Keeping pets from turning up their noses at the pet food they have been served is the goal of AFB International. The company specializes in the manufacture of palatants – those things that make wet and dry pet food palatable – and performs extensive research in its R&D facilities on what dogs and cats will eat.
Of course, the only way canine critics or feline foodies can consult with researchers on their preferences is by actions, not words, so the success of a palatant is based on observations of what pets will eat. Once that has been determined, manufacturing it in the most efficient and cost-effective way is the challenge for AFB International.
“Our powder and liquid palatants make pet food more palatable,” President and CEO Jackie Levin explains. “They’re really natural flavors that go into and on the pet food to entice the animal to the bowl. In some ways, they are exactly the same as human food – the same chemistry, the same manufacturing process. Many of the raw materials we use are also common to the human flavor industry.”
Despite how people like to anthropomorphize their pets, anyone who has seen Fido chow down on a bird or squirrel or has caught Miss Kitty dining daintily on a rodent knows that pets eat foods that humans ordinarily do not, unless they are on a survival reality television show.
“Our base protein material will tend to be ingredients that are not for human consumption,” Levin concedes. “We’ll use parts of poultry that would not be sold in the human markets, so we actually have to label our products as not for human consumption. Our primary raw materials are meat proteins. We use a lot of poultry, not the flesh, but the viscera – the liver and the parts of the animal that dogs and cats prefer. Poultry is our No. 1 ingredient. We also will use some pork. What we don’t use is beef. There are a lot of problems globally with shipping products based on bovine, so we pretty much stick to chicken or poultry or pork.”
The second main ingredient of AFB International’s palatants is brewer’s yeast, which is a waste stream from beer brewing. “It is very flavorful,” Levin points out. “It’s a good protein source. We have a variety of flavor accents, a variety of ingredients that we can use either for chemistry or creating, boosting or rounding out the flavor.” Which ingredient is used depends on whether the dog or cat flavor might use soy, flour, dairy, whey or fish in its formulation.
The R&D departments of pet food manufacturers create the formulas for their pet foods. AFB International’s palatants are mixed into these blends of meals, grains and premixed vitamins or coated on the outside of pet food that is formed into various shapes. Many pet foods are produced using extrusion.
AFB International’s palatants are produced using reaction chemistry and large tanks. The technology and processes are very similar to those used for human food, as are the quality control checks.
“What we’re doing is we’re taking something that was a solid, digesting it and then reacting it,” Levin explains. “We start with the protein, which we then digest. We’ll use enzymes to break down the protein – the liver or viscera. That liquefies it. We will take that liquid protein, mix it with other ingredients and apply temperature and pH. Then that finished liquid can either be sold as a liquid that goes into pet food, or we can take that liquid and dry it or blend it with other ingredients. At the point it is a liquid, it would look a lot like soy sauce.”
The protein also can be ground up using industrial grinding equipment and pumped into large jacketed stainless steel tanks similar to those used in the dairy industry. “What is coming in can contain microbiological concerns,” Levin warns. “We need to clean and sanitize our system, so we use a clean-in-place system to do that.”
When manufacturing is completed, liquids are sent to a silo farm and transferred to tanker trucks for shipping. Liquids also can be dried to a powder in a spray tower dryer. These tower dryers are similar to those used in the dairy industry to produce powdered milk.
Supply Chain Improvements
AFB International has made many changes to its manufacturing and supply chain. “We’re constantly working on projects to improve our cost structure and our production capability,” Levin emphasizes. “We have a fairly extensive R&D organization, so we will look at different raw materials and chemical processes to speed up a reaction or get a different reaction.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is use the chemistry to achieve a different component that has very specific attributes to it.”
When dealing with large amounts of liquids and powders, the supply chain is important. “Our supply chain organization is really looking at the whole process flow and trying to understand where there is waste in our system, how we can cut that waste out, how we can ensure better communication between different functions and create a product right the first time,” Levin says. “So once a product gets past all its quality control checks, we can actually ship it out.”
Besides its two U.S. production facilities, AFB International has two facilities in the Netherlands, one just completed in Argentina and one under construction in Brazil. The company’s two facilities in Australia are part of a joint venture.
A major shift for the company is doing its own manufacturing internationally rather than relying on third-party manufacturers. Being close to its international markets saves shipping costs, which can mount when transporting liquids.
Another advantage to manufacturing its palatants at international locations is understanding taste differences. “Dogs and cats do have different taste profiles depending on where they live,” Levin reveals. “They are not as dramatic as humans, but clearly we have to be aware of that. It’s better for us to use local ingredients to ensure that we are delivering the taste that the animals desire.” So a little more foie gras flavoring in French pet food keeps AFB International prospering internationally.