The humanization of pets by their owners offers a tremendous growth market for the U.S. rice industry as pet owners, even during recessionary times, are increasingly purchasing premium and ultra-premium products for their animals, according to Jim Heim, president of business development for Central Garden and Pet Inc. Heim spoke during this morning's general session of the 113th RMA Convention.

Noting the $1.8 billion annual U.S. consumer expenditures in the pet category, including $60 billion in food and treats, Heim said that rice is a perfect food for pets because it's nutritious and the least allergenic of all grains. A pet owner who founded a food bank for pets in Napa Valley and advocates for other animal causes, Heim said the growing use of impersonal technologies is driving consumers' desire to connect emotionally, often with their pets. This in turn is spurring demand for the best products for these beloved family members.

"The U.S. rice industry has the potential for a 10 percent increase in revenue derived from this $1.8 billion dollar industry," Heim told attendees. "The natural food pet category alone has grown more than 16 percent in the past 6 years."

Heim urged the industry to encourage pet food companies to use more rice in their products because consumers want U.S.-grown foods that are healthy and nutritious for their pets.

"Rice makes up less than 1 percent of the ingredients in pet foods, but should constitute 10 to 15 percent," he said.