ST. BONIFACIUS -- There's revolution in the air. And that means some foul smells aren't.
That's because this revolution is about cat litter.
A new innovation is shaking up the $1.1 billion a year cat litter industry, spreading to pet stores and giant retailers nationwide.
It goes by names such as Crystal Clear Litter Pearls, Ultra Pearls and Pearl Fresh, and it's being touted as the biggest step forward in kitty hygiene and odor control since clumping litter arrived on the scene a dozen years ago.
Litter Pearls works by locking up odors in hard little white beads of specially designed silica gel. It's unscented, dust free, nontoxic and biodegradable. And a four-pound bag is designed to last for a whole month.
The epicenter of the silica litter revolution is in this town about 25 miles west of Minneapolis, in the offices of Harvest Ventures Inc. Litter Pearls went on the market in January of 1998. Despite a relatively high price tag, the company already has grabbed about a 2 1/2 percent to 3 percent share of the market -- and accolades from the pet product industry.
''We truly eliminate the odor rather than mask it,'' said Daniel Schlueter, president of the company.
Harvest Ventures first brought out the product under the Crystal Clear Litter Pearls label, which is sold mainly through pet stores. It now also packages the same product as Ultra Pearls for mass-market retailers and grocery chains, and as Pearl Fresh, a private label for Petsmart.
The product is now available in about 5,000 pet stores nationwide including Petsmart and Petco, and at big national and regional grocery chains such as Kroger, Safeway, Albertson's, Fred Meyer, H.E. Butt, Stop & Shop, Hy Vee and Bi-Lo. It's coming soon to Kmart and Wal-Mart. And requests keep coming in from retailers all over the world, Schlueter said.
It's not just ''dirt in a bag'' like conventional clay-based cat litters, Schlueter said.
As Schlueter explained it, Litter Pearls work by soaking up cat urine and absorbing the moisture and odor from solid waste. The water starts evaporating almost immediately, but the odor-causing molecules remain trapped inside the pearls. Within 24 to 48 hours, all the moisture in an individual pearl is gone, and it's ready to reabsorb again and again.
All the cat owner needs to do is remove the dried-out solid waste. Schlueter recommends doing that daily, a chore that goes very quickly with the company's special plastic scooper, then flushing the droppings down the toilet or putting them in the trash. Because the pearls don't clump like other litters, there's no need to add more litter to the box.
''One bag, one cat, one month,'' is the company's slogan. In practice, the product lasts longer with some cats, not as long with others.
Harvest Ventures expects the silica segment will grow to 25 percent of the litter market in the next few years, spokeswoman Cindee Kohagen said.
The company already has some competitors, including a couple of big names. Ralston-Purina recently brought out a version under its Tidy Cats brand. Clorox is introducing one soon under its Fresh Step label. Some smaller players also sell silica litter under names such as Litter Secret and Magic Litter.
Schlueter said not all silica liter is created equal. He said some rivals use the most common type of silica gel, which is usually used to protect foods, electronics and other goods from humidity. He said that kind of silica is not designed to absorb liquid, and the beads shatter into ineffective bits when wet.
He and his partners got interested in the litter business when they learned of a version being sold in Japan, but that product wasn't right for the U.S. market. So they took the time and worked with a supplier in China to develop a different kind of silica gel, specifically engineered to absorb liquid waste and keep working.
''To say they're the same, just cheaper, that's not true,'' he said.
Schlueter said his fear is that consumers will start out with a competing brand, not like it, and become turned off on silica litter without trying Litter Pearls.
''We know if we get you to try it, we'll keep seven to eight out of 10 of you,'' he said. ''We know you'll continue to buy from us. ... We have a product that works.''
There are a few drawbacks, though.
For one thing, Litter Pearls is pricey. A four-pound package typically sells for $9.99 to $11.99, compared to around $2.50 to $5 for a 20-pound bag of regular clay litter. Schlueter said his product is more economical because one bag of Litter Pearls normally lasts a month, whereas a cat owner might have to lug home up to 30 or 40 pounds of regular or clumping litter a month.
Also, when a cat tracks or knocks conventional Litter Pearls out of its litter box, the beads can roll a long way (covered boxes and/or mats underneath reduce the problem). While regular litter tracked to other parts of the home might just look like sand, a Litter Pearl found in another room is clearly a Litter Pearl. To address that problem, Harvest Ventures just introduced a reduced tracking version with a shape that doesn't roll.
Still, Litter Pearls have won praise from cat owners and the industry alike.
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