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Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Roundtable: Food Safety Issues


Manufacturers of pet consumables say they go to great lengths to ensure no animal is harmed by a product and react quickly if a problem ever arises.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
Pet food safety is a serious issue not only because tainted food and treats can sicken, or even kill, a pet. The other consequence is that an adverse event or a product recall can seriously damage a manufacturer’s reputation and reduce brand loyalty.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser brought together a retailer, two manufacturers and an industry representative to discuss the production, regulation and safety of pet food.

NPPM: The website of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows more than 1,000 recalls of pet food and pet treats since March 2007. Is that many recalls a cause for concern or is the number not that surprising given the volume of food and treats that is produced and sold?

Panelists

Moderators

Nancy K. Cook, vice president of Pet Food Institute Ken Niedziela, editor of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
Lorin Grow, president and owner of Furry Face
Ron Jackson, assistant to the president of Hi-Tek Rations
Jerel Kwek (not pictured) is co-founder and CEO of Addiction Pet Foods, which is headquartered in Singapore and whose U.S. operations are based in Kent, Wash.
Nancy K. Cook: The first thing you have to realize when you look at the FDA’s website is that it’s a list of every pet food recall since the day the FDA first started posting them. We are aware of only one recall now, and we take issue with the fact that there’s any big current safety issue with pet food. Human foods are very interesting creatures; we can get along with one or two recalls a day, and it’s never reported.

Ron Jackson: The pet food industry today produces products that are overwhelmingly superior in terms of safety and quality than the human food products that are on the same shelves in the same store. Hi-Tek has gone 27 years without a recall, and we have a strong feeling that small companies, particularly those that own their manufacturing facilities, possess a concern for detail that greatly reduces the potential for difficulties in food quality and food safety. 

Cook: Ron pointed out that small companies are heavily involved in making sure that the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed, and we believe that to be true. One of the other things we have to remember is that larger manufacturers that sell product all over the United States and in up to 170 other countries have to make sure they are selling a safe, wholesome, healthful product, and they do.

Jerel Kwek: I am convinced that big and small companies can have high food-safety standards if the company’s leadership is committed to a culture and expectation of clean and safe food. As we have recently upgraded our plant, a big focus for Addiction Pet Foods was to ensure that we continue our strong tradition of producing the highest quality foods while we increase our production volumes.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Rountable Participant Nancy Cook
Nancy K. Cook is vice president of the Pet Food Institute and has been with the institute for 15 years. A former feed regulator in Virginia, she earned an animal science degree from Virginia Tech.
NPPM: As a retailer, how much attention do you give to pet food safety and what do you do to ensure that the foods and treats you stock are safe to eat?

Lorin Grow: We research a food and the manufacturer at length. We want to know the company’s history, how long they’ve been making their foods, where they source their ingredients, who they use to manufacture and package their foods, whether they’ve had any recalls and why, and what steps they take to ensure every ingredient and every process utilized along the way is safe. When we finally do decide to carry a brand, we never take for granted that things will remain status quo. We review ingredient panels continually, comparing them to previous ingredient panels to see what, if anything, has changed. We immediately and completely inform our customers of any changes and in what ways their pets might be affected.

NPPM: Do you get many questions from customers regarding food safety?

Grow: We make sure that we have all the answers in advance or that we get back to the client within 24 hours with the answers. A good example is the recent chicken jerky recalls. We immediately contacted every one of our chicken jerky manufacturers, parent companies and distributors to collect as much information as possible, asked whether or not it affected any of their products, and how they were able to ensure that it didn’t. Within 24 hours of our taking proactive steps to seek out information on all of the chicken jerky products we carry, customers started calling or coming in to ask whether they needed to worry about what they had purchased from us. We were able to succinctly and calmly answer their questions and allay their concerns immediately.

NPPM: What does the Pet Food Institute do to assist its members with safety issues?

Cook: The things we do include keeping manufacturers advised of all applicable state, federal and, in some cases, local laws and regulations. We represent about 98 percent of the product in the marketplace—not 98 percent of the companies, but 98 percent of the product found on pet food shelves. So we work very, very hard to make sure they have every opportunity to understand what’s required. We advise when we know of outbreaks of microtoxins so we can help them avoid purchasing products from those areas.

NPPM: What do Hi-Tek and Addiction do to ensure the safety of their product lines?

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Roundtable Participant Lorin Grow
Lorin Grow is president and owner of Furry Face, a Redlands, Calif., dog and cat boutique that also offers pet services. Furry Face was named Pet Product News International’s 2011/2012 Retailer of the Year in the category Outstanding Pet Care Services.
Jackson: We do a lot of things. A few years ago we engaged a nationally known consultant to look at our plant and say, “Here’s things you could do better.’ We spent several million dollars doing those things, and then we passed an American Institute of Baking audit on our first attempt. When you enter our campus, which is about 68 acres, you are surrounded by traps every 10 feet to get any field mice, rodents or anything that might be attracted to the building. When you enter any door, you go through scrubbers to clean your feet, and you get into a uniform and put a hairnet on. The founder of our company, Leonard Powell, is fond of saying that the hairnet probably doesn’t save us from very many stray hairs, but it puts every employee in the mindset that we’re making food.

Kwek: Addiction’s manufacturing plant is located in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, which has probably the world’s highest food safety standards. This is attributed to the quality of raw materials as well as the strict food processing standards enforced by the New Zealand Food and Safety Authority. Animals are raised in free-range environments and are pasture-fed and free from artificial hormones, and this results in healthier, less stressed animals with fewer diseases. In order to export our foods, we have to implement a comprehensive HACCP [Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points] process which includes testing raw materials, cleanup procedures, time and temperature processing requirements, and testing on finished products. We have critical control points in our manufacturing line, and we test our foods throughout the production process—from raw materials to finished goods.

NPPM: Are the precautions taken at Hi-Tek and Addiction typical of the pet food industry?

Cook: The United States probably has the best pest control of any food-related industry anywhere in the world. We recommend that everybody in the pet food plant, from the guy who’s signing the checks to the fellow who happens to be crawling under a piece of equipment to fix it, understand that we are working with food.

NPPM: Please talk more about the safety measures in place at Hi-Tek and Addiction.

Jackson: Hi-Tek has invested heavily in containerization so we can separate incoming ingredients by truckload and batch. We have an in-house laboratory that conducts all of our tests on incoming products, and a truck will not be unloaded until its ingredients have passed the test. We are not putting into our manufacturing chain anything that has not met laboratory specifications. If we discover a problem, we discover it before it gets manufactured or, because we have metal detectors and other detectors, before and after bagging. We will certainly discover it before it’s ever loaded. All those things are very expensive, but they’re requisite if you’re going to have any kind of credibility with the public.

Kwek: The approach at Addiction is to prevent potential food safety issues by putting in place strict controls in our manufacturing process. We have a quality-assurance team and an in-house laboratory that actively identifies potential issues before any food is shipped. Our testing is very comprehensive and covers macro- and micronutrients, heavy metals, bacterial and fungal contaminants. We build a food safety and quality culture by highlighting to our team that everyone plays a part—not just the QA team—in producing the best possible pet food. This ensures that our entire company is aligned to identify issues before they become safety or quality problems.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Participant Ron Jackson
Ron Jackson is assistant to the president of Hi-Tek Rations. He has been associated with the pet food industry since 1973, when he served as the marketing, advertising and public relations counsel for Iams Food (now The Iams Co.). While at Hi-Tek Rations he has led the marketing of three lines of premium pet food for independent pet retailers.
NPPM: Are improvements needed in how pet food recalls are communicated to retailers and consumers?

Cook: Companies that have recalls notify their customers right away.  The FDA works with the company to write a press release that’s worded properly. In my experience, most companies post to their websites right away. We all know about instant news media, and it seems like that’s becoming a more popular way for news media to publicize those recalls. We have developed, and are continuing to develop, individual streams of communication with customers, and I’ll guarantee you we do a better job now than we did before 2007. When the 2007 recall happened, there was no test to detect melamine or its related compounds because nobody had ever thought about having it in a food product. You’d have thought that those folks in China would have understood, but sure enough, the next year the problem was that it was being used in infant formulas, and it had an impact on the health of infant children in China.

Jackson: The mechanisms do exist. It’s essential that any company have a crisis plan handy to allow them to quickly reach all the people who need to be told of the recall. Hi-Tek has such a plan, and I’m sure many other companies do, too, and it needs to be looked at every month. In 27 years we haven’t had to use it, but it’s nice to know that there is a plan.

Kwek: Our company prides itself on being transparent and open to our customers. Our customers entrust us to produce safe and wholesome food for their pets, and they deserve accurate and timely information should issues arise. We have a product recall plan to ensure a rapid response to problems should they arise, and we identify our foods through batch numbers so there is a high level of traceability. We also make an effort to keep communication channels with our customers as open and accessible as possible through our website, Facebook and customer hot line.

Grow: I don’t think you can have too many reporting avenues. We get notifications from distributors, manufacturers and various reporting agencies. I can honestly say we haven’t had to deal much with recalls. We’re so picky about what foods and treats we carry that we’ve only had to remove something once.

NPPM: Are small and large food manufacturers treated equally when they deal with inspectors and regulators?

Cook: The Pet Food Institute represents huge multinationals and small local and regional companies. We work really, really hard with the regulators, we work closely with AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] and we work closely with the FDA to help them make fair but reasonable rules for everyone.

NPPM: What kind of government inspections are done at Hi-Tek and Addiction, and how often do they occur?

Jackson: It’s very seldom at Hi-Tek. We have had visitors from FDA and AAFCO, but as far as the typical compliance, the real microscope comes from AIB.

Kwek: The New Zealand Food and Safety Authority conducts very detailed audits, and we are very proud of the fact that we have passed previous audits with flying colors. We also conduct internal audits and even open up our plants to auditing by our customers. We recently had a large, safety-oriented Japanese customer visit and conduct a two-day audit, and they remarked that they were very impressed with many of the steps we had put in place to ensure food safety and quality.

Cook: In many cases, a company calls in a third-party auditor. The reason is that an inspector, either from FDA or USDA, spends his time in the problem places. Under the new Food Safety Modernization Act, you’ll see a difference in the inspection frequency that will be required between a low-risk plant and a high-risk plant. And the reason for that is, for example, Ron hasn’t had a recall in 27 years. He sends his labels to every state in which he markets his product, and they’re reviewed by each of those states’ department of agriculture. Or in some cases, they’re located out of an agriculture school. So Hi-Tek is receiving a broad amount of overall regulation checks, but you mostly only go into a facility if you have a reason. The reason might be that you have a complaint, or it might fall in your set of companies to go inspect this week.
 
NPPM: Any closing thoughts?

Jackson: I have been in the industry since 1973. I’ve worked for some of the largest pet food manufacturers and I’ve worked for smaller companies like Hi-Tek Rations. I’m just going to say that you don’t need to be concerned because a product comes from a small manufacturing company. In our case, and I think in the case of others, the standards are every bit as high as the biggest companies in the world.

Cook: This industry has safety as its No. 1 priority. When you compare human food to pet food, it’s obvious that our products fail much less often than human products do. We’re really lucky that our companion animals are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. An awful lot of that is based on the terrific nutrition that they’re receiving from pet foods that meet the requirements set by AAFCO, and now upcoming by FDA, and through the care of well-trained veterinarians.

Grow: Trust is a huge deal. Once your customers have it for you, it’s a sacred responsibility. If lost, it’s rarely regained and certainly never at the level it once was. If you respect it and honor that trust, you will choose the right foods and treats to offer your customers, who will buy it just because they know that “if you carry it and you recommend it, I know it must be good.” We’re fortunate to hear that almost every day.

This roundtable discussion orginally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.

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