That’s not a far-fetched notion, says Dr. Greg Aldrich, an industry veteran who helped launch the program and continues to coordinate it. Kansas already sells more ingredients to U.S. pet food manufacturers than any other state except Missouri, according to the Institute for Feed Education & Research. The Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, stretching from Manhattan, Kansas, to Columbia, Missouri, is home to over300 animal health companies, accounting for more than 50% of sales generated by the global animal health industry.
It’s an industry Aldrich knows well. A native of Larned in Pawnee County, Aldrich grew up surrounded by cattle ranches, including his grandparents’ operation. He earned a degree in agriculture at K-State, then continued on to the University of Illinois, where his doctoral research involved cattle’s digestion of protein and lipid. “Cattle is really all I knew,” he says.
Falling in Love With Pets
A chance interaction with an industry colleague led to a job as a research nutritionist at IAMS. There, Aldrich fell in love with the pet food industry. “It’s very dynamic,” Aldrich says, noting thousands of new products come to the marketplace every year. “New product development, understanding new processes and new ingredients on an everyday basis – that was fun and never got old.”
After stints at other pet food companies, Aldrich opened a consulting company in Topeka. Using the extrusion lab at K-State to develop new prototypes, he became acquainted with grain science faculty, who later asked Aldrich to teach a course on manufacturing food for companion animals. One class led to another, and soon Aldrich was hired as a research associate professor, focusing on improving the nutrition, safety and shelf life of pet food.
Such research is essential to improvements in pet food, from both a processing and a nutritional standpoint, Aldrich says, citing a recent project using sorghum flour. The flour was extruded into a sorghum crisp that looks like crisped rice. Prior research had shown sorghum flour in pet food increased the antioxidant levels in a dog’s bloodstream. “The research idea was: Could we use that sorghum crisp in a granola bar made intentionally for dogs?” he explains. “Our research was to characterize the whole process required to make the sorghum crisps, including the development of soluble animal proteins to help create a syrup to bind those crisps together to make a nutritious, tasty granola bar for dogs.”
Research Lags Behind
Several years ago, two events rocked the pet industry: a salmonella contamination and a recall involving products purported to be wheat gluten that were contaminated with melamine. As a result, Aldrich says pet foods were swept into the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act, ultimately leading to the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
“Pet food today is probably more scrutinized for safety than human food,” Aldrich says.
He notes that most people don’t realize that processing pet food – combining ingredients together and cooking them – impacts the food’s nutrition and safety. “There’s a gap in our knowledge regarding pet food,” he says. “For decades, billions of dollars have gone into funding research in human and livestock nutrition, but not for pets. By and large, taxpayers and the federal government consider dogs and cats to be a luxury and nonessential.”
When considering the more than $30 billion consumers spend each year to keep their companion animals healthy and happy, however, pet food is anything but frivolous. “Pet food is a substantial part of the agricultural landscape here in the Midwest,” says Aldrich. “By adding value to Kansas-based crops, pet food is having a substantial impact on the state’s economy.”