Pet Food: Transparency and Traceability Behind Every Bite

Keith Singleton is a 21st millennium fisherman. His Seattle-based company owns four Longliner vessels that cost around $35 000 000 to build and are kitted out with all the state-of-the-art bells and whistles including fish-finder sonar technology that allows the crew to color code specific fish and only fish for that particular kind. This technology allows his fishermen to  exclude any by-catch, the term for other kinds of fish swimming alongside in the stormy and treacherous Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Singleton’s boats focus on Alaskan codfish. They are caught and frozen on board and meet all the stringent sustainable requirements of the Marina Stewardship Council.  You will find his Alaskan cod catch in your local Costco and other supermarkets nationwide. And you will also find it in several fish recipes in Purina’s Beyond brand.

It took Singleton six months to get a meeting with Purina and a year to become a certified vendor, a procedure his likens to getting an audience with the Pope.

“It’s not only about the quality of the product,” he explains. “First they need to like the company and what it stands for. In our instance, I think they really liked that we are sincere about being eco-friendly and environmentally safety-conscious. We take great measures to sustain our fishery and dutifully trace every product that come from our ships.”

I got to meet Singleton at Purina’s Clinton, Iowa factory where, for the first time, he was excited to see his product as a recipe ingredient filling bags on the assembly line before the bags were whisked away to the company’s distribution center.

Pet food, alongside the manufacture of baby food in America, is subjected to the strictest quality control and safety measures. It makes perfect sense because pets are our fur kids and what we feed them must be placed in the bowl with the utmost level of confidence that they will be healthy and thrive.

The pet food industry has had some very dark hours. But the industry across the board has learned a lot since the major pet food recall in 2007 when more than 30 000 pets died from tainted foods.  It left pet parents concerned and worrying about what they were feeding their pets. But that was then – more than a decade ago. This is now and  things have changed a lot; it’s all about transparency and traceability.

I was a guest of Purina’s in Clinton for an event called Behind the Bowl to highlight the traceability and accountability for every mouthful that pets ingest at mealtimes across the company’s numerous brands. Stats tell that their recipes are found in three quarters of pet-owning households in the United States with sales across the USA, Canada and Latin America amounting to $9.2 billion in 2017.

That’s a lot of kibble.

Apart from profits, (obviously, this is corporate America and part of the global economy as parent company Nestlé is headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, this also pays for 500 scientists and pet experts on staff worldwide and more than 300 granted and pending patents. It pays for 20 state-of-the-art factories in the US alone with proprietary equipment that they own and use solely for their own purposes (some pet food manufacturers share factories). It pays for decades-long studies like the 14-year study highlighting  the benefits of feeding to a lean body condition to promote life-long health for our beloved furkids and new revelations in probiotics that reduce the stress and cortisol levels in dogs. All the studies are published in peer-reviewed publications which allows smaller companies in the industry to benefit from this knowledge too. So ultimately, all this insight and knowledge goes straight back into the bags and cans.

But getting back to basics. It all starts with ingredients and highly vetted vendors like Keith Singleton because, as Daniel Henke-Cilenti, Purina’s director of marketing explained, “every ingredient has a purpose backed by nutritionists and scientists and the factories are where the company’s passion for pets and quality come together. The factories are where we industrialize our passion and the Clinton factory is an innovative hub. Perfected recipes are then made in other factories dotting around the country.

“With regard to our vendors, we are really tough on sustainability and will only partner with farmers and fisherman who know what’s best for the land. In terms of our factories, we also monitor energy, water and greenhouse gases to ensure we are keeping our planet healthy,” he said.

I believe pet parents are really interested in knowing the history and traceability of ingredients as they go through the production process and into the food bowl. And further, in the age of transparency, we have a right to know.

Obviously, what goes on behind the bowl is far too comprehensive to also fit onto the labeling on a bag or can of food. So, pet parents, here’s the scoop and an opportunity to live vicariously through me and learn what goes onto behind the scenes and take a “traceability tour” as the food makes its way into your pet’s bowl.

On tour on the factory floor. That’s me front and center and Keith Singleton directly behind me.

Dressed in a starched white coat and hard hat, I was invited onto the factory floor at Clinton and saw first-hand how the ingredients list, after the stringent testing by the individual vendors like Singleton, gets a further 700 quality checks that includes NR fingerprinting – in layman’s terms — an ingredient identity test to ensure it is exactly what it’s supposed to be. During the extrusion or cooking process there are 1 500 checks as the food goes through that process. This includes, temperature checks, a moisture check and verification checks on the size and the shape of the kibble.

Quality manager Candace Claeys checks Beggin’ Bacon Strips in her laboratory on the factory floor.

There are 335 ingredients used in the various recipes manufactured in the Clinton plant alone – that breaks down to proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils, fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals. In the actual packaging process, there are 4 600 quality checks including traceability of each ingredient that includes a date code that goes back to supplier once the product reaches the retailer. And, when you extrapolate these checks across the company’s factory network, it adds up to 100 000 quality and traceability checks every day.

In terms of further tractability from a pet parent perspective, every bag or can has a special code  which allows parents ‘insider information’ in that it details the date the product was manufactured, the location of the production, the actual time of production and the actual line in the factory on which it was produced. See how to read these codes for yourself below.

During the event, I got to meet a sampling of those who work behind the bowl – nutritionists, researchers, production managers, factory managers, ingredient procurement managers and the vice president of manufacturing John Bear who has been with the company so long that when he worked on the factory floor in the Eighties, all these checks and balances were written up by hand. Now its buttons on a computer and incredible automation to finish the job. But when they all took off their hard hats, they were all passionate pet people, proudly talking about their pets and bragging with photographs. So, know this when you pick up a bag or food or a packet of treats. There is a true passion and love of pets infused in there too.

But if there was one thing that really impressed me on this factory tour, besides the fact that the factory floor was so clean you could eat off it (unlike the floor in my hotel that had bugs from a nearby cornfield jumping around), it was the fact that everyonewho works in that factory can bring a factory line to a complete halt if they think there is something amiss. False alarms are fine –  no one is counting the dollars or the time it takes to get it back up and running again. It’s better to be safe than sorry…And for me personally, as a very caring and besotted pet parent, this amounts to true piece of mind.

I left the factory smelling of my pooch’s favorite snack Beggin’ Bacon Strips! I actually saw them being manufactured, whizzing along the production line and into bags. I got to take home a bag which probably explained why I got such a great welcome home from Riley. It was difficult to bring any freshly frozen Alaskan cod for the cats. But Mr. Singleton did invite me on board to come fishing. But I’m going to opt for picking up a bag with his fish in it next time I go to the pet store instead. I don’t have sea legs, especially for the gigantic tumultuous waves of the Bering Sea.

I was a guest of the Nestle Purina PetCare Company in Clinton Iowa. However all opinions are my own and  I only write about topics that I consider readers will consider useful information and relevant to their interests as pet parents.















tip of the day

Courtesy: The Kong Company
Courtesy: The Kong Company

Distraction toys such as a Kong can provide additional hours of fun if you stuff it with Ultramix sweet potato or pumpkin puree and freeze the toy until the puree is solid. Be sure to give the stuffed Kong to your dog outside or somewhere where you won’t mind cleaning up the mess – if he doesn’t lick up everything for you! Peanut butter is another great option. Courtesy Kong