[ October 12–15, 2021    McCormick Place    Chicago, IL USA ]

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Pet Food Packages

This year’s PROCESS EXPO will feature an extensive education program aimed at keeping processors and suppliers up-to-date with the latest research, innovations, and ideas in the food industry. To get the conversation started early, we asked some of the speakers for a sneak peek at their presentations.

 

Topic: Futuristic Design Concepts for the Design of Pet Food Facilities
Speaker: Sean Corkins, Graintec
Date and Time: Tuesday, September 19th, 3:30 pm

The pet food industry is experiencing a seismic shift in how products are made. Not only is the market growing by leaps and bounds, but consumers are starting to demand pet food products that are healthier, more natural, and higher quality. To top it all off, FSMA’s Preventive Controls Rule for Animal Food requires pet food to meet many of the same stringent food safety standards as human food.

Meeting all of these new requirements means pet food manufacturers need to rethink how their plants and processes are designed. To learn more about what the future of pet food facility design might look like, we spoke with Sean Corkins, the national sales manager for Graintec, an engineering, procurement, and construction company that specializes in solutions for the global pet food and aqua feed markets.

Corkins has a unique viewpoint on the industry due to the various roles he’s played. He describes himself as a “technical sales guy,” having started in the field as a maintenance technician and mechanical installer, and then serving as a project manager at several facilities before joining the Graintec sales team. “I’ve worked in manufacturing from the technical side and also with customers when they encounter problems,” he says. “I’ve also witnessed a lot of change first-hand from both the mechanical process and the regulatory perspectives.”

Let’s look at some of the trends and issues that Corkins believes are gaining traction and influencing the design of pet food facilities.

New food safety regulations

FSMA marks the first big pet food regulation in the United States that impacts the plant design process. Previously, there were measures governing raw material sourcing but not the processing side of food safety. For example, pet food facilities didn’t used to require distinct pre- and post-kill areas.

The new regulations have necessitated a completely new way of thinking. “In the past 10 to 12 years, especially with pet food coming under FSMA, we’ve started to see food safety design thinking coming into play,” Corkins says.

He notes that while large companies were already starting along these lines, many smaller companies, particularly co-packers, have found themselves needing to invest capital and redefine their facilities for food grade standards. This redefinition goes beyond buying new equipment. Manufacturers need to look at all aspects of their operations, including balancing airflow in the plant to reduce cross-contamination and training employees in proper hygiene practices like hand and boot washing. “It’s a complete change management process.”

Sustainability

Sustainability is a major driver for design changes across the industry. In particular, pet food manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce odor, decrease waste and scrap, and become more energy-efficient. In the future, Corkins thinks efforts will focus on limiting the amount of noise as well, especially for greenfield builds.

Graintec has advanced several technologies to help manufacturers achieve all of these goals, which Corkins calls “the keys to proper sustainability.” The company offers solutions for reducing energy consumption by recovering and repurposing energy and water. For example, Graintec has designed a process to catch hot condensate before it escapes into the atmosphere. The condensate can then be used as hot water or for energy to keep gas consumption down. They also have a process for reusing hot water for radiant heat.

Related to sustainability is the idea of environmentally compatible facility design.

Many pet food plants are in rural areas and fish feed plants are on islands, where they’re easily visible to residents and tourists. Corkins says he’s starting to see companies care more about the look of their facilities. In particular, there’s growing interest in “a more eco-friendly design of the structure.” Planting green roofs, using recycled materials, and reducing emissions are all ways manufacturers can make their facilities both more environmentally friendly and more visually attractive.

These are just a few examples of sustainability initiatives, but they illustrate the ingenuity and resourcefulness that arises when design is at the forefront.

Batch to continuous processing

Many pet food manufacturers still rely on batch processing. But, as in all areas of the food industry, they’re starting to transition to continuous systems.

Continuous processing is more efficient and less labor intensive, and it allows manufacturers to increase their throughput without increasing their footprint. The trick, at least for many smaller manufacturers like co-packers, is that continuous processing equipment is more expensive upfront. While the benefits lead to significant cost savings over time, it can still be difficult for a small company to justify the immediate capital expenditure.

However, Corkins thinks we’ll see more facilities moving to continuous systems, not just for the productivity benefits, but also because removing humans from the equation will help producers meet the new food safety standards.

The Amazon effect

No trend has influenced the retail landscape in the past several years more than online shopping. Online pet food sales in the United States grew at least 15% last year. These sales currently make up about 3% of the market, and they’re expected to hit 5% by the end of 2017.

Petfood Industry’s editor-in-chief Debbie Phillips-Donaldson notes that ecommerce is “blurring the traditional pet food market structure,” because brands are now starting to sell products directly to their consumers.

Corkins believes that the online segment will continue to evolve in a way that has a significant impact on facility design as manufacturers start to manage more of the interface with the customer.

“Manufacturers are learning to short order and short deliver,” he says. “In the future, we’ll see fewer regional distribution centers. Instead, customers who live close to an urban core will be able to place their order online. Then the manufacturer will process that order in it’s own warehouse and deliver it by drone.”

Flexibility to adapt to consumer demands

One of the biggest shifts Corkins sees is in the number and type of ingredients being used in pet foods, which requires flexibility in both design and equipment.

Millennials have taken the idea of pets as family members to a whole new level. According to Nielsen, 95% of people consider their pets a part of the family. (For an amusing description of the situation, check out this article in The Economist.)

As a result, pet owners are starting to give the same consideration to food for their pets as they give to food for themselves. They want to know what’s in it and where it comes from. The global organic pet food market is growing rapidly, and the Nielsen report shows that people are willing to pay more for pet foods with high quality indicators, like non-GMO.

One implication of this is that pet diets contain more raw materials than they used to. Six or so years ago, Corkins says, there were about 75 different types of raw materials. Today, it’s more on the order of 100 to 120. Manufacturers need to have flexibility in their equipment and their design because each raw material (e.g., cellulose products, powders, hygroscopic products) brings its own set of challenges.

Another consumer-driven trend Corkins highlights is in packaging, where “there are already great advances going on.” In particular, he thinks we’ll see more offerings of single-serving boutique pet foods to meet the demands of quality- and convenience-focused Millennials, and “maybe even edible packaging.”

The Future of Transport Systems: Pneumatic or Mechanical?

For many of the items on this list, it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Manufacturing will become more flexible, facilities will become sustainable, and producers will move from batch to continuous processing in search of greater productivity.

But one area where the future is not assured is the transport system in the plant. Namely, will raw materials be conveyed pneumatically or mechanically?

Currently, pneumatic transport systems are more common because they’re better from a food safety standpoint. However, mechanical systems may be making a comeback because they’re less expensive and because they have some advantages for conveying problematic materials. For example, while pneumatic conveyors are better for powders and pelletized materials (i.e., the types of materials used to make traditional kibble) mechanical conveyors are better for moist materials and materials with large or varied particle sizes (i.e., the types of materials used in natural, organic foods).

Corkins notes that companies that make mechanical systems, which weren’t previously food safety design-friendly, are now making great strides toward equipment that satisfies all modern requirements. “It’s a design footrace to see which [mechanical or pneumatic] will be able to offer the most energy-efficient food safety design out there.”

For his part, Corkins thinks it will be mechanical, because of the high cost of pneumatic systems. “With proper design developments, mechanical has a good shot at winning out.”

Traditional and alternative proteins

Finally, using meat in pet food is a trend that’s been around for a long time, and it’s continuing to experience tremendous growth. “Even companies that make regular kibble are shifting to meat inclusion products to get their piece of the pie,” Corkins says.

But, similar to what’s happening in human food, the pet food industry is starting to look to alternative proteins as part of its health and sustainability efforts.

Last year, Nestle Purina PetCare partnered with TerraVia to develop products using algae, a protein source linked to improved cognitive function in senior dogs. And Cargill partnered with Calysta on a project that makes protein for fish, livestock, and pet food out of an even more alternative ingredient: methane.

These ventures are very new, but if they succeed they will represent a big change in how pet food is produced.

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As you can see, the pet food industry is changing rapidly, in many areas of operation. But, there’s one basic idea underlying all of these changes — the fact that people care for their pets and want them to live as long and healthy a life as possible.

To learn more about these and other trends affecting the design of pet food facilities, be sure to check out Corkins’ presentation at PROCESS EXPO. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do that here.