Pet food safety is an all-encompassing proposition, covering everything from raw materials to equipment to packaging and even to the customer’s doorstep and beyond. As a result, anything from testing to technology is fair game when it comes to advancements in keeping the end consumer — pets — safe.
“The hazards most likely to occur in the manufacturing of pet foods fall into three broad categories — biological hazards, chemical hazards and physical hazards,” said Dr. John Hanlin, vice president of food safety research, development and engineering at Ecolab, a global leader in water, hygiene and infection prevention solutions and services. “In 2021 and 2022, there were recalls of pet food linked to all three categories. The primary biological hazard associated with recalls was Salmonella while the main chemical hazards linked to recalls were mycotoxin (produced by some molds) and elevated levels of vitamin D. Physical hazards can include glass and metal fragments.”
Non-equipment pet food safety measures
Raw materials are inherently a significant food safety concern, as that’s where hazards such as pathogens can sneak into the manufacturing process.
“The food safety challenges in pet food are as diverse as the feeds and feed manufacturing processes themselves,” said Rob Ames, director of business development for Corbion, which delivers sustainable solutions for the preservation of food and food production. “Raw materials can contain gram negative pathogens like Salmonella. If these are not fully addressed by the kill step of cooking or extrusion and contained to the pre-cook production area, they can pose a hazard to the final product. Beyond this, there is the potential for contamination by Listeria in the post-process environment or toxin formation by spore formers not adequately addressed in process. Each of these can be in-part mitigated by ingredient or processing aid solutions that work within or on the feed itself.
“Pet foods can be formulated with feed ingredients that inhibit and sometimes reduce pathogens in or on pet foods,” said Ames. “Many of these are dually manufactured for human use and can be used in pet food products labeled as human grade.”
More broadly, having a robust sanitation standard operating procedure (SSOP) can address a lot of potential problems before they have a chance to materialize. According to Justin Kerr, owner and manager of Factor IV Solutions, which offers sanitation consulting and pathogen problem solving, among other services, here are the top three things to consider when you’re developing or updating your SSOP:
- Can the procedure be completed repeatably? “Often companies overlook the details related to the SSOP and write procedures that require time, utilities and resources that challenge the ability for the procedure to be repeatable,” said Kerr.
- Alternately, is the SSOP too generic to be useful? “[Some] companies will write a generic SSOP that does not include the details and leaves employees solving the solutions to achieve clean,” said Kerr. “The results are good until the employee leaves and then they realize the SSOP doesn’t fill the void in training.”
- Are instructions specific enough to be understandable? For example: “Companies will refer to ratios and ppm’s when referencing chemical concentrations,” said Kerr. “This often does not translate to mixing chemicals. For non-EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) registered products, we always ask customers to reference oz./gallons so employees can titrate and adjust with knowledge of how they can resolve (more or less oz./gallons).”
Equipment solutions: Sanitizing the space and killing pathogens
The equipment involved in the production of pet food plays a vital role in the overall safety of the final product. That puts equipment manufacturers at the front lines of food safety, fielding questions pertaining to all steps of the process.
“A substantial portion of food safety questions [from our clients] have been surrounding the coating systems and how their current SSOPs can be improved to further prohibit the potential growth of pathogens,” said Will Henry, R&D and SQF (Safe Quality Food program) consultant, and Jay Pokorny, innovation group leader, at extrusion equipment supplier Extru-Tech. “Our equipment, and more importantly our process solutions, addresses the top food safety concerns quite well. As our response team initially begins investigating these issues and events, we try to first get an overall picture of the culture and landscape of the facility/process. For our team, we look to formulate a partnership in the projects … not execute a service call.”
Keeping the machinery itself clean is a big step in ensuring the safety of the product it’s manufacturing, which means equipment companies have to be ready with sanitizing-related questions.
“Cablevey’s pet food clients ask questions like, ‘How do you clean the conveyor and how do you verify it is clean?’” said Caleb Stout, national sales director at Cablevey Conveyors, which designs and manufactures tubular drag and cable materials handling equipment and systems. “The answer to that depends on whether they need a wet clean or dry clean capability. For dry clean, customers may run the sponge through and sanitize it, but that isn't done very often in the pet food industry. For wet clean, the conveyor can be fully CIP (cleaned In place) and verified by swab tests at the inlet and discharge points of the conveyor.”
Staying on top of designs and constant improvement are keys to remaining successful in equipment-related food safety.
“Our current designs are constantly under review with a primary focus to reduce the need for mechanical spreaders, mechanical bed grids, minimize internal access for maintenance and sanitation, reduce internal corners or ledges, and support structures to reduce labor/effort to facilitate efficient SSOP execution,” said Henry and Pokorney.
Heat plays a big role in the majority of pet food processing and thus pet food safety, which is where companies like Radio Frequency, which provides industrial RF processing systems for the rapid heating, drying, curing, disinfestation and pasteurization of food products and industrial materials, come in.
“In the human food industry, companies like Pepperidge Farm have used our RF equipment as a post-bake drying step for years,” said Lisa Mitchell, vice president of marketing for Radio Frequency. “And with the advent of the Food Safety Modernization Act, we’ve installed numerous pasteurization systems for dry ingredients being sold as low microbe count material for use in products like ready-to-eat items. We do regular kibble pet foods, but the freeze-dried offerings have exploded for us. I think the higher dollar value of this material … has brought a lot of these manufacturers to us.”
What’s coming for pet food safety
As pet food safety needs become more complex, those involved in providing solutions must be able to stay on top of demands.
“Moving forward, we do see some minor changes with the equipment,” said Henry and Pokorny. “Considering that the industry has access to aseptic preconditioning, the EMV (environmental monitoring program) for CCP (critical control point) diversion, sanitary hoods and a full complement of ancillary equipment/instrumentation to facilitate food security, there is little room for revolutionary inventions. However, we do feel there is growth potential for food safety services.”
Of course, digitization and automation are pushing all segments of the industry forward, and safety is no exception.
“The push to the digital era is the most recent evolution in food safety,” said Dr. Jeremy Adler, senior research, development and engineering program leader for Ecolab. “The digital era encompasses the automation of processes and the digitization of food safety programs. More importantly, it is the linking and sharing of information between these two components. Historically, food safety has been reactive. Initiatives such as HACCP and preventative controls have pushed the industry to have a proactive approach to food safety. However, it has been difficult to implement with archaic manual systems and paper records. The move to digital allows the industry to become more proactive and prevent potential food safety issues.”
FDA reports on pet food inspections in 2022