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Purina Offers Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Iowa Factory to Pet Media

Purina execs talk about their passion for pets and the quality in every bag, bowl and bite, as Nestlé Purina opens its Clinton, Iowa, factory to members of the pet media for the first time.


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Stars whirl about axes, pulling smaller bodies into their orbits while emitting light. Nestlé Purina PetCare Co.’s pet food factory in Clinton, Iowa, is like that too. 

The plant is a universe unto itself, drawing in 350 employees, 335 ingredients and a host of top-notch suppliers, while creating jobs and putting out what company officials assert are nutritionally sound products backed by decades of science.

Members of the pet trade media recently converged on Clinton for the second-ever Behind the Bowl Symposium and first-ever media factory tour, during which Purina officials shared with attendees a behind-the-scenes view of the company’s manufacturing processes. 

“It’s one thing to talk about our passion and quality, but it’s another to share it in person by opening our doors and demonstrating some of the 100,000 quality checks that occur across our network of U.S. factories daily and by meeting [our] people,” said John Bear, vice president, manufacturing.

Media day began in the Clinton conference room with the employees going around and introducing their pet families. 

Names like Luna, Dan, King Tut, Jack, Lucy, Lou, Emma and Lola tumbled into the ether.  

The point being that the assembled St. Louis and Clinton execs are pet owners as well as Purina consumers and would never feed their four-legged family members anything that was unsafe or not nutritious.

“The people really have a passion for what they do here,” said Roger Brecht, Clinton plant manager. “They treat every bag, every pouch, every pallet as if it’s going to their pet family.” 

Made in the Heartland

The Clinton factory has been a companywide driver of product development since its founding in 1969, and over the past five years, Purina has poured $60 million into the plant, including a new small-bag packaging line plus several new storage locations.

Clinton is the “primary factory for dry pet food and treats innovation and renovation” and produces more than 100 products, Bear said.

“We’ll make it here, we’ll perfect it, we’ll get scale, we’ll build that capability into other manufacturing sites, and then we’ll push it out,” he said. 

Beggin’ Strips, a popular treat item, for example, was pioneered and launched at Clinton.

“It’s kind of nice, you roll in here at 6:30 or 7 o’clock each morning and smell bacon,” said Brecht.

As impressive as walking the factory floor is, it’s the backstory, as told by those who’ve come up through the ranks, that makes the Clinton narrative pop. 

“If nutrition isn’t being met, it’s all for naught,” Bear said.

The goal of nourishing today’s pets with quality food is the subtext that informs everything Purina does, the company’s officials attest. 

“I get inspired every day by what we can learn more about nutrition … so we help pets live long, happy lives,” said Dr. Janet Jackson, Ph.D., vice president and director of research. 

When Dr. Jackson first started at Purina, she combed through old research files to learn about the company’s history of innovation.

“That’s what we want scientists to do when they come into Purina—to get the culture and the passion for the research that’s been done before them … with different scientists who have come and gone and retired,” she said.

Jackson started at Purina in 1990 and shortly thereafter met Doug Hale, who created Dog Chow, the first extruded dog food, in 1957, and Cat Chow, the first extruded cat food, in 1962.

“I got to meet him, so that was pretty impactful for a new employee in the company, seeing this person who developed this process of putting the ingredients together and using steam and pressure to cook them and really unlock the nutrition of those ingredients,” she said.

Science Culture

Purina relies on its 500-plus veterinarians, animal behaviorists, immunologists, chemists, molecular biologists, food scientists, palatability experts and other specialists to generate the research behind its product development. And yet, upward of 50 percent of Purina’s nutrition research is not involved directly in developing a product, noted Dr. Brian Zanghi, Ph.D., senior research nutritionist. 

“And that’s really the crux for us, proving that it is about the value of providing what’s best for the pet,” Zanghi said.

Purina’s landmark 14-year longevity study is an example of putting pets first. 

The study followed 48 Labrador retrievers from eight weeks of age through end of life; the study found that dogs in a lean-fed group outlived their littermates by an average of 1.8 years, suggesting that feeding dogs smaller quantities of food had potential health benefits for the animals.

As findings from the study started appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Zanghi recalls, people incredulously questioned Purina: “You want us to sell less dog food?” 

Indeed, out of the study came Purina’s nine-point Body Condition Score System, which upended the archetypal roly-poly puppy image, thought to be healthy 40 years ago.

“We actually did adjust all of our feeding guidelines across all of our products, and the entire industry followed,” said Daniel Henke-Cilenti, director of marketing. 

Naturally, it’s a win for everyone when research leads to a nutritional innovation for pets that has strong commercial possibilities too, as happened when Purina scientists showed that the probiotic BL999 reduces anxiety in dogs.

“We are very excited about that,” Jackson said. “It will help a lot of pets.”

New Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Supplement Calming Care is a prescription-only powder that is sprinkled on a dog’s food and is proven to lower cortisol levels and reduce anxious behaviors after six weeks.  

Quality Ways

At the factory level, science is the baseline. 

Every existing product, every new product innovation, every product renovation produced at the Clinton factory is predicated on a science-backed recipe direct from Purina headquarters in St. Louis.

In its simplest terms, Jason Christoffersen, vice president, technical services, likens the manufacturing of the more than 100 products made at the factory in Clinton to baking cakes.
It starts with a recipe and “wholesome raw materials.”

“The recipe … that’s what allows us to take a very complex science from our research field and translate that to every bag, every bowl and every bite,” Christoffersen said.

After being formulated by nutritionists in St. Louis, a recipe is going “to be part of a bigger recipe that tells us what specific packaging supplies we should be using for that product, it’s going to tell us what equipment we should run, etc.,” said Candace Claeys, Clinton quality manager. 

After receiving, ingredients are batched, or mixed, together using Clinton’s multimillion-dollar micro minor batching system, which has been operational going on six years now, and which Christoffersen refers to as “measuring spoons and measuring cups” but “just on a little bit different scale.”

Clinton runs more daily quality assurance checks—a whopping 8,500—than any of Purina’s other 19 factories.

“This plant is more complicated,” Henke-Cilenti said. “We do a lot more testing here, so, therefore, they have more quality checks.”  

Inspections don’t only happen “after the fact,” Bear emphasized. “It’s built in; it’s part of the process.”

Of a myriad of quality checks run daily at Clinton and overseen by Claeys and her team, the testing of recipes is “one of the behind-the-scenes, automated quality checks going on all the time.”

“All of our raw materials are actually labeled with a bar code. If we scan that material and if that bar code doesn’t align with what should be in that recipe, it is going to stop us right there,” she said.

The thousands of daily quality checks in Clinton include load inspections of delivery vehicles; mycotoxin testing of grain shipments; nutritional verification; product being automatically diverted from extrusion if the temperature falls beneath a certain threshold; operators looking for irregularities in the kibble; and finished product samples being tested in Clinton’s microbiology and chemistry labs.

“We have an in-process specification for every one of our products telling us everything we should know about the product, from the size, shape, thickness of the kibble to moisture, bushel weight, etc., and our operators are looking at these things,” Claeys added.

One of the more interesting quality checks involves near-infrared (NIR) fingerprinting. 

A probe is inserted into an ingredient like cheese powder, which it scans and compares to a profile of what cheese powder is supposed to look like. If results are not conclusive, the ingredient is rejected or sent to a third-party lab for further testing.

“Operators are trained to understand all of the different requirements for all of the products that we have,” Claeys added.

The attention to detail “doesn’t stop at the four factory walls,” Christoffersen said. “We go out to suppliers and farmers on the front end. We also go out to retailers and customers.”

Purina suppliers go through a rigorous process of sample testing, site assessments and yearly visits, whether it’s a pumpkin farm in Illinois or an Alaskan fishing vessel.

“We know that the best way to protect our products is to prevent problems from coming in the door in the first place, so that’s why our ingredient programs are so strong and we’re so diligent about the testing we do in ingredient receiving,” Claeys said.

Traceability is the watchword of any good quality-assurance program.

“Every package has a date code printed on that package, and we use that to trace all the way back to what suppliers have supplied our ingredients in that package and all the way forward to where we’ll ship that product and which retailer’s shelves it will be on,” Claeys explained. “Quality checks are integrated into every single step of our process.” 

And as another failsafe, all Clinton employees are empowered to shut down a line if something seems off.

The company’s approach appears to be working, because in the past 10 years, the state and U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have inspected the Clinton facility 32 times with no observations or violations, according to Bear. 

Claeys added, “nothing is able to ship out of this factory until our quality assurance department has given the green light.”

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