You would expect to find hot dogs, ground beef and pork chops in a supermarket’s refrigerated cases. But some stores are adding a meat cooler in an unexpected location: the pet-food aisle.

You would expect to find hot dogs, ground beef and pork chops in a supermarket’s refrigerated cases.

But some stores are adding a meat cooler in an unexpected location: the pet-food aisle.

Refrigerated, fresh dog food is a growing market that is predicted to bark up $473 million in annual sales by 2012, according to research firm Packaged Facts.

“It’s been here over a year, and it’s going really well,” said Dennis McCaddon, grocery manager at the Schnucks at Montvale Commons in Springfield. “Customers are saying their dogs really love it.”

The Freshpet Select brand sold at the two local Schnucks is a mixture of brown rice, eggs, peas, carrots and barely cooked meats (chicken, turkey, beef, liver), plus added vitamins and minerals.

The pasty concoction is stuffed into a plastic tube, much like breakfast or liver sausage. Slice off a few rounds and toss them into the dog bowl. Cover the unused roll with plastic wrap or a cap and it will keep up to 10 days in the fridge.

According to Packaged Facts, almost all of the sales growth in the North American pet food market over the past decade has come from affluent customers who are willing to pay more for higher-quality foods designed to improve the health of their animals.

North American sales of fresh pet food totaled $169 million in 2007 and are on the rise.

Although it’s a small part of the $18 billion pet food market, it’s expected to increase at a rate of 23 percent over the next three years.

Packaged Facts attributes the popularity of fresh dog food to convenience, technological advances, better distribution channels and heightened food-safety concerns.

Schnucks’ St. Louis-based spokesman, Paul Simon, agrees.

“It’s a good seller for us. We started putting it in most of our stores after the nationwide pet food recall happened in March 2007, and that probably helped. Freshpet is considered to be natural, with no additives and fillers.”

The slice-and-serve tubes at Schnucks come in several sizes and range in price from $4.69 for a 1.5-pound package to $11.49 for a 6-pounder. In addition, bite-size chicken treats in an 8-ounce pouch cost $4.29.

Kate Locke, a veterinarian at Springfield’s Laketown Animal Hospital, said she isn’t aware of any health benefits that come from fresh dog food.

“I’m a big fan of dry food because it’s crunchy. Small dogs on canned food all their lives have a greater increase in dental disease. They don’t get the scraping action on their teeth that the dry food provides.”

If a dog owner does switch to fresh food, Freshpet recommends introducing it gradually into the animal’s diet over five to seven days.

“Anytime you do a food change, even if it’s just a dry-food brand change, always slowly mix it in with the regular food and slowly increase it. It helps to cut down on upset stomachs,” Locke said.

Good advice. Here’s more: Pay attention to what’s in the cooler you’re opening in the supermarket.

Kathryn Rem can be reached at (217) 788-1520 or kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.