We love our pets, especially our canines. According to Statista, an online portal dedicated to gathering myriad statistics, in the States we spend more than $66.75 billion per annum on them, with one of the most consistent expenditures being food.(1) Thankfully, the days of feeding our pooches kitchen scraps and letting them gnaw on bones are long gone and today’s grocery and pet store shelves groan with a rainbow of different brands that promise fundamentally the same thing – from the ‘Love them like family’ of Blue Buffalo to the ‘Healthy Makes Happy’ of Solid Gold. And with each brand and variety offering active nutritional support for every stage of your furry best friend’s timeline, unless you allow Fido to sniff out his own meal plan there are some tough choices to make.
So how can we best narrow down the field to select the perfect brand with the optimal appeal? We turn, of course, to technology. You may not know that Opertech Bio, a company based in Philadelphia, PA, and supported by the Ben Franklin Technology partners of Southeastern PA, has recently been granted a US patent for its ‘high-throughput sensory discrimination technologies.’(2) The portable workstation has the capacity to assess the taste profile of hundreds of samples per hour and is aimed at providing a tool to the multi-billion dollar market that includes food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, flavor ingredients and additives, and pet food. For testing human-grade food, analysts engage with an interactive, gamified system that uses a touch screen to record reactions to taste stimuli. The algorithm behind the system encourages sensory acuity allowing for more precise results. And, given the number of throughput samples, the larger data set offers an improvement in consistency, a broader base, a reduced error margin, and an element of predictive analysis.
Then this year there has been a veritable avalanche of pet food recalls…
All of which is exciting news for the food and beverage industries. But what specifically does it have to do with the matter of pet food? Good question. Let’s approach it from another angle. On balance, the number of pet food recalls seems to be rising, although it’s hard to judge whether it is a question of increasing numbers of short cuts being taken in an expanding market or whether we are developing a greater intolerance of substandard manufacturing practices. In October of last year, we reported on the voluntary recall issued by Mars PetCare US of its CESAR® Classics Filet Mignon Flavor dog food due to a choking hazard.(3) When bite-size pieces of hard white plastic material were found as an added extra in the meal portions intended for small breed dogs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quickly stepped in. Then this year there has been a veritable avalanche of pet food recalls – from salmonella contamination in dog treats from Loving Pets to the presence of pentobarbital in Cocolicious, a canned food from Party Animal. (Note: the drug pentobarbital is a barbiturate, anti-seizure medication that is also used in animal euthanasia. It acts by rendering the animal unconscious prior to shutting down the heart and terminating brain function. Because death is so rapid – typically within one to two minutes of administration – the drug remains within the animal’s system. And the only way it could be detected in commercial animal food is if it entered the food chain via the bodies of euthanized pets. Let’s just take a moment to process that.) Blue Buffalo Company, for instance, recalled a batch of their BLUE Wilderness® Rocky Mountain Recipe™ Red Meat Dinner Wet Food due to elevated levels of thyroid hormones which can cause vomiting, respiratory and cardiac distress in adult dogs. Although the Food and Druig Administration (FDA) was notified of only one dog who was sickened, pulling the product off the shelves was deemed ‘prudent’ and every can in the lot was recalled.
So insofar as the contamination risk for the pet food industry mirrors that of the human food industry, perhaps the solution is also a mirror.
Back in September, we reported on the development of technology that allows meat to be cultured in a laboratory environment. In Clean Meat: Can A Flesh-Based Product Ever Be Considered Contamination-Free?, we explored how Hampton Foods of San Francisco, CA, used the single white feather from a chicken, Ian, to start a cell line that ultimately led to the production of real chicken meat, without the need for an animal.(4) Using a methodology similar to that of brewing beer, Hampton Creek created high quality protein in a process that was 10 times more efficient than an animal slaughterhouse, resulted in a fraction of the greenhouse gas production of conventional animal rearing, allowed for important reductions in land use, and involved no loss of life. And the result is said to be outstandingly delicious.
…Kelleman reviewed the work of companies such as Hampton Creek and Memphis Meats and took up the idea of growing cell-cultured foods.
So perhaps this is a technology that can be repurposed for the pet food industry. Bond Pet Foods, a Colorado-based company, certainly seems to think so and is plowing resources into scaling development. Seeing the market for clean, contamination-free, humane and sustainable pet foods, the company, led by Rich Kelleman, is determined to make the future of pet food different from its past. Uncomfortable with the struggle to identify the sources of ingredients within his own dogs’ food and concerned for the safety of the supply chain, Kelleman reviewed the work of companies such as Hampton Creek and Memphis Meats and took up the idea of growing cell-cultured foods. In an interview with Quarz, a ‘digitally native news outlet [for] creative and intelligent journalism,’ Kelleman notes:
“I thought…it was a bit like science fiction, something that would be cool for the future […] I didn’t think it would have practical application now.”(5)
But it does.
‘“Pet food has always been quick follower to the human food trends,” says pet-food industry consultant Ryan Yamka, who is working with Bond Pets. “So it’s not surprising that you see…what I would call the sustainable- food movement getting into the pet-food side.”’(6)
And how are they doing this? Simple! The key is the use of bioreactors…
Bioreactors are any device or system intended to grow cells within the context of a cell culture. Developed initially for the tissue engineering and biochemical engineering fields, bioreactors divide into three different types: batch, fed batch, and continuous, with the difference tied to how the culture is fed. Organisms within the reactors may be floating in a liquid medium or, as with most engineered tissues, grown upon a supportive substrate. An important example of the latter type – the solid matrix – is NASA’s bioreactor that grows heart tissue, cancerous specimens for analysis, ligaments, and skeletal components. In extremely simplified terms, the process of creating tissue from a cell culture involves three basic stages: upstream processing, which involves hydrolysis, separation of particulate matter, and purification; bioreaction, in which biomass is produced, metabolized, and transformed; and finally downstream processing, in which the solids are separated from the liquids and the two components are either dried or distilled.
So, in the event of a contaminant entering the reactor, the means and cause of the problem must be identified and rectified as swiftly as possible.
And during each stage of the process, it is critical that the reactor operates at an optimal level – achieving a perfect mix of reactor contents, maintaining a constant temperature and density, optimizing flow rate, and of course ensuring a clean feed devoid of biomass in the stream. In terms of tissue engineering, perhaps the greatest threat is that of bacterial contamination which, if undetected can result in the loss of product, time overruns, and costs associated with decontamination and post-event analysis. And then there’s the question of compliance. Time spent defending a process to the Food and Drug Administration will negatively impact an organization’s fiscal bottom line, to say nothing of damaging its reputation moving forward. So, in the event of a contaminant entering the reactor, the means and cause of the problem must be identified and rectified as swiftly as possible. In addition, understanding the concept of the reactor’s ‘sterile boundaries’ is critical.
When it comes to bioreactors, establishing sterile boundaries means maintaining the condition of the system following the first steam-in-place (SIP) prior to the introduction of gas flows or liquid feeds. And a sterile boundary is a prerequisite to producing a pure – or axenic – culture that will then result in a safe final product. However, given the relative complexity of the system, the sterile boundaries of the stream feed can be compromised in a multitude of ways – from opening feeder ports to improper steaming, and from badly seated O-rings or gaskets to cracks in the diaphragms of port valves.
Clearly, with so much at stake and so many ways contamination can creep in, this is a case for extremely stringent Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols combined with excellence in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
And, as we noted in our earlier article, ‘human error remains the weakest part of any chain. Any set of standards – whether they are the simplest of SOPs or something as complex as the HACCP – is only as good as those who follow or verify it. Having a protocol – even the most stringent, detailed, and exhaustive – is essentially meaningless unless an organization’s personnel are trained in its use and motivated to conform to it.’(7)
Let’s just take a moment to remember that an organization’s employees essentially represent its most precious asset and its greatest liability. When motivated to pursue excellence and to work to clearly defined and detailed safety procedures, techs can be the key to an outstanding final product, a healthy fiscal bottom line, and a superlative reputation of business integrity. In essence, they could represent the difference between positioning as an industry leader or pulling down the corporate shutters. The quality of your documentation and the generation of a workplace ethos motivated by adherence to it are the deciding factors.
Are you concerned about cell-cultured pet food? Do you work in tissue engineering? Do you have a comprehensive HACCP in place? We’d love to know your thoughts!