Catering to the Pet Food Market

By Phil Tunbridge, The Nutro Company

As someone who has been involved with the rendering industry for a fairly short period of time (six years), I have been struck by three lasting impressions. The first is that renderers around the world are an enthusiastic group dedicated to making high quality products with the raw materials available to them and are, in a sense, the ultimate recyclers. Second, quality and foreign objects are issues no matter where the rendering plant is located. Renderers must understand a pet food customer’s requirements and why food safety and risk assessment are becoming increasingly important. And third, succession planning at many companies is crucial along with increased ways to attract qualified employees to the rendering industry.

With the growing humanization of pets, renderers need to understand this dynamic and be willing to adapt and change with the pet food industry. This is necessary to ensure that customer and consumer requirements are met and understood.

I first stepped foot into a rendering plant in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, in 2007. Since then, I have become a passionate advocate for the rendering industry. Yes, the process smells and is not a “sexy” job, but rendering plays a critical role in turning the unwanted streams from the food chain into important value-added ingredients for the pet food and feed industries. That first visit got me hooked on the industry and I now enjoy touring rendering plants to see how raw materials are processed, learning something new from each visit.

Often when people stop at my desk and see a sample of meal sitting out, they want to understand where, how, and from what the meal was made. After they smell the sample, they’re typically surprised when they find the meal does not have an unpleasant odor. I use this moment to educate people in the pet food business about the rendering industry, our company’s suppliers, and the importance of renderers to pet food manufacturers. It also provides a good opportunity to explain about the sustainability of our environment as all of these inedible materials could be going to a landfill.

Over the last five or six years, I have been fortunate to step foot in close to 60 rendering plants in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Holland, and, most recently, the United States, working with species as diverse as lamb, venison, duck, turkey, salmon, menhaden, beef, pork, and, of course, chicken. Whether the process is batch, continuous, high temperature, or low temperature, most renderers I have met are proud of their facilities and keen to show off their plant.

To someone who purchases processed animal proteins and fats to transform into high quality pet food products, I am always impressed walking into a clean plant with a manager or owner who is proud of their facility, the ingredients they produce, and their staff, who in turn are equally as proud. One of the first things I look for in getting a sense of how a facility is run and the quality of product the renderer will produce is how passionate and knowledgeable the manager and staff are about the plant and its products.

Rendering plants that are clean and tidy on the outside, with no spare screw conveyors, parts, wood, bins, etc., lying around, and staff who are in clean (or as clean as possible) work attire also make a huge first impression. It leaves a customer with a sense of how the inside of the plant is going to look and the quality of this supplier’s material. Product from a plant that looks in disarray will leave a customer with the impression that even though the product may meet specification, the renderer is not concerned about how their plant looks. This could lead a customer to question the safety, palatability, and, ultimately, the quality of the rendered product.

The quality of the raw materials into the rendering stream affects the quality of the products out of the cooker or dryer. For a pet food ingredient buyer, quality and food safety are the top concerns when evaluating a new or existing supplier.

Factors that affect quality include the following.

1. Raw material: Fresher is better. Biogenic amines that are formed from decaying raw materials cannot be cooked out and cause palatability issues, pet sickness, and, in some cases, death.

2. Salmonella: While it can be controlled with a kill step during the cooking process, recontamination after the dryer or cooker and then introducing this to a pet food facility can have a number of flow-on effects for the pet food manufacturer. When I learned that Salmonella, when not controlled properly at either the renderer or pet food manufacturing facility, can cause serious illness and a greater risk of death, I took my role in purchasing dry meals and the quality of suppliers more seriously. Buyers need to understand their purchasing decisions have a direct impact on the finished products being produced.

3. Peroxide value: Unstable or incorrectly stabilized fat in meals cause the fat to go rancid and has a direct link to unpalatable notes in dried pet food. This has a negative impact on the consumer experience when the consumer’s dog or cat turns its nose up and walks away from the bowl. In addition, peroxide value has a direct link to shelflife of the finished pet food product.

4. Foreign objects: Whether it be plastic gloves, weasand clips, ear tags, aprons, knives, hammer mill screens, boluse capsules, or combo liners, pet food manufacturers do not want these “added extras” in the finished ingredients. It is never a good experience to hear from a consumer that they have multi-colored kibble due to plastic pieces, or kibble that looks like a World War II shipping mine with numerous pieces of metal sticking out of it just waiting to do damage to the soft internal organs of a dog or cat.

Over the last two to three years, renderers providing ingredients to the pet food market have started to take the comments and concerns of pet food manufacturers more seriously. Renderers are now actively working to improve the quality of their raw material inputs, whether it is incorporating chilled transport or removing plastic from incoming streams before it arrives at the rendering plant. There is a growing cultural change among many renderers, a desire to improve their quality as a way to set themselves apart from their competitors. The result is better quality ingredients. This is critically important because a renderer’s finished ingredient is the pet food manufacturer’s starting ingredient.

In my opinion, rendering sometimes seems like a black art with all of the knowledge held in the heads of those that run the rendering plants. It is a real skill to take a little of this and a little of that, mix it up, and cook it to a customer’s often demanding requirements. In many cases, these guys have been doing it for years and know by just looking at a press cake, the tallow color, or the smell in the plant whether they are running to specification and maximum efficiency. At some point, and soon for some, these experienced, wise, all-knowing heads are going to leave the industry to enjoy a well-earned retirement. One concern is how this lost knowledge will be replaced, as this may directly impact a particular plant or the consistency of a plant. Consistency is crucial in pet food finished products.

In some plants there are younger people coming through, but attracting talent to a business that is hot, sweaty, and often smelly (I have had my fair share of wrinkled noses in an airport while waiting for a plane after visiting a rendering plant) is not an easy task. Talent needs to be developed and then retained in the rendering industry. That knowledge then needs to be passed on in a coherent manner to ensure that the black art secrets are not lost.

As demand for quality animal proteins and fats continue to grow in the pet food market, I see succession planning and talent retention as two of the biggest challenges for the rendering industry in the next five to 10 years. Driving cultural change and innovation, retaining existing staff, and actively planning for succession will ensure that the rendering industry continues to grow and supply high quality, affordable ingredients to the pet food and feed industries. I have seen many positive changes in the rendering industry in the short time I have been involved, and am pleased to see renderers are taking their role in the supply chain seriously.

Being willing to adapt and change depending on a customer’s requirements and ever-increasing food safety demands leaves the rendering industry with the best possible chance for survival and growth into the future.

October 2012 RENDER | back