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The McDonaldization of American pet food

Good boy. (Photographer: Adam Rountree / Bloomberg News)
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The Big Food giants that feed your family are increasingly eyeing a new market: Your pets.

J.M. Smucker -- the megabrand behind Folgers coffee, Jif peanut butter, Pillsbury, Crisco and its namesake jam -- announced this week that it would pay about $5.8 billion to buy Big Heart Pet Brands, maker of Meow Mix, Milk-Bone, Pup-Peroni and Kibbles 'n Bits.

That's following last year's $2.9 billion gobbling-up of pet-food lines Iams and Eukanuba by Mars, the candy titan behind M&M's, Snickers and Skittles -- a deal that bulked up Mars' pet-brand portfolio, including Whiskas and Pedigree.

For big businesses already feasting on human-food dollars, there are few more enticing growth opportunities than the chow bowl of the American pet.

The nation's pet-food sales have nearly doubled since 2000, to more than $22 billion last year, American Pet Products Association data show. And the bestsellers for dogs and cats are the pricey "premium" lines, which attracted a record-breaking $10 billion in sales last year.

That bounty has led to "rampant consolidation pressures" over the past half decade, Euromonitor International industry researchers said, as well as a series of big buyouts and megamergers under a shrinking number of conglomerate owners.

With "an increased consumer awareness of healthy diets and intensified pet humanisation," analysts said, Big Food has sought to scoop up household names in hopes of securing a strong market share across all prices, brands and blends.

The pet market offers a lucrative new chance for Big Food to wiggle its way into shopping carts. Consumer surveys by market researcher Mintel found that 79 percent of U.S. pet owners said the quality of their pets’ food is as important as their own.

For corporate owners, gathering up big kibble brands also offers a few extra treats. The food giants can use them to diversify into new markets, grabbing buyers beyond the traditional staples. They can even save money, by sharing ingredients later packaged into different foods for people and pets.

Big Pet Food now has nearly unshakeable control of pets' mealtime, Euromonitor data show. About 93 percent of the mid-priced dog and cat food sold in North America goes to only three companies: Big Heart, Mars and Nestle, the giant behind Purina, Dreyer's ice cream and Hot Pockets.

The corporate clumping is not just restrained to pet food, either. In December, a group of investors landed the biggest private-equity buyout of the year when it paid more than $8 billion to acquire PetSmart, the strip-mall pet-supply chain. Its stock has since hit all-time highs.

Smucker will buy Big Heart, the purveyor of GravyBones, Snausages and Kitten Li'l Nibbles formerly known as Del Monte Foods, from a team of private-equity firms, agreeing to hand over nearly 18 million Smucker shares and $1.3 billion in cash while taking on the firm's $2.6 billion of debt.

But the deal remains a huge get for Smucker: Big Heart is America's biggest seller of pet snacks, with about $2.3 billion in net sales over the past year, the company said. Smucker expects pet food will contribute more to its bottom line than Jif, Pillsbury, Crisco and its namesake jams and jellies, combined.

"We recognize that pets are cherished members of the family," chief executive Richard Smucker said in a statement. "With approximately two-thirds of U.S. households having at least one family pet, we will now be able to serve the mealtime and snacking needs of the whole family."