to digest?
Clearly, I have strong opinions on this one. Absolutely, yes. It is the reason we started importing K9 Natural. Besides the simple logic that dogs and cats are carnivores (opportunistic and obligate respectively) with teeth, organs and instincts to thrive on a meat-based diet, we now have eight years experience providing a diet made to fit dogs and cats true nutritional needs and have seen incredible results. Even when just mixing our food with regular dry pet foods.
Grain free is now the standard as consumers have demanded better health, but in the search for cheap alternatives, many companies use rice, potatoes, peas, beans and other low cost fillers which can be even worse than grains for pet digestibility and health.
What is the main selling point of K9 Natural? What exactly is freeze dried raw dog food?
There are three key points really that separate us from everyone else in Japan - ingredient list, quality of those ingredients, freeze dry processing.
Ingredients: We are a high meat diet - 90% for dogs and 99% for cats. The rest is fruit, vegetable, egg, New Zealand green lipped mussel and essential vitamins, minerals & oils. Equally important is what we don’t use: corn, wheat, grain, soy, cereal, rice, dairy, potato, beans or other filler. All our diets are GMO- and gluten-free.
Quality: New Zealand is one of the most pristine places left on earth and because their economy is dependent on agricultural exports, they have put regulations in place to protect and sustain their natural abundance. All our meat comes from pasture raised, grass fed, vet checked animals (cage free, free range in the case of chickens and eggs) designated for human consumption. The salmon, hoki and green lipped mussels are sustainably farmed in local waters. The fruit and vegetables are from local farms.
Processing: This one really sets us apart from all others in Japan. We use low temperature freeze drying to remove the water and make the product shelf stable. This process allows the proteins and minerals to remain in their natural, highly digestible state and enzymes, the key to all metabolic processes, remain alive. This makes all the difference in the world.
Are your products exactly the same as what is sold in other countries or have ingredients had to be changed to comply with Japanese laws?
They are the same. In fact, the facilities in New Zealand that are used to produce the food (farms, processing, storage) all have to be registered for export to Japan based on Japanese market requirements. Documents accompany the products on import with full traceability and signed off by a New Zealand government veterinary representative.
A lot of pet foods claim to be natural, but are they really?
It depends on your definition of natural, but I would hope that most that make the claim are. However, natural and appropriate for your pet are not the same thing. Many natural, even organic things, are not good for pets, so it really is up to the consumer to do their homework.
Where are you currently selling your products? What kind of stores? Where would you like to be selling your products but aren’t able to yet?
We sell through independent shops and small chains, veterinary clinics and hospitals, through our website, Amazon and now at our flagship store in Jingumae, Tokyo. We participate in many of the pet events around Japan as well. We would like to get into grocery stores as that is where many people shop for their families' food. In the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and many other countries, the pet food is alongside human food, but that is still a bit of a leap in Japan.
Are online sales increasing?
They are, but our food, being freeze dried and more expensive than some, requires explanation. It is the independent shops and vets that have been our advocates, so we do our best to protect those partners by not discounting. Its the same price on or offline.
Do you also have an English online site?
We do not, though the U.S. site will provide most information a customer needs. Browser translation also works pretty well now.
How do cat food sales compare to dog food sales in Japan?
They are increasing rapidly. We have already introduced some new diets and treats and have more in the pipeline in the next few months. We see this as a great opportunity as our food is extremely well suited for cats. Being obligate carnivores, our 99% meat products fulfill their nutritional needs, but just as important is that we recommend our food be reconstituted with water. Many cats live in a state of perpetual dehydration due to a weak thirst drive which leads to kidney disease, the number one cause of death for cats over 5 years old. By feeding them a reconstituted product, they get the water and the enzymes they need to stay healthy.
Do you find educating consumers in Japan a big part of your job or are Japanese pet owners already very knowledgeable about dog food, for example?
Education is the core of what we have been doing for eight years and there is a very long way to go yet. This is global though, not just Japan. Of course there are many customers who have done their research and found us, but the big pet food companies have a very powerful marketing machine telling consumers to blindly trust them.
How do you market your brand? Through word of mouth, social media or at pet shows?
Primarily word of mouth, shops and events. We have done very little paid advertising. We are trying to get better at social media and have just set up our Japan Instagram account to go with our Facebook account. Now we are looking for a social media/customer service person to run with it.
How many dogs do you haver at home?
We just have one, a white, toy poodle named Lupus. Not named after the horrible immune disease, but because it is Latin for wolf. All of our staff have pets, it's a requirement for hire, so there are always several dogs around the office.
How many staff do you have now?
We have six full-time, one part-time and looking to hire two more this year.
What is a typical day for you? Are you in or out of the office most days?
There are no typical days. There are of course a number of areas I have responsibility for, but each day is different. I am in the office most days including more weekends than I would like.
When you are not working, how do you like to relax?
Nothing extravagant, walking the dog and enjoying some food and drinks with my wife and friends.
For more information, visit www.k9natural.jp© Japan Today