This article was published in Pet Food Processing’s 2023 Buyers Guide. Read it and other articles from this issue in the digital edition of the Buyers Guide here.
The North American pet food industry benefits from resources, research and collaboration with several academic partners. In particular, six universities across the United States and Canada have shown steadfast support of the industry through collaborative research.
Continue reading to learn more about the programs, projects and expertise related to companion animal nutrition and pet food processing offered through Kansas State University, the University of Guelph, Texas A&M University, Auburn University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Kansas State University
Since 2011, Kansas State University has fostered the science behind companion animal nutrition through its Pet Food Program. Led by Greg Aldrich, Ph.D., research professor and Pet Food Program coordinator, and supported by Sajid Alavi, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Grain Science and Industry and supervisor of the university’s Extrusion Lab, the program seeks to prepare aspiring students for careers in animal nutrition and feed processing.
K-State’s Pet Food Program benefits from the university’s Extrusion Lab and Food Safety and Grain Processing Lab. The Extrusion Lab is equipped with bench- and pilot-scale processing systems, including pilot- and lab-scale extruders from Wenger and American Leistritz, a gas-fired dryer from Wenger, and analytical equipment to test raw and finished products. The program is also supported by faculty expertise in extrusion, thermal processing, canning, baking, sensory analysis, and value-added processing.
The university also maintains a state-of-the-art, fully automated Feed Technology Innovation Center on campus, which is run in part by students to provide them with the experiences they need for future internships and jobs.
K-State offers a unique degree in Feed and Pet Food Science which has a special focus on pet food processing, besides animal feed production. It also offers masters and doctorate degrees that emphasize pet food research.
Research that comes out of K-State’s Pet Food Program is focused around optimizing nutrient retention, extending shelf life and enhancing the safety of pet food products. Several studies conducted by members of the university and its Pet Food Program have been published in the Journal of Food Science, Animal Feed Science and Technology, and other peer-reviewed scientific journals. Aldrich has supervised nearly 30 research students since the inception of K-State’s Pet Food Program, many of which are now employed by pet food and treat manufacturers and nutrition consultants. According to Casey Doyle, admissions representative at K-State, the university’s Feed Science & Management program has a 100% job placement rate for its graduates.
Aside from fostering young industry professionals, K-State also lends its pet food expertise to the industry by partnering closely and frequently with pet nutrition professionals to help advance nutrition, pet food and treat processing capabilities, food safety, and pet health through various projects, workshops and research.
For example, the university recently launched KibbleCon, a pet food-focused convention held annually on campus in Manhattan, Kan. The inaugural event in 2022 offered several presentations and panels featuring faculty and graduate students and industry leaders. The 2023 event will be held on Nov. 2.
K-State also hosts annual workshops throughout the year. This includes a virtual Pet Food Formulation for Commercial Production course each January, which is led by Aldrich and focuses on ingredient, regulatory, processing, palatability and sensory topics. An in-person, one-day Pet Food Workshop is held each August as a supplement to the university’s weeklong Extrusion Processing Course, which covers trends in pet nutrition, macro and microingredient requirements, consumer research, plant design, and other important topics.
Texas A&M University
Extrusion is the name of the game at Texas A&M University, where a stacked cast of faculty experts offer professional development opportunities for various extrusion applications including pet food. But there are also exciting things happening in the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the university.
For example, Jan S. Suchodolski, Ph.D., DACVM, professor and associate director for research at the Texas A&M Gastrointestinal Laboratory, is leading microbiome research for dogs and cats as Purina PetCare endowed chair. One emphasis of this research is determining how probiotic and prebiotic supplementation and dietary interventions may help in managing gastrointestinal disturbances.
Texas A&M also offers various animal nutrition and feed processing tracks that can be applied to the pet food industry.
“While the university does not currently offer a formal degree in pet food processing, its poultry science program teaches many aspects of feed processing, and many facets of nutrition are covered in the veterinary school,” said Mian N Riaz, Ph.D., associate department head in the Department of Food Science and Technology, director of the extrusion technology program and holder of the professorship in food diversity at Texas A&M. “…The university also works with many feed ingredient suppliers to perform feeding trials to see how its products perform. Overall, we can help the industry solve their problems by providing special training and consulting.”
Texas A&M offers several educational opportunities for industry members throughout the year, which are focused largely on extrusion. This is done through a subset of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) program, called TEES Educating Generations, or TEES EDGE.
“The courses have been taught for the last 31 years in person and, during COVID times, these courses were offered virtually,” Riaz said. “We now offer them in a hybrid manner to allow for attendees from other countries to join. In fact, this year’s pet food and treats course had more than 45 attendees from several different countries.”
Annual short courses specific to pet food and treats include the Feeds and Pet Food Extrusion, which will be held in January and February 2024, as well as an Extruded Pet Foods and Treats short course, which was held in July 2023. These courses cover the gamut of extrusion processing for pet nutrition, from raw materials and preparation to extrusion, drying, coating and packaging.
The courses serve as a training opportunity for pet food and treat professionals to learn more about extrusion principles and characteristics, how to select and operate extrusion technologies for each application, current best practices for preparation, product trends and technological advancements, and food safety.
Alongside these established short courses, Texas A&M offers custom programs in which companies can leverage faculty and industry expertise to create a professional development program specifically for the benefits of their employees and businesses. Custom programs can be held in-person, live online, on-demand or through a hybrid format. The university also operates a recently installed twin screw extruder for student and industry use.
University of Guelph
With a globally leading animal bioscience department and veterinary school, a tenured team of companion animal experts on staff, the University of Guelph is a valuable resource for those studying to enter the companion animal nutrition industry, as well as those in the field today.
Anna Kate Shoveller, professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences and Champion Petfoods Chair in Canine and Feline Nutrition, teaches several undergraduate courses in animal science, including companion animal nutrition. Shoveller currently leads a team of graduate students in her comparative animal nutrition lab, and has seen several former students graduate and take jobs with prominent players in the pet food industry.
Graduate students have several options to study animal nutrition, either through Shoveller in the Department of Biosciences, or under Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, Ph.D., board certified veterinary nutritionist and Royal Canin Veterinary Diets Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition, and Jason Coe, DVM, Ph.D., at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.
Aside from preparing the next generation of pet food scientists to enter the industry, the University of Guelph also collaborates with industry members frequently and provides them with opportunities for professional development. The research labs run by Shoveller and Verbrugghe are often funded in part by industry members, from pet food manufacturers to ingredient suppliers to pet product companies.
Both Shoveller and Verbrugghe are endowed chairs with prominent pet food industry companies, with which they work closely to support the advancement of pet nutrition alongside the growth of these companies. With Champion Petfoods, Shoveller aims to explore anxiety reducing dietary interventions, protein quality, fatty acid nutrition, and micronutrients’ role in metabolism, pet health and longevity. Similarly, Verbrugghe and her team have already completed a series of projects focused on choline intake and supplementation in cats, particularly as it may impact weight loss.
“Throughout these collaborations and examples, it is clear that the research done in the areas of pet food at the University of Guelph is intended to help not just the pet food industry but also veterinary health care teams and pet owners,” Shoveller said.
Students and faculty at the University of Guelph have made significant research contributions to the industry’s understanding of pet nutrition. For example, three recent studies include an investigation on the effects of high-pulse-inclusive dog foods on canine cardiac function; the impacts of choline and L-carnitine supplementation in helping cats maintain body weight; and a conversation analysis of pet owners’ resistance to dietary recommendations made by a veterinarian.
Pet nutrition students at the University of Guelph regularly present their research at industry events and conferences in Canada and internationally. According to Shoveller, at least one or two students regularly win awards each year for these presentations. Research conducted by these lab groups is also shared on the Ontario Veterinary College’s website through the “Pet Nutrition at OVC” page and the “Before The Bowl” blog.
Auburn University offers a robust range of animal science programs spanning nutrition, meat science, breeding and genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, microbiology and more. The university offers four majors with applications in animal science and nutrition — Animal & Allied Industries, Equine Science, Meat Science, and Pre-Vet Med and Pre-Professional.
“All of the options include coursework that provides a scientific foundation to prepare students for multiple career fields, such as veterinary medicine, human medicine, equine industry, food safety, animal production, pet food industries and numerous related areas,” said Don Mulvaney, associate professor of animal sciences at the Auburn University College of Agriculture.
Additionally, students can select a minor in animal science to study nutrition, health and management, behavior, breeding and reproduction of companion animal species including dogs and cats. All these programs are designed to provide students with soft skills, build leadership and teamwork abilities, and instill ethical practices into the next generation of companion animal experts.
“Strengths of the curricula are found in nutrition (monogastric and ruminant), biochemistry and metabolism, which prepares students for the pet food industry in areas of manufacturing processes, supply chain dynamics, product packaging, sales, marketing, operations, communications and complexities of the regulatory world,” Mulvaney added.
The Auburn University College of Agriculture is also home to a formidable research platform called the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES). Several undergraduate students studying companion animal nutrition are currently involved in research related to nutritional fermentation, mitigating animal-based carbon emissions, evaluating the microbiological factors of certain packaging materials, and better understanding canine performance.
Aside from its animal science curriculum, Auburn University also strives to be a partner to professionals in the pet nutrition industry.
“Members of our department routinely interact with the industry in areas of research and outreach, which asks questions about nutritional and microbiological safety, product quality and packaging, animal health, environmental sustainability areas and many additional areas of stakeholder needs,” Mulvaney said.
The university offers custom short courses and workshops to industry professionals to support continued education and training. Pet nutrition professionals can also pursue thesis and non-thesis graduate programming and degree opportunities through the university.
North Carolina State University
North Carolina State University has long been focused on livestock and poultry production and nutrition, but new developments in its poultry, animal science and extrusion programs aim to serve the growing companion animal nutrition industry.
The university offers livestock and poultry ingredient approval trials that can be used as “stepping stones” for pet food ingredient approvals, according to Marissa Herchler Cohen, area specialized agent of animal food safety in the Department of Poultry Science at NC State.
Graduate students at NC State conduct research related to the companion animal microbiome, how feeding behavior differs between breeds, and the appropriateness of various ingredients for use in pet food. Experts at the university are often called upon by manufacturers and consumers to answer questions about labeling.
NC State offers several companion animal-focused undergraduate- and graduate-level courses through its animal science program. Students can learn about pet food manufacturing through comparative nutrition, animal nutrition and companion animal management courses, as well as through the extrusion program.
The university’s Feed Mill Education Unit has historically served as a commercial livestock feed mill and a way for feed producers to learn processes and test for food safety. More recently, the unit has been expanded to include an extrusion and value-added specialist, which will allow the program to expand into the dog and cat food markets down the road.
The Feed Mill is equipped with a quality assurance laboratory to test for moisture, protein content, mycotoxins and other quality measurements, as well as an extrusion lab that recently added a differential scanning calorimeter (DSC) and a rapid visco analyzer (RVA) to examine the starch contents of raw ingredients and finished products. The facility was built for precision manufacturing and includes various sampling points throughout the process to gauge product stability and uniformity at various stages.
NC State also offers continued education opportunities for industry members, including a Preventive Control for Animal Food training course. The university also maintains an Animal Food Safety Program, which covers food safety and regulatory compliance under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Through this program, the Department of Poultry Science has partnered with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a webinar series geared toward livestock producers who are looking to start utilizing their byproducts in pet food and treat products.
“This series has been helpful in providing livestock producers with a sustainable pathway for their byproducts, as well as raising awareness for the regulatory requirements for selling pet food in North Carolina,” Cohen said.
The university also regularly works with pet food processors through its NC State Feed Milling Extension program to offer animal food industry training and programming, and its extrusion program has its sights set on serving as a future hub of research, education and training for the pet food industry.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The companion animal biology and nutrition program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was founded in 1974 and conducts research in multiple disciplines. These include evaluating novel, alternate, and sustainable ingredients as well as studying the impact of processing technology on the quality and safety of pet food products. It also investigates the use of therapeutic nutrition to support the health and wellbeing of pets.
“This program has been considered the hub of companion animal nutrition and a prized destination for many young scientists interested in companion animal biology and nutrition,” said Maria Regina Cattai de Godoy, associate professor in the department of animal sciences. “Many professionals currently working in the pet food industry, government, and leading academic programs in North America and around the globe have been trained and received advanced degrees from our program.”
The university has the capability to perform detailed chemical analysis of ingredients, treats and pet food products, manufacture research diets, and assist companies with food processing at a pilot-scale. It also uses technology to conduct non-invasive in vivo studies that allow researchers to determine the nutritional adequacy of novel ingredients and pet food products as well as evaluate parameters related to animal health and disease.
The university has several facilities including a Feed Technology Center that can dry and store grains and ingredients, and conducts milling, mixing, and pelleting with an inline NIR system. This facility has an enclosed extrusion annex with storage and live bins for dry mix delivery, a differential diameter preconditioner, a single-screw extruder, two-pass oven dryers and coolers, and a batch coating system. The extrusion system is also fully automated, has pneumatic conveyance and the capability of adding fresh meat, fat and liquid ingredients.
The university’s food science and human nutrition pilot processing plant focuses on human and pet food technologies with baking and retort equipment. It has a 10,000-square-foot processing plant, product development kitchen and walk-in cold storage. It also has an Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory with six laboratories equipped to perform proximate analysis as well as detailed chemical characterization of the macronutrient profile of ingredients, diets and samples.
The university has an online companion animal nutrition certificate program, and courses include training on canine and feline metabolism, nutrient functions and requirements, pet nutrition and disease, pet food ingredients, principles of diet formulation, pet food processing technologies, good manufacturing practices, pet food regulations and market trends. It hopes to develop a series of workshops and hands-on trainings in the future. Expanding undergraduate and graduate curriculum in ingredient handling and processing, pet food formulation and food safety is also in the works. Additionally, the university offers a non-thesis master’s program that can be completed online.
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