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The Team Approach: Making Pet Food More Human

Jan. 2, 2019
Many of the same concerns and demands for human nutrition are reflected in what owners want for their pets.

“Awww…he thinks he’s people.” And well he might, considering the food he’s getting.

Appealing to owners’ taste buds has always been standard strategy for pet food marketers. But it seems like each year, the “humanization” of pet food gets carried to new heights. If it appeals to people, chances are that somewhere, someone will apply it to food for dogs, cats and other furred or feathered companions.

Perhaps the broadest such trend is toward natural ingredients. Owners are eschewing artificial ingredients in pet food as surely as in the food they buy for themselves. This tendency no doubt received a boost from high-profile scandals about tainted pet food, the worst being the 2007 melamine contamination in pet food ingredients sourced in China. (See “A Look Back at a Scandal” in the sidebar below)

According to a survey by market research firm GfK, about 78 percent of new pet foods and treats marketed during 2017 made “natural” claims. The second-highest claim for new products was “grain-free,” at 53 percent.

In a high-profile manifestation of the drive toward natural pet foods, Petco, one of the largest pet care retailers in America, announced in November that it will phase out food or treats with any kind of artificial ingredients by next May. CEO Ron Coughlin said in an interview with Fox Business, “If you think about the pet we love, do we want ethanol to be served to them? Do we want sulfur dioxide?”

Pet gourmets

Another sign of the drive toward natural ingredients is the proliferation of boutique pet food companies with gourmet ingredients. Snif-Snax Inc. (www.snifsnax.com) boasts that its products have only two ingredients: smoked salmon and sweet potatoes.

Many pet food brands appeal to the owners’ desire to provide premium, pure ingredients.

“The most important fact about Snif-Snax is that it evolved from a leading global producer of smoked salmon products which supplies restaurants, hotels, retailers and cruise lines around the world,” says acting COO Chris Hlubb. “Thus, our product comes from trimmings from those facilities which are making the salmon we enjoy and provide daily to discerning consumers.”

Snappy Tom Pet Supply (www.snappytom.com) also caters to the natural market, with real fish and meat, no artificial additives and grain-free formulations. “Today there is a demand for true natural ingredients along with human grade non-chemical vitamins and minerals,” says Robert Hernandez, national sales manager. “Pet owners want real meat and fish and no [by]products in their pets’ food.”

Demands that owners are now making on pet food go beyond natural ingredients to get very specific. These include probiotics and other digestion-aiding ingredients, as well as formulations that are gluten-free, protein-rich, non-GMO and include omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine/chondroitin and more. A continuing popular trend is micro-targeted nutritional benefits for different kinds of pets, including by age, size, weight, activity level, type of fur, allergies and other conditions and factors.

Processing variety

Processing and packaging methods will have to keep up with this demand for variety in pet foods, as well as broader trends that affect all foods, says Nigel Lindley, business development manager for Ever Extruder (www.everextruder.com).

“Due to significant changes in protein availability and general raw material costs, the tools for flexibility in processing have become more valued,” Lindley says. “Computer control, traceability and, we believe, sustainability will become prominent. As end users become more and more knowledgeble on feeding their pets and also environmentally focused, highlighting this on the bag or packet, to distinguish choice of both producer and product, will be an up-and-coming trend.”

The choice of processing method largely depends on the moisture content of the product—which, in turn, depends on its intended use.

Clextral’s Evolum+ twin screw extruder features a preconditioner mounted on top that starts cooking product before it enters the extruder barrel.

Freeze-dried pet food is an established but niche category, mostly used for higher-end, high-protein products. Frozen food is even more niche, due to its expense and the fact that it’s mostly carried in retail stores dedicated to pet food. It’s considered a “gourmet” item, sometimes used as a “topping” or additive to dry food. An alternative method is air-drying, usually used for meat-based pet food and chewy treats. Air-dried meats have a relatively long shelf life and usually don’t need to be reconstituted with water.

Wet food is either retorted in solid cans or extruded, usually in meat-heavy formulations with about 60 to 70 percent moisture. Extrusion allows the product to be cooked, then packaged in aseptic pouches, an increasingly popular option.

The dry facts

But dry pet food is still by far the most popular kind. More than 80 percent of the pet food sold in the U.S. is dry dog food like kibble, according to GfK. And the great majority of that is extruded.

One of the biggest advantages of extrusion is that it allows the product to cook while forming, by heat that’s either generated through friction or introduced externally. Not only is this faster and more energy-efficient; it cooks the food more thoroughly and safely, improves digestibility due to factors like increased gelatinization of starches, and allows more options for appealing product shapes.

“As a continuous processing tool, the extruder performs feeding, mixing, cooking, flavoring and shaping, in an enclosed, precisely controlled environment that ensures product consistency and process reliability,” says Gilles Maller, vice president of sales at Clextral Inc. (www.clextral.com).

The choice between mechanical and external heat, almost always steam, as an energy source in an extruder is sometimes driven by cost factors instead of processing considerations. Galen Rokey, director of process technology for the companion animal division of Wenger Manufacturing (www.wenger.com), says that, in most cases, externally supplied heat costs about half as much as mechanical energy. Some Wenger extruders come with “thermal twin technology,” which enables users to introduce steam heating per their preference.

A Look Back at a Scandal

The pet food contamination incident of 2007 was one of the worst tainted-food scandals in recent history. 

It started in the early spring of 2007 when Menu Foods, a contract manufacturer of pet food based in Streetsville, Ontario, found dogs and cats dying of renal failure after routine internal product testing. Menu Foods notified the FDA and instituted a recall that eventually comprised more than 100 brands of dog and cat food, including such prominent ones as Nestlé Purina and Hill’s Science.

To this day, it’s inconclusive how many pets were killed by tainted food, or even what the exact cause was. Estimates for pet deaths range up to 8,500, but the FDA has confirmed only 14 cases, largely because there wasn’t a nationwide database for pet illness.

The FDA found melamine, an industrial chemical often used in plastics manufacturing, in pet food samples and traced it to wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China for pet food ingredients. However, because melamine is non-toxic in isolation, the FDA has never declared definitely that it was the cause of any pet deaths, instead suggesting that it may have caused the deaths due to interaction with cyanuric acid, another industrial compound.

In the wake of the scandal, the FDA improved its reporting system for pet-food contamination incidents. It also required testing for melamine in human baby food — but not for pet food.

More generally, extrusion allows flexibility in processing, Maller says. “One extruder can process multiple products by varying the production parameters (recipe, cooking temperature, screw configuration, residence time, etc.) and offers great flexibility to process a range of raw materials. This advantage is very important today with the trend of humanization of pet foods that has resulted in many new ingredient formulations.”

This kind of flexibility enables extruded pet food to be made to fit specific pet profiles, such as age, gender, energy requirements and nutritional restrictions, by allowing automated startup and shut down for product changes and simplified changeovers, he says.

Clextral’s innovations to extruders often used for pet food include Preconditioner+ with Advanced Filling Control, which improves the process of precooking the product before it enters the extruder barrel. Among other benefits, this allows pet food processors to add high levels of meat emulsion to the other ingredients prior to extrusion.

Another Clextral innovation is Evolum+ with Advanced Thermal Control, a self-learning technology that monitors process conditions and adjusts to changes to maintain process and product consistency. Maller says this allows for up to 70 percent more process stability and up to 20 percent energy savings.

As pet food becomes more versatile and, yes, more “human,” processing techniques will have to evolve and become more sophisticated to keep pace.

“We all see humanization of pet foods still being a predominant factor in the coming years and the challenges that go with that,” Lindley says. “With demand and supply on proteins and protein quality changing pet food recipes on a regular basis, processing technology is placed at the fore to handle such a wide range of specifications.”

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