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Pets 101

The Quest for Quality: Piecing Together Pet Food Manufacturing

October 1, 2009 by Tails Magazine in Food, October 2009 with 0 Comments

By Morgan McMillan

Pet Food Detail

There’s a lot of mystery behind what goes into pet food long before it makes it to the store and into your home. But much of the cryptic jargon that pet food manufacturers speak can be broken down for the everyday pet parent who only really cares that his or her pets are happy and healthy.

With multiple pet food recalls as recently as 2007, pet guardians have a lot on their plates to think about when it comes to quality assurance and the health of their furry friends. Manufacturing companies have stepped up their game in response to the recalls and are taking as many precautions as they can to prevent them in the future. As a result, the pet food industry has gleaned much from the ingredients of healthy human food for guidance.

“Traceability is a big issue, [as is] sourcing where the ingredients come from,” says Steve Akins, publisher of Petfood Industry magazine.

Many of those companies are starting to go beyond minimum efforts to guarantee quality pet food, with lab testing and inspection certification of their raw ingredients.

“New ways of manufacturing have been uncovered,” Akins says. Now more than ever, food safety is the standard for quality.

What the Consumer Sees

For pet food consumers who can’t make heads or tails of buying food for their pets, there’s not much else besides packaging on which they can base their decision. As a result, the information presented on the labels is of the utmost importance.

Manufacturers, who are aware of this, put great effort toward letting consumers know what actually goes into the food. The more clearly the label reads and the more honest the approach in describing what’s what with the ingredients, the more likely a new pet food buyer will be able to rely on the product.

Additionally, the raw materials that make up the food—the animal fat, dried fruit, vegetables, grains, and meal—are inspected to make sure that what is being guaranteed on the package is fulfilled in terms of nutrient levels and to ensure that no harmful substances have intermingled with the final product. Key wording on packages identify which plants and products are inspected and certified.

Certified for Quality

Organizations that certify pet food manufacturing companies have to evaluate a number of factors, including the food’s ingredients, the cleanliness of the equipment inside the facility, the fumes it emits, if any, and even the work that factory employees are doing.

“Quality starts right at the beginning. … We know if we do a complete quality check on our raw materials then the finished product is going to come out [well],” says Jessica Fowler, quality assurance manager at WellPet pet food manufacturers, based in Mishawaka, IN.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) serve as the major, although not the only, players in the certification of pet food and pet food manufacturing plants. State licensing is also required by law. The FDA regulates all pet food under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FFDCA makes sure that all pet food is safe to eat—that it is produced under sanitary conditions, contains no harmful materials, and is labeled accordingly. The FDA also regulates food labels, which require accurate product identification, quantity statement, ingredient listing, and manufacturer name and location.

USDA certification, on the other hand, is a voluntary program for pet food producers. “Certified pet food is product intended for consumption by dogs, cats, and other meat-eating animals that is manufactured under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS),” according to FSIS spokesperson Brian Mabry.

Certified product means “namely, that the establishment must apply for a grant of inspection with the FSIS administrator and … that the application conforms to and the plant meets with the requirements of [USDA regulation],” says Mabry. “Only those pet food products produced in an FSIS-inspected establishment … are certified pet food products.”

Northwest Naturals manufacturers, because they produce human-food meat products as well as pet food, is one of the few pet food facilities whose plant is required to be USDA inspected.
“Being [USDA] certified as a requirement for human [food] … actually puts us at a higher level” than those who use USDA certification as a voluntary service to manufacture pet food, says Steven Morasch, co-owner of Northwest Naturals raw pet food manufacturer, based in Portland, OR.

For Northwest Naturals, this means that the USDA inspectors are in constant contact with the manufacturers in respect to everything from how the facility is functioning to food temperature control. This is in contrast to other plants that voluntarily employ USDA inspectors to certify their products, wherein inspectors are hired to occasionally inspect the facility, equipment, and product.

Although the FDA regulates most pet food in retail stores, some manufacturers produce their food under voluntary inspection services of the FSIS. In this case, the label has a specific USDA mark of inspection that reads “Packed Under Continuous Inspection of U.S. Dept. of Agri,” with the letter “A” preceding the establishment name, according to Mabry.

Again, “traceability is a big buzz word right now,” Morasch says. And between the FDA and USDA especially, federal inspection—on top of the additional work individual production companies are doing—helps to ensure the testing that will prevent future recalls.

“With USDA looking over our shoulder,” Morasch says, “we can’t bring anything into our facility that you or I wouldn’t be able to eat.”

What Does It All Mean?

“I think that the line between human food and pet food is getting very hazy. … We’re using apples that look like apple chips you’ll see in the store. We’ve tasted the cranberries. They’re the same types of things you’re going to see in Craisins. The oatmeal is basically Quaker Oats,” says Fowler. “The same process that we use to make pet food is the same process used to make cereal.”

“Holistic,” “raw,” and “organic” are common terms we hear when shopping for our own food. But what do these terms mean when applied to pet food?

The word “holistic” indicates a focus on the use of combined vitamins in order to improve a pet’s whole health—physical appearance as well as mental health and overall well-being. Holistic, which is commonly confused with organic, is all about the choice of ingredients, with a particular focus on vitamins and minerals. “Just like if you’ve been taking vitamins and drinking water and taking care of yourself, you’ll see your hair and your nails start looking better, you’ll see it in your [pet] too,” says Fowler. “You can tell that they’re getting that whole health.”

What holistic food lacks from other types of food—and visa versa—balances out because of well-portioned ingredient differences, says John Marsman, nutrition marketing manager at WellPet. “We use fruits and veggies for the holistic line. … We feel that makes a major contribution to the quality of our food and the health that it provides to the animals,” Marsman says.

The term “organic” refers to a farming method, one that involves no cross-contamination of produce and is free of chemicals and pesticides. One-hundred percent organic pet foods must be specially certified based on specifications by the National Organic Program (NOP).

Raw food, on the other hand, takes the “back to nature” approach. A raw diet for pets consists of raw organ meat and raw, edible bones—as opposed to ground bone meal—and minced fruits and vegetables. For raw pet food manufacturers, the goal is to feed pets the way they would eat if they weren’t domesticated.

The jury is still out regarding what is healthier for your pet, and what may work for some people and animals may not be the best for others. But owing to the product testing and extra precautions pet food manufacturers take, “Customers should rest assured,” says Kirk Young, vice president of Precise Pet Products of Texas Farm Products in Nacogdoches, TX. “Most of what’s going into those bags is higher quality than it was 10 or five years ago.”

Pet food manufacturers realize that the consumer’s priority lies in pet health.

“[We talk] a lot about quality, which is very important to us, but there’s quality from a different standpoint,” that standpoint being the pet guardian’s perception of the food quality, Marsman says. “I feel we treat [pet food] with as much respect as what would be going onto our plates at night.”

Pet Food Detail 2

Preventing Pet Obesity

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2008 nearly one in four Americans was overweight. As the human portion of our country finds its health deteriorating each year, pets’ health seems to be going right along with it.

Dr. Sean Delaney, veterinary nutritionist at Davis, CA–based Natura Pet Products, says, “The debate among veterinarians is that pet food is to blame.” Obesity, as one of the leading causes of many human diseases and health problems, seems to be taking the same toll on pets. It’s one of the main killers for animals as well as humans, Delaney says.

Although “cardiac disease is very different in humans than dogs and cats,” according to Delaney, and “[pets] carry cholesterol differently than humans,” obesity, as the root of a host of health problems, is also preventable.

Most pets eat a balanced diet every day because of the balanced nutrients built into pet food. Many guardians tend to overfeed their pets, however. “We don’t realize when our pet is overweight,” says Delaney. “We don’t know where fat accumulates.”

The number-one key to feeding your pet is awareness, Delaney says. A healthier lifestyle and diet are known to increase a pet’s lifespan by almost two years, making portion control of the utmost importance. Even just 10 to 11 extra calories in a meal can equal one pound of an animal’s body weight.

“Simple things are sometimes hard to execute,” even when it comes to our own diets, Delaney says. “One thing people can focus on and do something about: Feed less; exercise more.” Anything we can do to have more time with our pets is crucial, he says.

Universal Health

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2008 nearly one in four Americans was overweight. As the human portion of our country finds its health deteriorating each year, pets’ health seems to be going right along with it.

Dr. Sean Delaney, veterinary nutritionist at Davis, CA–based Natura Pet Products, says, “The debate among veterinarians is that pet food is to blame.” Obesity, as one of the leading causes of many human diseases and health problems, seems to be taking the same toll on pets. It’s one of the main killers for animals as well as humans, Delaney says.

Although “cardiac disease is very different in humans than dogs and cats,” according to Delaney, and “[pets] carry cholesterol differently than humans,” obesity, as the root of a host of health problems, is also preventable.

Most pets eat a balanced diet every day because of the balanced nutrients built into pet food. Many guardians tend to overfeed their pets, however. “We don’t realize when our pet is overweight,” says Delaney. “We don’t know where fat accumulates.”

The number-one key to feeding your pet is awareness, Delaney says. A healthier lifestyle and diet are known to increase a pet’s lifespan by almost two years, making portion control of the utmost importance. Even just 10 to 11 extra calories in a meal can equal one pound of an animal’s body weight.

“Simple things are sometimes hard to execute,” even when it comes to our own diets, Delaney says. “One thing people can focus on and do something about: Feed less; exercise more.” Anything we can do to have more time with our pets is crucial, he says.

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